Visitors to the sanitarium on the outskirts of Paris during the early years of the twentieth century would have been struck by her appearance. Living in a special villa on the sanitarium grounds, the elderly woman hardly spoke a word but her thin, refined appearance still had some traces of her former beauty. Her full-time attendant saw to all her needs and even helped her to go out on occasion to attend the opera or walk in local Paris gardens. While she needed to be watched carefully at times to keep her from harming herself, her famous name and her own tragedy kept her in the spotlight until her death. As the sole surviving child of one of the world`s most well-known authors, the royalties from her father`s many works ensured that all her financial needs were met.
Born in 1830, Adele Hugo was the fifth child of Victor Hugo and his wife, Adele Foucher.Her father`s early fame for his classic works such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ensured that Adele grew up knowing some of the world's greatest authors and she certainly made an impression on them in turn (Honore de Balzac described Adele as "the greatest beauty I shall ever see"). The drowning death of her vivacious older sister, Leopoldine, in 1843 while on her honeymoon. left Adele emotionally devastated. A few years later, Victor's political views forced him and his entire family into exile on the Channel island of Guernsey. He would not return to France until 1870.
Life in exile would not be easy for Adele. Not only was she separated from the life she knew in France, but she was constantly overshadowed by her famous father She wrote about life in Guernsey in a diary that was eventually published under the title Journey de l'Exil (Journey of the Exile). The diary includes her observation on life in the Hugo household (including her father's numerous infidelities) as well as her own growing obsessions with the supernatural.
By 1856, she began showing signs of the mental instability that seemed to run in the family (Victor's brother Eugene died in a psychiatric hospital in 1823). Adele's belief that her sister, Leopoldine, was contacting her from the spirit world led to the the lifelong habit of "tapping every night on her bedroom wall according to some superstitious ritual". It probably didn't help that her parents were fascinated with spiritualism themselves and conducted seances in their house for years before Adele's bizarre beliefs became known.
And then she met Albert Pinson..
Whether Pinson was a heartless cad or a befuddled victim of erotomania pretty much depends on who you believe. Whatever passed between them after their first meeting in Guernsey, Adele quickly fixated on the handsome lieutenant. Despite her father's fame and fortune, Pinson evidently lost interest in her but Adele had other ideas. When he was transferred to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1863, Adele followed him there (she stole her mother's jewelry to finance the trip).
During the three years that Adele spent in Halifax, she insisted that she was Albert's fiancee despite her family's opposition. She told Pinson that she had given birth to their stillborn child (there was no evidence of this) and finally wrote to her brother, Francois-Victor, that she and Albert had been married that year. Despite their apprehension, the family dutifully posted a wedding announcement in a Guernsey paper. Adele later wrote her brother and confessed that the marriage had not happened but she was still hopeful (she even talked about hiring a hypnotist to "persuade" Albert to propose).
You can probably imagine the family's reaction when Albert wrote to Francois-Victor later that year. He was horrified by the wedding announcement. Not only did have absolutely no intention of marrying Adele, he was planning to marry someone else. Adele's brother pleaded with Adele to "divorce" Albert and return to France but she refused. Nobody in Halifax knew her true identity until Albert's engagement to the daughter of a local judge was announced. Adele had her lawyers write to the judge informing him that she was Albert's true wife and that they had been secretly married in an Anglican church. Despite Albert's protests, the judge called off the engagement. According to later sources, Adele's claims weren't totally delusional since Pinson visited her on occasion. She had no visitors otherwise and relied on money from her family.
When Albert was transferred to Barbados in 1866, Adele followed him there. Little is known about the six years that she spent in the West Indies but her condition deteriorated as she became more isolated (her mother and brother both died during her time on the island). She insisted on being called "Madame Pinson" although Albert had left the island by 1869. One observer commented on Adele's "sad, disheveled appearance, her wardrobe ill-suited to the tropical climate, her habit of writing constantly, her practice of wandering the streets at all hours of the day". She even preferred to walk the streets at night since children often threw stones at her.
Out of pity, a local woman named Madame Celine Baa befriended Adele. When she discovered her father's identity, Madama Baa wrote to him about his daughter's condition. Victor Hugo arranged for Madame Baa to bring Adele back to France in February, 1872. It was a pathetic homecoming for the once independent Adele since her father was the only surviving member of the family. Adele never recovered her sanity and spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric asylum in Vincennes. Victor Hugo visited her regularly until his death in 1885 and his will established a substantial trust to pay for her care.
By the time Adele Hugo died in 1915, her story was largely forgotten until 1975 when a movie directed by Francois Truffaut was released. Titled The Story of Adele H., the drama was based on Adele Hugo's story and starred Isabelle Adjani in the title role. Her gripping portrayal of Adele earned Adjani a well-deserved Academy Award nomination and ensured that Adele's strange tale of obsessive love and madness will be remembered.