In Nineteenth Century France, a woman’s role was explicitly defined: She was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother. This view was held by novelist and poet Victor Hugo, but not by his daughter, pianist and poet Adèle Hugo. Under such constraints, what’s a woman of passion to do? Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo, by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, breathes life into the unconventional thoughts of this controversial female figure. An elderly Adèle recounts her desperate attempts to gain personal freedom. Her memoir blurs the fine line between truth and madness, in a narrative that is off-kilter, skewed, syncopated.
“For humans there is only memory, and memory is unreliable.”
Syncopation book trailer:
To life there is a rhythm one knows from the womb. It begins as the beat of a mother’s heart–slow and steady and safe. An infant finds the pulse in its own heart and continues the rhythm in its needy sucking. The toddler pitter-pats to the rhythm, and the sound of the servants starting the day carry it through. The pulse is in the wind and the laps of the waves from the Seine; birds sing it and squirrels chitter it; the very soil under our feet moans and groans to its pounding.
In perfect time, from an especially forceful contraction, the baby fell into waiting hands. She screamed in blows staccato and clear, slowing rhythmically to a docile cooing more in tune to her station in life. Adèle was born an angel to a family of gods. Her father, Victor, was a poet, playwright and politician, brilliant and beloved by his countrymen. She was named for her mother, the first Adèle, the most beautiful woman in France. Her brothers, Charles and Francois-Victor, were handsome, strong, and clever. And her sister, Léopoldine, was a model eldest sibling–doting and tender, never scolding or haughty. Her skin was a translucent mountain stream: cool and fresh and clean; her generous black hair captured the light and returned it in a blue sheen which mocked the night sky; the moon would hide when Léopoldine went out at night, the orb’s beauty waning in her glow. She was sweet like marzipan, gentle like a summer breeze, flexible like a reed, warm like an old Bordeaux. Léopoldine was perfect like a pearl.
Firecrackers exploded and people shouted when Adèle was born. Her day of birth was July 28, 1830, the middle day of Les Trois Glorieuses, the three-day revolution protesting the tyrannies of King Charles X. With such a birthday, one knew at once that Adèle was born for glory and fame.
The Hugo house was the first on the newly constructed rue Jean-Goujon, with the wide fields of the Champs-Elysée as their backyard. The family had everything one could desire: parkland to explore, books to read, a small black piano, and each other.
And then one day, as a unit, this perfect family gasped. Those who survived missed a half-beat from the breath of life. If it had been a whole note, they could have perhaps fallen back into the rhythm, but it was a half-beat. They syncopated. They moved out of step, off-kilter. Forever more, they would run and jump and dream and scream, but they would be unable to slip into that easy rhythm, that regular beat that keeps time for the world.