As the eyes of the racing world turn towards Royal Ascot this week, we may reflect that the British fascination with horse-racing is far from new. âEvery year, the people of Jersey and the English feel the need to organize races,â remarked AdĂšle Hugo in 1855. The circumstances in which she witnessed this phenomenon were not, perhaps, those which she might have wished, but her observations remain sharp and witty.
Life is not always easy for the children of famous writers, especially girls. We may recall the daughters of John Milton, diligently copying out their fatherâs work as his sight faded, or the tribulations of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, described by Katie Waldegrave in The Poetsâ Daughters (London, 2013; DRT ELD.DS.199292). Subjected to their fathersâ eccentricities, overbearing authority or intermittent neglect, they also suffered from the restrictions imposed on women of talent and spirit by the conventions and expectations of 19th-century society. When these were compounded by the disruption to family life resulting from a fatherâs political views, the outlook could be grim indeed.
Such was the situation of AdĂšle Hugo. She was born on 28 July 1830, at the time of the fateful events leading to the overthrow of Charles X, and political turbulence was to mark her passage through life. Her early life was comfortably affluent; the youngest of the family, she grew up with her sister LĂ©opoldine and brothers Charles and FranĂ§ois-Victor in a cultured home where her talent for music was fostered. However, she never ceased to be aware that LĂ©opoldine was her fatherâs favourite, and the feeling of inferiority was deepened when in 1843 the newly-married LĂ©opoldine and her young husband drowned in a boating accident. Victor Hugo never recovered from the loss, which he explored in some of his most impassioned poetry.
His emotional suffering, however, did not prevent him from engaging in political activity as a pair de France and Member of Parliament, and penning outspoken pamphlets in which he opposed the death penalty and attacked Louis Napoleonâs seizure of power. In protest at the anti-parliamentarian constitution of 1851 Hugo left France, first for Brussels, then for Jersey, and finally for Guernsey.
At the time of her fatherâs decision to leave France AdĂšle was 21, and the relocation occurred at a point when she might reasonably have been expecting to marry and establish a position in Parisian society. Instead, she found herself living on a remote island whose social life did not provide the diversions and company to rival that of the City of Light. Nevertheless, in her diary she proved an apt and observant chronicler and critic of the circles in which she was obliged to move.
Among the amusements on offer were the races which she describes in her journal for June 1855 under the heading âLes Courses de Jerseyâ. Three months in advance posters could be seen advertising âJersey Races: Cup de la Reineâ, giving the local belles plenty of time to prepare their outfits: âdelicious sky-blue hatsâ worn with âsuperb green dresses (a âfashionableâ style only for the countryside)â she remarks tartly, going on to describe ladies whose costumes of red, green, and yellow gave them the appearance of splendid parrots, topped off with âprovincial marabou and diadems in artificial velvet, worthy of adorning the brow of a princess of the blood royal, and consequently in poor taste. It is not a steeple-chase for horses; it is a steeple-chase for womenâ. She gleefully notes the subterfuges of an Englishwoman who affects extra-long skirts to conceal her big feet, while another goes to the other extreme to display a skinny leg which she mistakenly believes slender.
As for the jockeys, she mocks them as âawful cretins, which provides the somewhat curious spectacle of donkeys on horsebackâ. Watching them from the grandstand are the young men belonging to the clubs: âbeaux, English dandies, cretins, collectors of cretinous cravats, surmounted by side-whiskers (usually red). Here is the menagerie: geese, turkeys, ducks and donkeys assuming the names of lions, tigers and jackalsâ, braying and neighing in a cloud of malodorous breath as they place their bets:
âLook â a shilling (26 sous) if so-and so comes in with so-and-so,â says a lion, squeezed into an implacable suit.
âNo,â replies a tiger, his neighbour, with an insurmountable stove-pipe of a hat on his head, and afraid of losing his 26 sous, âIâm not betting.â
Below the grandstand is an area where the visitorsâ carriages are stabled; âfrom time to time starving horses try to gobble up a spectator, taking him for hayâ; while above, Hugoâs fellow-exiles parade and an English officer, âthe rossable Major Rossâ, jockeys for position with the Hungarian General Perczel and comes off the worse. Alarmed at the prospect of a duel and possibly fighting for the first time in his life, the âfalse majorâ apologizes profusely to the âgenuine generalâ and creeps away.
Those who know AdĂšle Hugo chiefly through Isabelle Adjaniâs portrayal of her in FranĂ§ois Truffautâs film The Story of AdĂšle H. (1975), crossing the Atlantic in desperate pursuit of yet another officer, the perfidious Lieutenant Pinson, may be agreeably surprised by the Jane Austen-like acuity of her diaries. She outlived her father, dying in 1915 in the asylum where she had been under treatment for schizophrenia. Painfully frustrating as her life may have been, it could not extinguish her capacity to express herself with piquancy and perception.
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.