I can understand your confusion as these points are so instinctive to the French and rather tricky to explain.
In this case, you are right in thinking that you could have said -
....j'ai d'abord espéré que c'était un hallucination = I hoped, at first, that it was a hallucination
But I think the use of the subjunctive gives the following meaning -
At first, I hope that it might be a hallucination!
Hope this helps!
I would have used the indicative as well. The verb espèrer uses the indicative when employed in a positive sense. But the particular example is maybe a bit deeper than that.
Aurélie or Cécile, can you please help us with this one?
I ran that question past a French native speaker from Paris. She said that both versions (indicative and subjunctive) sound correcct to her, but the subjunctive was more elegant.
There you go. Just when you were looking for a nice, clear cut answer... :)
Thanks for your help. I asked my girlfriend (French native, who doesn't usually like to be hassled by too many grammar questions lol!) and her response was more or less the same.
So, I'm still a little confused. Not to worry!
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