Tag Archives: Alexandre Dumas

The Mysteries of Paris: Criminal Redemption and Non-Gothic Wanderers

Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris should need no introduction, and yet, while it remains well-known in France, few English or American readers will have heard of it. The novel was serialized in France in 150 installments from 1842-1843. As Peter Brooks says in the 2015 Penguin Books translation of the novel, it was “the runaway bestseller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time.” It was so popular that it led to many authors imitating it, including Paul Feval, who wrote The Mysteries of London in French and George W.M. Reynolds who wrote his own The Mysteries of London in English.

The 2015 Penguin translation of The Mysteries of Paris – the first translation into English in more than 100 years.

But for our purposes with this blog dedicated predominantly to the Gothic, the novel is of interest for two reasons: 1) as the most popular work of an author who would go on to write the almost-as-popular novel The Wandering Jew (1846) which uses the popular Gothic figure of the Wandering Jew as its key character, and more importantly, 2) as a novel about guilt and redemption.

The Mysteries of Paris is famous for being one of the first novels about urban crime, but I admit it was not what I expected. I imagined dens of thieves, something more akin to Oliver Twist (which predates it 1838). Instead, while the novel has numerous criminals in it, most importantly, it is about redemption.

The novel’s main character is Rodolphe. We first meet him on the streets of Paris when a criminal man, known as Slasher, hits a young prostitute named Songbird. Although the novel is not overly explicit about Songbird’s past, she is clearly a prostitute at only seventeen. Rodolphe stops the attack and gives Slasher a good thrashing. The result is that Slasher, who claims to be the second strongest man in Paris, is amazed to have been beaten by Rodolphe. In admiration, he immediately makes friends with him and then the three go to a tavern to dine.

To summarize the novel’s plot would be tedious and complicated, but to make a long story short, Rodolphe helps Slasher to become a decent citizen and lead a moral life. He also helps Songbird, sending her off to a farm where she can live a virtuous life.

As the story continues, the reader begins to pick up on hints that Rodolphe is not the common man he seems. He turns out to be the Prince of Gerolstein, a fictional principality in Germany. More importantly, he is someone set on doing good deeds. He also has a sidekick, Murph, an English knight, who aids him in his efforts. Several scholars have previously compared Rodolphe to Batman (and Murph seems like Alfred, the butler, to me). However, I think the comparison is a bit of a stretch, although the seeds are there, since Rodolphe doesn’t go out and actively fight crime, but he does help people when necessary. Batman may have more fancy gadgets and a costume, but truthfully, I think Rodolphe a more interesting character because he is more human, and more Gothic. Most versions of the Batman story show Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder by a criminal, which inspires him to fight crime, but Rodolphe has a different motive. He is filled with guilt and believes he must redeem himself. He once raised his sword to his father in anger, and consequently, he feels he deserves punishment. Batman is not a conflicted soul to the extent that Rodolphe is, and that makes him more human and more endearing, at least to this reader.

Poster announcing the 1843 publication of the novel.

The reason for Rodolphe and his father’s argument is at the heart of the novel. It is because of a marriage his father disapproved of. Rodolphe had married the Countess MacGregor; he had actually been tricked into marrying her when she became pregnant, and then she later told him their daughter had died, when in truth, she had given the child into the care of crooked people who told her it had died when they had really sold the child. After their child’s alleged death, Rodolphe divorced the countess, who never loved him but only had the goal to wear a crown on her head. Throughout the novel, she searches for and tries to regain him. In her determination to win back Rodolphe’s affections, she begins to suspect he is in love with Songbird and arranges to have the girl murdered, only to learn at the last minute that Songbird is her lost daughter. The countess then plans to reveal this to Rodolphe so he will marry her finally, but it is too late—by this point she is dying, and in the end, when they do remarry, it is only to legitimize their daughter.

Rodolphe aids many other characters throughout the novel against wicked men and women. He continually rewards the virtuous and metes out punishment or justice (depending on how you want to view justice) to various characters. At one point, he blinds a criminal rather than kill him, believing it will cause the criminal to become self-reflective and repent for his crimes. This punishment is extreme and doesn’t really work out to save the criminal’s soul, but most of Rodolphe’s other good deeds end up benefiting their recipients. In all these cases, he is a vigilante, also like Batman, but also like many characters who preceded him, such as Robin Hood.

However, despite all Rodolphe’s efforts to redeem himself by helping others, he ends up being punished for his crime, not directly, but through his daughter.

While largely unknown to English readers, The Mysteries of Paris remains popular in France and has been made into many film versions, including a 1943 film that this poster represents.

For a short time, Songbird and Rodolphe enjoy happiness in knowing they are reunited. However, once Songbird returns with Rodolphe to Gerolstein, where she is a princess, she finds she hates keeping up the charade that she is a virtuous, innocent girl who has lived always with her mother until now. She even receives a marriage proposal from an eligible young prince, but in the end, she refuses him. She feels she cannot be cleansed of her sin—the prostitution which was more inflicted upon her than her own fault. Ultimately, she turns down her suitor and decides to become a nun. Because of how others view her as virtuous and because she is now the Princess Amelie, it is decided that she will take her cousin’s position as abbess on the day she becomes a nun. She does not feel she is worthy of this honor either. Soon after, she dies, needing to free herself from her sin. Rodolphe is grief-stricken by her death but feels it is just punishment for his own crimes and that now his sins have been expiated. As for Songbird, one cannot help comparing her death to that of Richardson’s Clarissa. Clarissa has to die because she has been raped and death was the only way she could prove her virtue. Songbird dies to atone for her past as a prostitute, a past for which she is really not at fault. Her death washes away her sin.

Although The Mysteries of Paris is not a Gothic novel—even the crime-ridden streets of Paris lack the Gothic atmosphere that Dickens might have created—the Gothic theme of guilt and redemption is strong in Sue’s story. So also is the Gothic family plot that includes long-kept secrets that are ultimately revealed. Several of the other characters also undergo spiritual transformations and redemption as they struggle to become better. Slasher ultimately dies trying to save Rodolphe from an assassination attempt, which he also sees as expiation for his sins. He killed, so he must be killed. (He gained his nickname when he worked as a butcher and in a moment of madness slashed a man.)

Eugene Sue, who became a socialist after writing The Mysteries of Paris.

While Sue was writing the novel, he constantly received feedback from readers, and ultimately, by the time the novel was finished, his constant speeches about how social structures need to be put in place to prevent crime by relieving poverty led him to meeting and speaking with many people and ultimately led to his becoming a socialist. That said, I think this is far less a socialist than a very Christian novel. Sue’s intention is to help the poor, to see them as his brothers and sisters, and to persuade his readers to do something to help them. That is not socialism. That is Christianity pure and simple, and it is beautiful, if dark, in the way Sue treats it. Unfortunately, his Christian characters do not get their rewards or only enjoy them briefly in this life. But no matter; they cannot completely wash away their sins or forget their pain in this lifetime. Only God can wash away their sins, so they die and enter eternal life.

The novel is very powerful—perhaps not quite as much of a tearjerker as Les Miserables, but it certainly was inspiration for Hugo’s novel in its depiction of criminals who were largely forced by society into the crimes they participate in; for example, Jean Valjean stealing to feed his family and Fantine becoming a prostitute to feed her child. I was surprised to learn from the novel’s footnotes that prostitution was not only legal in France during this period but parents could even register their daughters as prostitutes to earn extra income to support the family. That Sue spoke out against such behavior, as I said, is not socialism but Christianity.

The novel’s influence was huge, not just inspiring other city mystery novels but Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, the latter of whom’s publisher wanted him to write a similar novel which later became The Count of Monte Cristo. The Mysteries of Paris would also be a grandfather to the superhero genre. Rodolphe has extreme if not superhuman strength. Jean Valjean will later also be marvelously physically strong. The influence of French literature on English literature was significant and has never been accurately analyzed, but no doubt many of the great British and American authors read this novel and its influence, overtly or not, continued on until heroes like Batman resulted.

Best of all, the novel remains highly readable today. It deserves to be one of the most read classics of French literature by readers worldwide.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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The Wandering Jew’s Daughter: Paul Feval’s Mockery of a Gothic Tradition

I only recently discovered French author Paul Feval (1816-1887) thanks to a reader of my blog. I was thrilled to discover him because he was a contemporary of William Harrison Ainsworth and George W.M. Reynolds, and I wondered to what extent he might have influenced British Gothic literature and especially Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if Stoker was a reader of French. Feval wrote three vampire novels that pre-date Stoker, and I plan to read them in the near future, but I decided to introduce myself to Feval by first reading his novel The Wandering Jew’s Daughter since I’ve always been interested in the Wandering Jew as a Gothic Wanderer figure and because I believe the Wandering Jew actually was a precursor and influence on vampire depictions in the Gothic tradition.

The new edition of The Wandering Jew's Daughter by Black Coat Press

The new edition of The Wandering Jew’s Daughter by Black Coat Press

All that said, I was quite disappointed by this novel for several reasons, not the least of which was that Feval did not want to take his subject seriously. I also fault the publisher, Black Coat Press, for false representation of what the novel is about. This edition’s cover art makes it look like we will have a strong female character, and it is also selling sex and swordplay action. There is really none of either, at least not by a woman, in the novel, so shame on the publisher for false advertising. The back cover does not help matters, describing the novel by saying “Throughout the ages, immortals have battled fiercely, until the daughter of one of them falls in love with a young French nobleman.” The accompanying quote from Brian Stableford, the translator, also says that the novel “anticipates later developments in popular fiction, featuring an invulnerable but flawed hero who stops bullets and blades with his body and gives succor to the wounded.” While both of these statements are accurate, by mixing them with the cover art, I was expecting some fabulous tale of immortals battling to protect the human race, akin to the Highlander films. In a sense, the novel may be the great-grandfather of those films and character types, but I think most readers of popular modern fantasy would find this novel almost unreadable. Even the battle between immortals that ensues is disappointing and more a mockery than what we would expect from a good adventure novel.

That said, I have no issue with the translation by Stableford, since my French is rusty anyway, and I think Stableford provides an excellent introduction, afterword, and helpful end notes that are more interesting than the novel itself and make the book well worth the $20.95 price.

But what of the actual story? It is a hodgepodge of confusion. The novel opens with a young boy, Vicomte Paul, and his parents; with them lives Lotte, the Wandering Jew’s daughter, although how she came to live with them is never explained, and it is only surmised that she is the Wandering Jew’s daughter because the little girl does not seem to age. When Paul’s house catches fire, he is rescued but the girl disappears and his father suddenly changes in his demeanor.

I will not go into all the details, but as the novel progresses, we learn there is more than one Wandering Jew. There is Ahasuerus, the father of Lotte, who is the most like the traditional Wandering Jew, but there is also a whole household of immortals living in Paris at the House of Jews. Ironically, most of these immortal Wandering Jews are not even Jewish. They include a slew of biblical characters, including Holofernes, Lot’s daughters, Barabbas’ niece, the brothers Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, Madam Potiphar, Caiphas’ valet, the Pharisee Nathan who let merchants into the Temple, and Ozer, the Roman soldier who gave Christ a sponge to drink from during the Crucifixion. All of these people have been cursed into extended lives in some way and some have various other gifts or supernatural powers. None of them are developed other than Ozer, who has the ability to possess people’s bodies so he can keep changing his appearance and retain his youth. At the novel’s end, we learn that Paul’s father was possessed by Ozer during the fire, which explains his change of behavior.

Years pass, during which time Paul grows up, and then as a young man, he sees a grown-up Lotte, which surprises him since he thought she was always a little girl. Of course, the two fall in love, but before they can be together, Ahasuerus must wreak his vengeance on Ozer. Ahasuerus has repented for his sins and so his curse is to be lifted, but the other immortals have not repented. Ahasuerus battles Ozer to prevent him from taking another soul and he ultimately kills him. He also kills as many of the other characters in the House of Jews as he can. Here’s a little taste of Feval’s mockery of this battle of the immortals: “All these murders passed unnoticed, by courtesy of the civil war. Besides, every one of these brave Israelites had already been broken on the wheel, hung, executed by firing-squad and guillotined several times over, at various times. All of them are in the best of health as we inscribe these lines.” I actually do find this statement humorous, but other parts of the novel are less humorous and fall a bit flat in their attempts to mock the Wandering Jew theme, so that the novel is more like watching Dracula, Dead and Loving It than Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, humor has its place, but great Gothic and Romantic literature can move the soul in a way such parodying cannot, and the novels Feval is mocking are, in my opinion, superior to his own.

In the introduction, Stableford explains at great length and with excellent detail the history of the Wandering Jew in French literature and how Feval’s novel is largely a response to Eugene Sue’s phenomenally popular novel The Wandering Jew (1846) and Alexandre Dumas’ unfinished serialized novel Isaac Laquedem (1853). I have not read Dumas’ novel, though I hope to someday (unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s ever been translated into English), but I do think Eugene Sue’s novel is a magnificent masterpiece of intrigue, mystery, and plotting, although I found the end a bit anticlimactic. Sue’s novel was also a tremendous influence on the later Gothic novels, including the British Gothic tradition, which is my primary interest, and especially on Dracula—Stoker was stage manager to the great actor Sir Henry Irving and once suggested he perform a play of Sue’s Wandering Jew. Stoker also wrote a book called Famous Impostors, in which he included a chapter on the Wandering Jew. Several people during the nineteenth century apparently claimed to be the Wandering Jew, which added to Feval’s mockery of the figure.

Part of Feval’s response to his contemporaries was a political response, as Stableford points out. The novel is set against the 1830 revolution (as referenced in the quote above as a “civil war”), and the novel makes many historical and political references to the period, references that are explained in the very helpful notes, but provide little interest to the modern and non-French reader. Yes, a Royalist Feval may have been responding to depictions by a Socialist Sue and a Republican Dumas, neither of whom he agreed with, but to the twenty-first century reader seeking a strong and meaningful story, little if any of these issues is of interest. Not that I do not find history fascinating, but politics tend to date a novel. Sue’s politics do not show through in his novel to such an extent, but Feval’s are just so much meaninglessness for the reader to wade through, hoping some story will finally evolve.

French novelist Paul Feval wrote vampire novels that predated Dracula and mocked his contemporaries depictions of the Wandering Jew.

French novelist Paul Feval wrote vampire novels that predated Dracula and mocked his contemporaries depictions of the Wandering Jew.

That hope is only slightly fulfilled since the novel is written in a very slap-dash, fragmented format. The chapters are extremely short—82 chapters in just 170 pages—and choppy, and the scenes between chapters jump about without adequate transitions. Feval begins by focusing on Paul and Lottie, the children, as if writing a children’s book, which seems to have been his initial goal, according to Stableford, but no child could read this book today, and while Feval initially wrote the book as one of three novellas in a collection, he later rewrote and expanded it into the current novel, which was published in 1878. The novel does, however, end with Paul and Lotte together, and a strange and confusing image that Lotte has been split in two so she can both be with Paul and with her father—you’ll have to read the ending to understand—I confess I still don’t get it.

Stableford provides many more sources for the novel and the Wandering Jew’s place in French literature during the nineteenth century, all of which I found fascinating since I am more knowledgeable of the British tradition. Certainly, it is valuable to have this novel translated into English, and while it is not particularly to my taste, it did not turn me off from wanting to read Feval’s vampire novels. More importantly, the novel is a significant link between past and present depictions of immortals and especially of how the Wandering Jew, who has disappeared from our modern literature (largely, I am sure for politically correct reasons), influenced the characterizations of vampires and even superheroes that we so enjoy today.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the Children of Arthur series. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Superheroes and the Gothic, The Gothic and the Bible, The Wandering Jew