Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

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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Lord Byron Memorabilia and the Gothic Tradition

Recently, a copy of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was discovered and is expected to sell for 400,000 pounds at auction. And it wasn’t just any copy of Frankenstein; it was the copy Mary Shelley had autographed specifically for her good friend Lord Byron. You can read more about the sale at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/06/lord-byron-frankenstein-mary-shelley_n_1860447.html

Tyler at Knebworth House in 2000.

As has been told thousands of times, Frankenstein was first conceived during a holiday in 1816 when Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley all gathered together to tell ghost stories. From that evening Polidori’s The Vampyre was conceived—the first vampire story in English—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Consequently, Byron was present at the origins of Frankenstein.

What I wouldn’t give to have Byron’s copy of Frankenstein, but alas, I don’t have 400,000 pounds. But the auction sale reminded me of one of my favorite literary experiences I had in the summer of 2000 when I attended the first Edward Bulwer-Lytton conference at the University of London in England. There I presented a paper about the influences of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni (1842) on Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a paper that later formed the basis for a chapter in my new book The Gothic Wanderer. But for me, the highlight of the conference was when Lord Cobbold, descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, had us all for dinner and a play at Knebworth House, the fabulous Victorian Gothic home built by Bulwer-Lytton.

Knebworth House and Gardens

Bulwer-Lytton fancied himself as a Lord Byron type, having come of age while Byron’s poetry was all the rage. Bulwer-Lytton was born in 1803 while Lord Byron died in 1824. Not far from Knebworth House was the home of Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron’s former mistress, who had committed adultery with him, despite her marriage to Viscount Melbourne, later Prime Minister of England. By the time Bulwer-Lytton knew Lamb, she was middle-aged, but he was a young man who fancied she might take an interest in him, although eighteen years his senior.

As far as we know, his attraction to her—perhaps more from her former relationship with Lord Byron than her own beauty—never amounted to anything, but because of his interests in Lord Byron, she gave him Lord Byron’s ruler which she had in her possession as well as a copy of Glenarvon, a fabulous Gothic novel she wrote in 1816, a thinly disguised portrait of her relationship with Lord Byron, in which she depicts him as having similarities to a vampire. The main character, Callantha, commits adultery with the title character Glenarvon, a relationship that is akin to achieving damnation, but in the end, they separate and Callantha finds redemption while Glenarvon is tormented at sea, seeing the Flying Dutchman, the haunted ship manned by sailors who can never rest and which would later be developed more fully in Captain Marryat’s novel The Phantom Ship (1839). While Glenarvon is not the best written novel, it’s a fascinating one, full of Gothic elements, and interesting as a portrait of Lord Byron. Byron was himself not impressed by the book, remarking upon it, “I read Glenarvon too by Caro Lamb….God damn!”

You can well imagine how exciting it was for me to visit Knebworth House and especially when Lord Cobbold gave us a tour, showed us Lord Byron’s ruler, and then unlocked the glass cabinet, and unbelievably, passed around the copy of Glenarvonthat Lady Caroline Lamb had given to Edward Bulwer-Lytton! For just a moment, I got to hold it in my hands and feel connected to those far away great Gothic authors of the past. Now if I only had 400,000 pounds.

Gargoyles on one of Knebworth House’s many towers.

For more information on Gothic literature, Lamb, Bulwer-Lytton, Shelley, and Byron, check out my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Fiction 1794-present available at www.GothicWanderer.com. and if you’d like to visit Knebworth House, well worth the visit, and a house that has been featured in many films, you can learn more at: http://www.knebworthhouse.com/

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Coming Soon! The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption

Welcome to my new blog, The Gothic Wanderer, created in conjunction with the upcoming publication of my new book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Gothic Literature from 1794-present.

The book will be released this fall. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging about all things Gothic, including classic Gothic literature, Gothic films, and how the Gothic continues to permeate our daily lives.

But for now, here’s a little about the book.

The Gothic Wanderer

The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption by Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.

The Gothic Wanderer Rises Eternal in Popular Literature

From the horrors of sixteenth century Italian castles to twenty-first century plagues, from the French Revolution to the liberation of Libya, Tyler R. Tichelaar takes readers on far more than a journey through literary history. The Gothic Wanderer is an exploration of man’s deepest fears, his efforts to rise above them for the last two centuries, and how he may be on the brink finally of succeeding.

Tichelaar examines the figure of the Gothic wanderer in such well-known Gothic novels as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, and Dracula, as well as lesser known works like Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni. He also finds surprising Gothic elements in classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. From Matthew Lewis’ The Monk to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Tichelaar explores a literary tradition whose characters reflect our greatest fears and deepest hopes. Readers will find here the revelation that not only are we all Gothic wanderers—but we are so only by our own choosing.

The Gothic Wanderer shows us the importance of its title figure in helping us to see our own imperfections and our own sometimes contradictory yearnings to be both unique and yet a part of a society. The reader is in for an insightful treat.”

— Diana DeLuca, Ph.D. and author of Extraordinary Things

“Make no mistake about it, The Gothic Wanderer is an important, well researched and comprehensive treatise on some of the world’s finest literature.

— Michael Willey, author of Ojisan Zanoni

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