Tag Archives: Eugene Sue

The Mysteries of London: The Forgotten Gothic Victorian Classic

How does one even begin to write about George W. M. Reynold’s mammoth classic The Mysteries of London (1844)? The new Valancourt press edition that I recently read is two volumes and runs around 2,300 pages. It may be the longest novel in the English language after Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). It may also be one of the most important, yet most overlooked novels in Victorian and Gothic fiction. The novel is hard to define, and yet it must have influenced the genres that followed it. It is not by any means the first crime novel, nor is it properly the first mystery novel—there is no detective solving crimes, but there is plenty of crime and not a little mystery. In this case, mystery refers more properly to secrets and criminal plots than any effort to solve mysteries. Its title is more in keeping with Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842) which I have previously blogged on. Radcliffe is paid homage to in the use of a place name Montoni in the novel. Montoni is the villain of Radcliffe’s masterpiece. Sue is largely ignored other than one passing reference to Paris, but that is because Reynolds was basically stealing Sue’s idea and popularizing it for himself.

The Mysteries of London has been reprinted in a wonderful new two volume edition by Valancourt Press, with all the original illustrations.

Part of the novel’s obscurity is due to Reynolds’ piracy and the sense that a penny dreadful type story cannot be great literature. Reynolds was not a plagiarist in the sense that he stole passages from other authors, but he certainly stole their ideas and capitalized on them. Not only did he capitalize on Sue’s novel, but Paul Feval in the same year began writing a French novel, Les Mystères de Londres, so he claimed Reynolds had stolen his idea. (Feval didn’t seem to care that he himself had stolen Sue’s idea.) But even before Reynolds began The Mysteries of London, he had already likely infuriated Charles Dickens by publishing Pickwick Abroad, or the Tour in France (1837-1838), an unauthorized sequel or offshoot to The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), which ran simultaneously with Dickens’ novel. Dickens is said to have despised Reynolds, and one cannot blame him, but one also has to wonder whether Reynolds influenced Dickens. Critics today claim the novel belongs on the shelf beside other great social novels like Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875). And while we cannot know whether Dickens read The Mysteries of London, he must have been very aware of it and read pieces, if not all, of it, or at least have known of its characters. After all, Reynolds far outsold Dickens. The Mysteries of London is said to have sold 50,000 copies a week in its serial format and over a million copies the first year it was published in book form. Those numbers would have been far beyond any Victorian authors’ dreams.

To summarize the novel in full would be impossible, but I will just mention a few of the main plot highlights. The novel opens with a young man in a bad neighborhood who ducks into an old building when he fears for his safety. Inside, he overhears criminals plotting to rob the Markham house; then he is captured by the criminals and thrown into a trap door, which they don’t realize has an outlet. The young man warns the Markhams without revealing his identity. Later, we learn this young man is really a woman, Eliza Sydney, who is passing herself off as her brother to gain the inheritance that was supposed to be left to him, but which she will not acquire because he is deceased. Poor Eliza is being tricked into this crime by another who hopes to profit by it. Eventually, when it’s time to collect the inheritance, her identity is revealed and she’s sent to prison for her deceit. After she is released from prison, she makes some good acquaintances, which allows her to be introduced into high society in Italy, where she emigrates. There the Grand Duke of Castelcicala falls in love with and marries her.

The other major plot concerns the Markhams, whom Eliza had warned of an impending robbery. When the father dies, his two sons, Eugene and Richard, make a pact that they will each make their own way in the world and then meet again after twelve years on a given date in 1843. The novel then follows Richard Markham through his ups and downs. All the while, Richard wonders how his brother is faring in the world. Richard befriends some gentlemen who turn out to be swindlers and get him tossed in prison, although he is innocent of the forgery he’s accused of. Numerous plots surround Richard, but in the end, he falls in love with the beautiful Isabella, and eventually, he learns that her father is a count and the nephew of the Grand Duke of Castelcicala, who has married Eliza. When the Grand Duke refuses to allow his land to become a republic, he is overthrown and Richard is part of the effort to overthrow him and then establish the count—who by then is his father-in-law—on the throne. As a result, Richard becomes a prince and a hero. But despite his triumph, he is continually pursued by the criminal Anthony Tidkins, also known as the Resurrection Man, because he digs up the dead and sells their corpses to scientists. Tidkins hates Richard and is continually trying to kill him. And then, in the final scene, after Tidkins has been murdered by another criminal, Crankey Jem, Richard reunites with Eugene.

Eugene has, meanwhile, been living under two different identities, first as Montague and then as Greenwood. Throughout the years separated from his brother, he has been committing numerous white collar crimes of embezzling, forgery, counterfeiting, and cheating people through fake stock speculations. He has also debauched several women, including Ellen Monroe, who is the daughter of Richard’s legal guardian during his youth. Eugene’s rise to wealth happens as Richard finds himself cast into poverty and prison, but then everything changes; while Richard becomes a hero and prince, Eugene becomes impoverished. Finally, Eugene keeps the appointment and the brothers meet again, but a man Eugene has cheated assails him just as he is heading to the meeting, and as a result, he dies soon after meeting his brother. Richard and all those he has wronged assure him he is forgiven so he dies in peace—a true redeemed Gothic wanderer.

The Resurrection Man is the other great Gothic Wanderer of the novel, although he is a hardened criminal who never in the end feels remorse for his crimes. However, we are given his backstory of how he tried to be honest, but between a miserable childhood and all society being against him because of his past, he finally quits trying to be good and becomes so angry at society that he strives to be a true criminal always. It should be noted that Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has a Resurrection Man character in Jerry Cruncher, and later, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Body Snatcher (1884). Of course, that does not mean Reynolds influenced them since there were real resurrection men at the time, but that Reynolds created one of the greatest criminals in literature means one can’t help wondering whether Tidkins did influence other resurrection men counterparts.

One of the Resurrection Man’s cronies is “the old hag” whose name is never given but who continually helps to lead women into ruin. When Ellen Monroe is desperate for money, she goes to the hag, who leads her to a painter, then a sculpture, then a theatre manager, and, eventually, to Greenwood. Each one is a step closer to debauchery—Ellen agreeing to disrobe to be painted or sculpted nude, and finally, she sells her body to Greenwood. In the end, the hag, however, does feel some guilt over the women she has wronged, especially Harriet Wilmot, who turns out to have had a child with Richard and Eugene’s father—Katherine Wilmot—their long-lost sister whom Richard plays first benefactor to before he meets her as his sister. In the end, the hag is robbed and beaten to death by the Resurrection Man. As she is dying, Ellen Monroe forgives her. Here is another case of a Gothic wanderer figure—one who ends up feeling remorse for her crime.

The Resurrection Man threatening Adeline.

Numerous crimes occur throughout the novel, but for me, perhaps the most fascinating criminal plot concerns Lydia Hutchinson. Lydia finds a teaching position in a boarding school for young ladies, where she befriends one of the ladies, Adeline. Adeline gets Lydia to act as chaperone to her, but eventually, she leads Lydia into disgrace when they both start having sexual relations with a couple of young men. Adeline ends up pregnant and gives birth to a stillborn child in the school, which Lydia passes off as her own to protect Adeline. Lydia, as a result, is dismissed and sinks further and further into degradation. She continually asks Adeline for help but Adeline ends their acquaintance. Through a series of twists and turns, however, Lydia gets a position as a lady’s maid to Adeline and starts to blackmail her after Adeline has married and become Lady Ravenswood. Lydia has gone from virtue to vice and becomes a truly horrible taskmaster to Adeline until Adeline can take no more and hires the Resurrection Man to murder Lydia. After that, Adeline is haunted by the crime, rather like Lady Macbeth; eventually, she tries to redeem herself through being charitable. The Resurrection Man, however, has no remorse. He has buried Lydia’s body, but when it suits him, he digs it up and threatens to blackmail Adeline with it. When he shows her Lydia’s corpse, she is so overcome with horror and guilt that she faints, bursts a blood vessel, and dies.

Overall, The Mysteries of London, while it contains no supernatural elements, other than a claim that Ravensworth Hall is haunted, has plenty of Gothic guilt and redemption, plenty of villains, and plenty of mysterious and horrid haunts in London and its surroundings. This is urban Gothic, and Reynolds helped to develop it, drawing upon Sue’s novel and setting the stage for the Gothic atmosphere Dickens and other writers would also create in their depictions of London.

Of course, the string of Newgate novels, focusing on criminals, were already being published several years before The Mysteries of London was published. Oliver Twist (1838) had already depicted the darker side of London life, but never to the extreme Reynolds’ does. There is also plenty of sensationalism in the text long before what are considered the first sensational novels appeared—works like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). There is cross-dressing to hide identities, although cross-dressing had been in fiction and on the stage long before. (See my blog on Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809) as an example.) Murder, however, is more abundant in The Mysteries of London than in any novel prior to it. So is gambling and the cheating of others. Gambling is a huge theme in the novel which is often overlooked as a major theme in Gothic fiction (see my book The Gothic Wanderer for a detailed discussion of gambling as a transgression in nineteenth century Gothic fiction.) Reynolds also fills his pages with family secrets, including those concerning illegitimate children and mysterious parentages (a theme that goes back to Radcliffe), and there are very contemporary themes such as Richard Markham’s campaign in Castelcicala to reclaim the throne for his father-in-law and establish a republic, a theme relevant to the Italian effort for unification—the Bandieri brothers made a failed effort/raid in 1844 in Calabria for this purpose which Reynolds no doubt followed and was inspired by. And most interesting for lovers of the Gothic, beyond the mysteries, the horror, and the dead bodies, is the recurring themes of guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

The redemption theme is at the heart of understanding criminal psychology in the novel. While Reynolds creates some truly despicable and horrible villains—the Resurrection Man, the old hag, Lady Ravenswood—in each case, we see the villains feeling remorse for their crimes, even when they find themselves unable to stop from continuing them, either through an addiction to their criminal behavior or under threat of having past misdeeds revealed, so they must commit new crimes. We also have several stories within the story (an Arabian Nights plot device frequently used in Gothic fiction) where the criminals tell their histories and we come to understand the miserable childhoods and experiences they had and how even when they tried to walk the straight and narrow path, their poverty and a judgmental society pushed them into lives of crime.

Reynolds is nothing if not charitable toward his criminals. Here he is following Eugene Sue’s model, and while I don’t think he is as effective in his arguments for reform—after all, I think his first purpose was to sensationalize his storyline so it would sell—I believe his heart was in the right place. Eugene Sue’s main character, Rodolphe, who turns out to be a prince in disguise, makes a concerted effort to walk the streets of Paris, meet the poor and criminals, and help them through charity and a good example to reform. Reynolds’ Richard Markham is cast in Rodolphe’s mold with some differences. He is not a prince but eventually he rises to that status through marriage and his campaigns in Italy. He does not seek out the poor or try to help them, but when he comes across those in need, he does help. He is benefactor to several characters, mostly women, before the novel ends, but he also gets at least one criminal—Talbot—to reform.

Eugene Markham, Richard’s brother, whose alias is Montague and Greenwood, and who is known as the worst of the upper class criminals in London, is allowed a long and moving death scene of reconciliation with his brother and the chance to receive forgiveness from those he has wronged before he passes away into a state of peace, a scene that surely had at least an indirect influence upon Dracula’s death scene a half century later.

Eugene’s death

One final point concerning reform to make is that one of the minor characters, Henry Holford, a young criminal, breaks into Buckingham Palace, planning to help the Resurrection Man rob it. He ends up hiding under a sofa and witnessing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s courtship. Reynolds makes the point in these scenes that Queen Victoria is a young, innocent queen who is completely ignorant of the poverty and desperate situations of so many of her people. Holford becomes enamored with the palace and the queen and continually sneaks into the palace to spy on them until Prince Albert spots him. Holford manages to escape but does not dare try to return to Buckingham Palace after that. However, he decides he wants to become famous and will do so by assassinating Prince Albert. He ends up shooting at the prince while he and Victoria are in their carriage. (Four of eight assassination attempts against Queen Victoria had already been attempted at this point when she and Albert were in their carriage.) Holford’s murder attempt fails and results in Holford spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum. These are very daring chapters because while most Gothic novels previously had been set in the past, Reynolds is not only setting his in the present but depicting the royal family as characters in it and criticizing them. We are left with a Queen Victoria who is a type of Marie Antoinette, clueless about the poor, and the sense that perhaps revolution will occur in England as it did in France. That we also have a revolutionary plot in Italy in the novel suggests Reynolds may have been thinking revolution in England not so unlikely either.

Reynolds’ Epilogue states that now that the novel is finished, virtue has been rewarded and vice punished, and then Reynolds argues that his work has always had a moral purpose, concluding his tome by saying:

Kind Reader, who have borne with me so long—one word to thee.

If amongst the circle of thy friends, there be any who express an aversion to peruse this work,—fearful from its title or from fugitive report that the mind will be shocked more than it can be improved, or the blush of shame excited on the cheek oftener than the tear of sympathy will be drawn from the eye;—if, in a word, a false fastidiousness should prejudge, from its own suppositions or from misrepresentations made to it by others, a book by means of which we have sought to convey many an useful moral and lash many a flagrant abuse,—do you, kind reader, oppose that prejudice, and exclaim—“Peruse ere you condemn!”

For if, on the one side, we have raked amidst the filth and loathsomeness of society,—have we not, on the other, devoted adequate attention to its bright and glorious phases?

In exposing the hideous deformity of vice, have we not studied to develope the witching beauty of virtue?

Have we not taught, in fine, how the example and the philanthropy of one good man can “save more souls and redeem more sinners than all the Bishops that ever wore lawn-sleeves?”

If, then, the preceding pages be calculated to engender one useful thought—awaken one beneficial sentiment,—the work is not without its value.

If there be any merit in honesty of purpose and integrity of aim,—then is that merit ours.

And if, in addition to considerations of this nature, we may presume that so long as we are enabled to afford entertainment, our labours will be rewarded by the approval of the immense audience to whom we address ourselves,—we may with confidence invite attention to a SECOND SERIES of “THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON.”

The Mysteries of London, Vol 2. Reynolds would go on to write The Mysteries of the Court of London because of the popularity of the series.

Little scholarship has appeared on The Mysteries of London to date. The only volume to my knowledge on the author is G. W. M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press edited by Anne Humpherys and Louis James. It is a collection of essays on Reynolds. Published in 2008, this volume is priced so that hardly anyone can afford it. At Amazon, the hardcover sells for about $100 and even the ebook is priced at $54.95. This is not the way to get more people interested in Reynolds, who deserves far more attention than he has received.

Is Reynolds as great as Dickens or Trollope? No, I have to admit both are far better authors. Both are better stylists, and both do more to develop their characters. Reynolds characters are constantly active, but there is little in the way of interior monologues so we will feel we really know them as real people. Even the guilt-ridden characters are not depicted in ways to make us truly feel their guilt like a great novelist would do. But Reynolds was not writing for a literary but a lower and middle-class audience that wanted cheap thrills and a soap-opera type plotline. That he tried to infuse some morality into his storyline shows that he knew his audience and also knew the power of the pen to reform as well as entertain. That he doubtless influenced countless of his contemporaries and literary successors cannot be denied although the full extent of that influence needs more research. I hope in the years to come more affordable and readable editions of Reynolds’ novels will be produced (currently, most that can be bought are poor quality editions that are scanned and reprinted versions, unlike the fine edition that Valancourt Press has produced of The Mysteries of London) and more scholarship will be devoted to him. It is long past time that Reynolds’ place in Victorian fiction receive the recognition it deserves.

If you have not read any of Reynolds’ other novels, I highly recommend, besides The Mysteries of London, his three supernatural works, all of which I’ve previously blogged about:

Wagner the Wehr-Wolf

The Necromancer

Faust: Or the Secret of the Tribunals

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, a study of nineteenth-century British Gothic literature from 1794 (The Mysteries of Udolpho) to 1897 (Dracula) with a look at twenty and twenty-first century texts like Tarzan of the Apes, Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Tyler has also written Haunted Marquette, a history of hauntings in his native city of Marquette, Michigan, Spirit of the North: A Paranormal Romance, and the historical fantasy The Children of Arthur series, which details the story of King Arthur and his descendants, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

 

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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