Eugène Sue

A blog post from my friend Stephen Basdeo:

In 1848 the master of the “mysteries” novels, Eugène Sue, began the weekly serialisation of a new novel: Mysteries of the People. It was a chronicle of a proletarian family, and their descendants, who participated in all of the major class struggles and revolutions in France, from Caesar’s invasion of Gaul to the French Revolution of 1848. This was a socialist history of class struggle in the guise of fiction.

Eugène Sue (1804–57) was the son of Jean Joseph Sue II and his Marie Sophie Tison de Reilly. Jean Joseph was a surgeon who served Napoleon, and whose ancestors were surgeons to the French royal family. A well-connected family, Eugène had the Empress Josephine for his godmother. It was expected that Eugène would enter the medical profession but, with his father dying in 1829 and a vast fortune passing to him, Eugène decided to become a writer. His early works were stories of pirates and other historical tales, for he endeavoured to emulate the American writer James Fenimore Cooper.

Sue’s novels sold moderately well and, as G.W.M. Reynolds remarked, Sue’s novels were respectable enough for the drawing room. But Sue never truly distinguished himself until he wrote The Mysteries of Paris (1843)—a shocking exposé of the vice and depravity in French criminal underworld, and in the aristocratic French “upperworld.” After that, Sue was a household name and even inspired Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48).

Although Sue was brought up in a thoroughly bourgeois family, the time spent among the slums of Paris researching his Mysteries of Paris opened his eyes to the poverty suffered by the French proletariat. This brought with it a change in his politics. He became a socialist. He was never a Marxist communist. Indeed, Sue’s “conversion” to socialism predated the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848). Instead Sue would have called himself a Red Republican—a member of an internationalist group of labour activists who called for universal suffrage; nationalization of the land and factories; and universal education. Sue was eventually elected, as a member of the Red Republican Party of France—nicknamed “The Mountain”—to the French legislature but he was exiled from Paris by Louis-Napoleon in 1851 after the latter’s coup d’etat.

It was after Sue’s conversion to Red Republicanism that Sue wrote The Mysteries of the People (French: Mystères du Peuple). The final part of the novel, which deals with the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, was translated into English and published ‘exclusively’ in Reynolds’s Miscellany with the somewhat longer title of Mysteries of the People; or, The History of a Proletarian Family from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time.

More at the link on this interesting figure. I haven’t read anything of his but I do recall his name’s appearance in my favorite novel, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, when Père Ignacio Blazon, S.J. says to Dunstan Ramsay:

“You have written a fine book! Not that I have read it all, but one of the nuns read some of it to me. I made her stop because her English accent was so vile she desecrated your elegant prose, and she mispronounced all the names. A real murderer! How ignorant these women are! Assassins of the spoken word! For a punishment I made her read a lot of Le Juif errant to me. Her French is very chaste, but the book nearly burned her tongue—so very anticlerical, you know. And what it says about the Jesuits! What evil magicians, what serpents! If we were one scruple as clever as Eugène Sue thought we should be masters of the world today. Poor soul, she could not understand why I wanted to hear it or why I laughed so much. Then I told her it was on the Index, and now she thinks I am an ogre disguised as an old Jesuit. Well, well, it passes the time.”

That a nineteenth-century French socialist should also have been intensely anticlerical is probably no surprise. I was pleased to see that Gustave Doré contributed twelve engravings to the first edition of Le Juif errant

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