On June 19, 1842, readers of the staid Journal des Débats discovered installment one of The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue on the “ground floor” (the bottom quarter) of their daily newspaper’s front page. Over the following months, the story unfolded in 150 breathless episodes, reaching its end only on October 15, 1843. It was certainly the runaway best seller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest best seller of all time.
It’s hard to estimate its audience, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafés throughout France, in workshops and offices. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was a truly national experience, magnetizing in the way celebrity trials have been in our time, maintained addictively from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial. The novel was such a success that it saved the respectable and somewhat musty Journal des Débats from looming bankruptcy. In fact, the emergence of the mass-circulation newspaper depended on the popular fiction it featured on page one: by radically reducing subscription prices (there were no single- issue sales at the time), introducing paid advertisements, and reaching out to a wider public through serial novels, the newspaper entered the modern era.
From the outset, the reader is plunged into the lowest depths of Paris-by-night, entering the tapis-franc, sinister low-life tavern on the Île de la Cité, the inner circle of Paris crime, prostitution, poverty, exploitation. Right away, we have a violent encounter between le Chourineur (Slasher, in the new Penguin Classics translation*), a former apprentice butcher turned killer, and la Goualeuse (Songbird), a prostitute with a pure heart, and then the providential arrival of Rodolphe, disguised aristocrat who moves with perfect ease in the lower depths. He’s come to rescue la Goualeuse, alias Fleur-de-Marie, who’s been tortured by her one-eyed guardian, la Chouette (the Owl), imprisoned, and sold by the Ogress. Slasher, Songbird, and Rodolphe then enter the tavern together, to trade stories (everyone in this novel has a story to tell), where they are served by Ogress, and spied on by the terrifyingly brutal arch-villain, le Maître d’École (the Schoolmaster). And we are off, for sixteen months of lurid and breathless fare.
The novel of course triggered endless imitations and reworkings by others, in novels and stage melodramas, among them The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of Naples, The Mysteries of Lisbon, and The Mysteries and Miseries of New York. Once the newspaper serialization was over, the novel was published in ten volumes, and sold edition after edition. The Mysteries of Paris made its author, Eugène Sue, more than a celebrity: he became a hero to working-class French and their political leaders. Sue was elected to the National…
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