“Paula Monti” (1842), by Eugene Sue | Rebecca Nesvet

By Dr Rebecca Nesvet

Eugène Sue’s Paula Monti, ou l’Hôtel Lambert, illustrated by Jules David, published in 1842 and translated, “by the translator of the Mysteries of Paris (G.W.M. Reynolds) in 1845, reveals Sue’s appraisal of the socio-political status quo in the wake of the Revolution of 1830. The eponymous heroine of Paula Monti is a mysterious Venetian woman who came to Paris as the wife of a German prince, having previously endured a rather Byronic trauma: the death of her fiancé and cousin Raphael Monti. In 1831, he was murdered by another man who pursued her, M. Charles de Brevannes.

Eugene Sue in 1835 (Wikimedia Commons)

This Gothic villain is an obvious product of the failures of the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 to produce genuine equality, fraternity, or meritocracy. He is the son of a Directory bureaucrat, one Joseph Burdin, who during the Directory “amassed one of those notorious fortunes so common at [that] period,” purchased a country estate, and renamed his family after it (39) His son Charles was “badly brought up, and having received but the barren education of his college, nothing had softened or abated the innate violence of his temper; the main, leading, and integral characteristic of which was a remarkable degree of energy and hauteur, united to an invincible obstinacy of purpose” (39). He inherits not only his father’s estate but his father’s motto, vouloir c’est pouvoir (‘to want is to have’), with all its libertinical connotations. He lives up to it by killing Raphael Monti, and later by marrying an artisan-class musician, Bertha Raimond, in spite of the misgivings of her father, the music-engraver Pierre Raimond, A white-haired man, Raimond experienced the Revolution of 1789 and distrusts rich men, no matter what the provenance of their social status.

Raimond lives in the shadow of the Hôtel Lambert, a decidedly Gothic building that locates the novel firmly in the genre of the urban mystery. The historical Hôtel Lambert, in the Île Saint-Louis (4th Arrondissement), was built in 1640-4 for a prominent financier and therefore might be seen as an example of the rise of a middle class as venal as the aristocracy. In the early 1840s, the Hôtel served as the site of a Polish-refugee-led political salon. In Paula Monti, the “old and vast Hôtel Lambert,” however, has not just yet achieved that revolutionary purpose. It remains “an enormous palace,” a relic of the ancient régime, and a topographical urban mystery. It is a place

“where one is lost, as it were, and where one hears no more noise than in the midst of a vast plain, so deserted are those streets and quays” (8-9).

Its inhabitants include Arnold, Prince de Hansfield—the husband of the former Paula Monti. A mysterious terrorist’s repeated attempts to kill the Prince have alienated him from the Princess, whom he initially suspects of these crimes. Soon, he meets Bertha, de Brevannes’ very much abandoned wife, and falls in love with her. Observing all these proceedings are Leon de Morville, nephew of another inhabitant of the Hôtel and in love with the Princess, and a far more interesting character: the Princess’s nominal “god-daughter,” confidant, and dependent Iris.

The Hotel Lambert today (Wikimedia Commons)

Like the “East Indian” Prince Djalma of Sue’s 1844 bestseller The Wandering Jew, Iris, often called “the mulatto,” is an ostracized “other” demonstrating both abjection and resistance. Here is how Sue introduces her:

A deep brown, resembling the hue of Florentine bronze, tinged her colourless cheek, and displayed more strikingly the pearly whiteness of the eyeball with the clear blue of the pupil.

Sue claims that Iris is of either “Moorish” or “Bohemian” extraction; she has, apparently, no knowledge of her own origins. “A more singular person could not be seen,” he claims. A key aspect of her “singularity” is her quasi-“masculine” self-fashioning. Her hair is:

… cut short, curled, and parted on the forehead, after the fashion of many of the male sex… Her well-formed and regular features had an almost masculine expression… might easily pass for one of the opposite sex, and as such accompany Madame de Hansfeld, who feared to return alone during the night (66).

Escorting the Princess through Paris’s nighttime streets, Iris anticipates other manifestations of feminine masculinity in the popular serial fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, such as Johanna Oakley, in disguise as a young man, escorting her friend Arabella Wilmot down Fleet Street to spy on Sweeney Todd’s shop of horrors in James Malcolm Rymer’s penny blood The String of Pearls, A Romance (1846-7).

Iris and the Princess de Hansfeld. Paula Monti, translated by G.W.M. Reynolds.London: Chapman and Hall, 1845, n.p.

However, unlike Johanna, Iris genuinely desires the Princess. At one point, Iris kisses her hand “with … devotion more than filial” (68). In Sue’s racist fantasy, she loves her with “passionate,” “savage” “ferocity” (69) with “the most violent and unbounded wishes” and dangerous jealousy (70). At other points, Iris seems the most chivalric of the novel’s many suitors. For instance, Sue remarks that Iris is “heart, soul, and body absorbed in the close observation of the adored object before her,” the princess (71).

Iris also appears selfless to the point of servility. In David’s woodcut illustration, she performs her “close observation” from the floor at the Princess’s feet, like Friday genuflecting to Crusoe. Also like Friday, she labels herself a servant utterly lacking in autonomous will; a mere appendage of the white woman; clearly, a slave in modern Paris.

“If I can serve you, speak,” Iris begs the Princess. “Command, and I obey. Iris is yours—yours in all things—her breath is as your breath—she sees with your eyes—she has no will but yours” (68).

This is a textbook demonstration of Orlando Patterson’s theory that slavery produces individual and collective “social death.” Sue represents this pathology too fatalistically to effectively critique its contribution to the shaping of the nineteenth-century transatlantic literary stereotype of the “tragic mulatto.”[1] However, he enlists that type to critique chivalry’s theatrics of abjection.

Moreover, Iris subversively ascribes her behavior to fatalistic acceptance of systematic cruelties, implicitly including racism.

“I see but too plainly that you are only making use of me as a medium of correspondence between yourself and the princess,” she tells de Brevannes, “[b]ut what right have I to complain? Have not the unhappy always been sacrificed to the happy, the rich, and the prosperous of this world?” (176).

The son of a revolutionary who has become a tyrant, he does not disagree with her. Not allowed to be the heroine of her own story, Iris remains as peripheral as an ocular iris to her pupil, the former Paula Monti. In the novel’s final moments, Iris loses everything that matters to her, in part due to her own jealousy, but also to the moral failings of many of the lovers and plotters who surround her.

Sue’s political philosophy comes most obviously to the surface in a debate about art between Pierre Raimond and his daughter’s second elite lover, the Prince de Hansfeld. The Prince’s “delicate and pure taste” leads him to prefer the art of Raphael (the Renaissance painter, not his wife’s murdered fiancé) to “the sombre and terrible style” Michelangelo, whom Raimond defends vigorously as an artisanal creator of popular art.

“Your tender Raphael led the enervating life of a courtier,” Raimond scolds, “whilst the rude creator of Moses and the Sistine Chapel had a Republican soul, and he was right to menace, as he did menace, Pope Julio with throwing him off his scaffolding if he failed in respect to him” (226-7).

Implicit in this debate is the question, post-1789, of the role of the revolutionary in popular art, and of art in the popular revolution.

Literature that is like Michelangelo’s in popular effect, Sue suggests in Paula Monti, might effectively combat social, economic, political, sexual, and racist tyranny.

He has “never been able to comprehend,” he digresses, “the bitter feeling let loose upon a man, by all the public writers of the day, against whom nothing more injurious can be adduced, than that he sought to improve and employ his leisure hours by the ennobling study of literature in general” (108-9).

Perhaps this “bitter feeling” arises from the half-knowledge that literature is a way out of the labyrinth of social hypocrisy represented architecturally by the Hôtel. Indeed, the Princess and de Morville, meeting in disguise at the Opera, employ as their passwords “Childe Harold” and “Faust” (18). They have learned their behavior by reading literature; by appreciating art. Can’t Sue’s readers learn more revolutionary lessons in the same manner?

[1] For this trope’s history, see Werner Sollors, Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), especially pages 226-242. Other ‘tragic mulattos’ in nineteenth-century literature include Cora Munro in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Monina de Faro in Mary Shelley’s Perkin Warbeck (1830), and the hero of the earliest published work of popular fiction by an African-American writer, Victor Séjour’s Le Mulâtre (1837). Séjour, driven out of Louisiana for his abolitionist agitation and promotion of rebellion as an ethical response to slavery, fled to Paris. Mentored by Alexandre Dumas, Séjour wrote plays including the phenomenally successful Le Juif de Seville (1844).

Categories: History

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