Eugene Sue’s Epic Socialist Novel “The Mysteries of the People” (1848): “The Iron Collar” and “The Silver Cross” | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

In 1848 the master of the “mysteries” novels, Eugene Sue, began the weekly serialisation of a new novel: Mysteries of the People. It was a chronicle of a proletarian family—originally the Brenn clan—and their descendants whose name, over time, is changed to the more recognisably French Lebrenne. Throughout all 21 volumes of this fascinating novel this family’s descendants participate in all of the major class struggles and revolutions in France, from Caesar’s invasion of Gaul to the French Revolution of 1848.

Eugene Sue

This was a communist history of class struggle given a fictional embellishment. Although it was fiction, however, like Walter Scott, Sue places footnotes to historical sources throughout his novel, detailing where evidence for the events and details he relates.

Title page to Sue’s Mysteres du Peuple

Eugene 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, Eugene had the Empress Josephine for his godmother. It was expected that Eugene would enter the medical profession but, with his father dying in 1829 and a vast fortune passing to him, Eugene 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. His novels sold moderately well and, as G.W.M. Reynolds remarked, Sue’s novels were respectable enough for the drawing room.[1] 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: Mysteres 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 (it was serialised in Reynolds’s Miscellany alongside three of Reynolds’s novels: The Bronze Statue; or, The Virgin’s Kiss; The Drunkard’s Progress; and The Pixy; or, The Unbaptized Child).[2]

However, the novel was quickly forgotten about in the English-speaking world. But in 1904 the American socialist writer Daniel de Leon “rediscovered” the novel and set about translating it into English for the benefit of the American proletariat. He was captivated with Sue’s novel because

It graphically traces the special features of class-rule as they have succeeded one another from epoch to epoch, together with the special character of the struggle between the contending classes. The “Law,” “Order,” “Patriotism,” “Religion,” “Family,” etc., etc., that each successive tyrant class, despite its change of form, fraudulently sought refuge in to justify its criminal existence whenever threatened; the varying economic causes of the oppression of the toilers; the mistakes incurred by these in their struggles for redress; the varying fortunes of the conflict;—all these social dramas are therein reproduced in a majestic series of “novels” covering leading and successive episodes in the history of the race—an inestimable gift, above all to our own generation, above all to the American working class, the short history of whose country deprives it of historic back-ground.[3]

The English translation was divided into 21 volumes, each with a different title that is based upon one of the family relics passed down from age to age:

The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen;

The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death;

The Iron Collar; or, Faustine and Syomara;

The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth;

The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother of the Fields;

The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan;

The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles;

The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine;

Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne;

The Iron Arrow-Head; or, The Maid of the Buckler;

The Infant’s Skull; or, The End of the World;

The Pilgrim’s Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman;

The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel;

The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion;

The Executioner’s Knife; or, Joan of Arc;

The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer (2 vols);

The Blacksmith’s Hammer; or, The Peasant-Code;

The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic (2 vols);

The Galley-Slave’s Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn.

A previous post on this website examined the first two volumes of this epic story—The Gold Sickle and The Brass Bell—in which we were witness to the fortunes and misfortunes of the brave Gallic warrior Guilhern who was sold into slavery. And slavery was the fate of Guilhern’s son, Sylvest, and his daughter Syomara.

However, although both Sylvest and Syomara were slaves, their lives could not be more different.

We find Sylvest living in Orange, the valet-slave to a fat degenerate Roman aristocrat named Diavolus. The ‘Iron Collar’ of the title is taken from the collar which he is forced to wear around his neck, emblazoned with the words SERVUS SUM (I am a slave). Although he is subject to the whims of his master and the occasional beating, as Diavolus’s personal slave Sylvest is also allowed more freedom than the other slaves in Diavolus’s household—Sylvest is allowed, for instance, to leave the household at night.


The freedom that Sylvest has to leave his master’s household on an evening allows him to time to venture into the forests and meet with the secret revolutionary group called the Sons of the Mistletoe. Presided over by the Druids, this group is dedicated to ending Roman rule over Gaul. They sing revolutionary anthems like the following which Sue composed especially for the novel:

How many Gallic warriors have died

From the battle of Vannes to the Siege of Alais!


During these four years

How many are the warriors who died for liberty?

A hundred thousand?—Is that too high a figure?

No!—Three hundred, four hundred thousand?

No that figure is not yet too high!


Oh, flow, flow, thou blood of the captive !

Drop drop thou dew of gore!

Germinate, sprout up, thou avenging harvest!

Hasten you mower, hasten it is ripe!

Whet your scythe, whet it—

Whet your scythe![4]

(This is of course an English translation of Sue’s original French by Daniel de Leon—it reads better in French). These revolutionaries meet in secret. And they keep on meeting in secret. Yet one gets the sense that these Gallic revolutionaries, though they might make their own masters’ lives more difficult through isolated acts of resistance, know that a small band of them holding secret meetings is hardly enough for them to overthrow the master-slave Roman world system. This of course mirrors the many secret and sometimes not-so-secret meetings of Eugene Sue and his own Red Republican and revolutionary comrades in nineteenth-century France and Britain. They printed lots of magazines. They held lots of meetings. They talked in very angry voices at these meetings about the injustices they suffered. Yet they were unable, as individuals, to dismantle capitalism and bring about the socialist world for which they longed.


Sylvest’s relative freedom as a member of Diavolus’s household means he can visit his wife Loyse who works in one of the “factories” owned by the diabolical Faustina. He usually meets his wife in the grounds of Faustina’s estate after his nightly meetings with the Sons of the Mistletoe. It is while he is waiting for Loyse in a secluded spot near Faustina’s house that he happens to be witness to a murder committed by Faustina upon one of her young female slaves. Faustina is in love with a gladiator and wants to woo him.

However, the gladiator is in love with a mysterious courtesan lately arrived from Rome and, in order to break the courtesan’s spell, Faustina consults a sorceress who tells her to sacrifice one of her maidens. The soon-to-be sacrificed slave resigns herself to her fate. The episode is just one of many symbols of class oppression throughout the novels: Faustina, as a member of the ruling class, has had the young virgin as a slave almost her entire life; when the slave has served her purpose she is disposed of however Faustina sees fit.

Syomara the Sorceress

Sylvest manages to evade detection and does in fact manage to steal a few moments with his sweetheart who knows something of this mysterious courtesan whom her mistress Faustina hates: It is Syomara—Sylvest’s long-lost sister! The idea that his sister has become a courtesan upsets Sylvest greatly but he decides to find out more. Luckily for Sylvest’s purpose, when he is back at Diavolus’s house, his master reveals that he too is in love with the courtesan Syomara. Sylvest tells Diavolus his family history and says that, if he has permission to visit Syomara, he will press his suit with her—Diavolus readily agrees.

Sylvest manages to meet with his sister who, it is revealed, actually loves her life as a courtesan. When she was sold into sex slavery as a young girl to a lecherous old Roman nobleman he was so taken with her that, from just 9 years old, she had him wrapped around her little finger. When the nobleman died she was released and he bequeathed her money in his will which allows her to live a life of comfort far beyond that which is the lot of Sylvest and his wife.

During the course of a conversation it further transpires that Syomara was actually the sorceress consulted by Faustina. Syomara had adopted a magical disguise to find out Faustina’s plans against her. Sylvest’s horror is multiplied when he realises that his sister is now “degraded” and also that she was responsible for the murder/sacrifice of Faustina’s slave—one of her own countrywomen!

Sylvest leaves Syomara, vowing never to speak to her again and with Loyse he hatches a plan to escape. However, briefly returning home before their intended escape, his master becomes enraged that his suit with Syomara is unsuccessful and Diavolus sells Sylvest to the owners of the local amphitheatre. Sylvest will have to fight to the death.

The Gladiator fight

While waiting in the slave-holding pens in the amphitheatre Sylvest looks on at the games in progress; many slaves lose their lives that day and, to Sylvest, the whole spectacle is an unnecessary waste of life. But he is shocked when he sees Faustina and Syomara appear in the amphitheatre. Faustina had formally challenged Syomara to a battle—fights between female gladiators sometimes happened in the Ancient Roman world—and Faustina sadly wins the battle, mortally wounding Syomara.[5] To heap injury upon injury, Faustina has Syomara’s barely alive body conveyed to her own house where she tortures Syomara to death.

Luckily for Sylvest, he manages to escape the carnage of the gladiator fight. During the tumult of the games the charioteers create such a dust cloud that he is able to secrete himself behind one of the large statues that make up the rim of the circus. When the fighting is over and all of the other slaves—who were given only blunt swords to make their deaths more fun—are dead, he steals out of the amphitheatre and makes his escape with Loyse.

For a time he and Loyse, who bears Sylvest’s child, are protected by the Sons of the Mistletoe. They live upon the fruits of the earth and by stealing food from the houses of Romans in rural areas. Yet the forests and caves of Gaul are no place for a pregnant woman, especially in winter. They are constantly looking over their shoulders and, try as they might, they can never truly escape and be independent of the Master-Slave Roman world system. This was probably Sue’s own veiled criticism of the many hare-brained utopian emigration schemes that some radicals were fond of during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (a bit earlier than Sue, for example, Robert Southey and his friends in the 1790s wanted to create a ‘Pantisocracy’ in Ohio, USA, while some radicals in Britain and France thought that social issues such as poverty could be cured if large numbers of working-class people were made to emigrate to the unpopulated parts of the Americas). Ultimately one cannot outrun the system, although they can mount several acts of resistance while living under it,.

Thus Sylvest and Loyse resign themselves to their fate: they must voluntarily go back into slavery. All escaped slaves whose former masters could not be traced (it transpires that Diavolus was poisoned by his cook and died) became the property of the Roman Fisc. The slaves are resold and the proceeds go to the Roman treasury. The couple are sold to a kindly Roman civil servant based in Marseilles. The baby—a boy whom they name Pearon—is eventually born but Loyse dies during the labour, leaving Sylvest to raise his child. Sylvest eventually dies, as does Pearon, and in 33 AD we are introduced to Fergan, Sylvest’s grandson. Fergan is a weak and feeble man, for as Sue writes,

Races degenerate in slavery, both in the strength of character and in the strength of body.[6]

Fergan has no interest in meeting with the Sons of the Mistletoe and plotting to overthrow the Roman Master-Slave world system. He simply wants an easy life by keeping his head down and hoping that his master doesn’t beat him. Genevieve, the woman he takes for a wife, however, is feistier than Fergan and still smarts over the Roman conquest of Gaul.

Genevieve and Fergan are both in the service of Gremion and his wife Aurelia. Gremion is a miser but Aurelia is kind-hearted, and the bond between Aurelia and her slave Genevieve is one of friendship. Aurelia never beats Genevieve and does her utmost to protect her from Gremion’s wrath.

In the Wild Ass Tavern

In 33 AD Gremion, a member of the Roman civil service, is sent away to the province of Judea to assist Pontius Pilate in administering the somewhat rebellious province. Fergan is ordered to stay in Marseilles and manage Gremion’s household while Genevieve travels to Judea with the family. While at a feast held by Pontius Pilate, Aurelia and Genevieve first hear about a young Galilean upstart named Jesus, and thus begins the next volume in Sue’s epic saga: The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth.

According to the reports of Caiaphas—a Jewish Pharisee—and Baruch, a banker, this man Jesus has apparently been preaching some strange doctrines:

‘Let us hear the terrible words, Seigneur Baruch … for they must indeed be frightful!’

‘Frightful is not enough; ‘tis abominable, monstrous, you must say!’ replied the doctor of law; ‘I was passing the Temple, then, the other day; I had just been dining with my neighbor, Samuel; at a distance I saw a group of beggars in rags, workmen, camel-drivers, men who let out asses, disreputable women, tattered children, and other individuals of the most dangerous sort; they were listening to a young man mounted on a stone. He was holding forth with all his power. Suddenly he pointed at me; all the vagabonds turn round towards me, and I hear the Nazarene, for it was he, I could have divined him simply from the circle round him, I heard the Nazarene say to these good-for-nothings, ‘Beware of these doctors of the law, who love to parade in their long robes, to be saluted on the public place, to have the highest seats in the synagogues, and the best places at the feasts.’


Baruch continued, more and more furious: “But here, dear seigneur, is something more abominable still: ‘beware,’ added the seditious vagabond, ‘beware of those doctors of the law who devour the houses of the widows under pretence of making long prayers. These persons,’ and the audacious fellow again pointed me out, ‘these persons will be punished more rigorously than the others.’ Yes, this is what I heard the Nazarene say in direct words. And now, Seigneur Pontius Pilate, I declare to you, if you do not repress at once this unbridled license, which dares attack the authority of the doctors of the law, that is, law and authority themselves, if they are thus allowed to signalize the senators with impunity to public scorn and contempt we are treading on a precipice … this carpenter of Nazareth has an audacity that passes all bounds; he respects nothing, nothing; yesterday ’twas the law, authority, he attacked in their representatives; to-day ‘tis the rich against whom he excites the dregs of the populace. Has he not dared to pronounce these execrable words: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.'”[7]

Those assembled at Pilate’s feast have mixed reactions to these reports of Jesus’s teachings: Pilate is wholly unconcerned; Gremion thinks it is an abomination and an offence to Roman law; Aurelia, Genevieve (who is present because she is waiting upon her mistress), and Aurelia’s friend Joanna—another Roman noblewoman—are intrigued by these reports.

The next evening Joanna, Aurelia, and Genevieve disguise themselves and go out at night to hear and meet Jesus himself. They repair to the Wild Ass tavern where, it is rumoured, Jesus will appear and deliver a sermon.

We have to remember that Sue was pre-Marxist socialist and did not display the contempt for Christianity which characterised some of Marx’s later writings on religion. Sue’s attitude was in-keeping with that of many ‘utopian’ socialists and reformers who came before, who often argued that Jesus Christ was a political reformer. For Sue, the teachings of Jesus represented the beginnings of socialist and radical ideology:

Jesus Christ was the Greatest Reformer!

Was one nineteenth-century radical’s way of describing the teachings of Jesus.[8] But before Jesus comes the apostle Peter appears in the tavern to deliver a sermon:

When the time promised by our prophets shall come, a divine time, when a beneficent sun shall always blaze, when there shall be no more storms, when the birth of every child shall be welcomed by joyous songs, as a blessing from the Lord, instead of being lamented as an affliction, as at present; because, conceived in tears, man, in our time, lives and dies in tears; when, on the contrary, the child conceived in joy, shall live in joy; when labor, now crushing, shall be itself a joy, so shall the fruits of the promised land be abundant; each tranquil as to the prosperity of his children, shall no longer have to think for them, to lay up treasures for them, by depriving himself, and wasting away by over-fatigue. No, no: when Israel shall at length enjoy the kingdom of God, each shall labor for all, and all shall enjoy the labor of each.’

‘Whereas now,’ said the artizan, who had complained of the injustice of the banker Jonas, ‘all labor for a few, these few labor for no one, and benefit from the labor of all.’

‘But for those,’ replied Peter, ‘our master of Nazareth hath said: ‘The son of man shall send his angels, who shall gather together and carry out of his kingdom all who are scandalous, and who commit iniquity; these shall be thrown into a fiery furnace, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

‘And it will be justice,’ said Oliba the courtezan; ‘is it not they who force us to sell our bodies to escape the gnashing of teeth caused by hunger?’

‘Is it not they who force mothers to make a traffic of their daughters rather than see them die of misery?’ said another courtezan.

‘Oh! when will the day of justice come?’

‘It comes, it approaches,’ replied Peter in a loud voice; ‘for evil, and iniquity and violence are everywhere; not only here in Juda, but throughout the whole world, which is the Roman world. Oh! the woes of Israel are nothing; no, nothing in comparison to the woes that afflict the nations, her sisters![9]

Of course, those who are there listening to Peter’s words interpret them in a literal sense and take his message to mean that the overthrow of the Master-Slave system is imminent, much to the delight of the spies who are there listening to the whole thing, ready to report back to their Roman paymasters any ‘seditious’ activity.

Then Jesus, “the friend of publicans and sinners,” appears in the tavern and begins to speak. He blesses the crowd and his apostles distribute alms while Jesus relates the parable of the prodigal son. After this Jesus also blesses Mary Magdalene, the prostitute, who is present in the tavern and wishes to repent of her sins.

Judas betrays Jesus

Aurelia, Joanna, and Genevieve are captivated by Jesus’s message. On several occasions they leave the house to listen to Jesus and they are present when he delivers the beatitudes:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

‘Blessed are those who are gentle, because they possess the earth!

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they are consoled!

‘Blessed are those who show mercy, for they will obtain mercy for themselves!

‘Blessed are those who are pure in heart, for they will see God!

‘Blessed are the peaceful, for they shall be called peaceful!

‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!

‘But woe to you, rich, for you would take away your consolation!

‘Woe to you who are satisfied, for you shall be hungry!

‘Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep hereafter!

‘Woe to you when men shall speak well of you, for their fathers spoke well of the false prophets!

‘Love your neighbor as yourself!

‘Beware how you make your gifts before men, to attract their notice!

However, Gremion one day sees his wife and her slave in the crowd listening to Jesus’s words and enraged, he drags the pair of them back to the house where they are staying. He locks up and tortures Genevieve for her insolence and forbids his wife from seeing her. After some days in captivity in the cellar, Aurelia sets Genevieve free. Gremion has told Aurelia about a plot between Caiaphas and one of Jesus’s disciples, Judas, to have the Nazarene arrested. Aurelia charges Genevieve with finding Jesus so he can make his escape.

Jesus tortured

But it is too late—Jesus is arrested and placed on trial. Pontius Pilate does not want to crucify Jesus because he is at heart a good man, although to keep the peace Pilate relents and allows the mob—which the Jewish priests have whipped up—to have their way. While the cross is being manufactured Jesus is tortured with a flogging:

The executioners … had broken on the back of Jesus, nearly all their rods; they questioned, by a look, Doctor Baruch, as if to ask him if it were not time to put an end to the torture; but the doctor of law exclaimed: ‘No, no; use up, even to the very last of your rods.’

The order of the pharisee was obeyed; the last rods were broken on the shoulders of the young Nazarene, and splashed with blood the faces of the executioners; it was no longer the skin they flagellated, but a bloody wound. The martyrdom now became so atrocious that Jesus, despite his courage, gave way, and dropped his head on his left shoulder; his knees trembled, and he would have fallen to the ground, but for the cords that bound him to the pillar by the middle of his body. Pontius Pilate, after having ordered this punishment, had re-entered his own house; he now again came out, and signed to the executioners to release the condemned.

They unbound and supported him; one of them threw over his shoulders his woollen tunic. The contact of this rough cloth on the quivering flesh caused a new and so cruel an agony, that Jesus trembled in every limb. The very excess of pain brought him to himself; he raised his head, endeavored to stand so firm on his legs as to do without the assistance of his executioners, opened his eyes, and threw on the multitude a look of tenderness.

Jesus is subjected to humiliating insults from the guards, yet he never responds to their taunts but remains composed.

Jesus is crucified

Finally the cross is ready. The usual story of the crucifixion unfolds and Jesus dies. Genevieve is a witness to everything.

Genevieve is recaptured by Gremion and returns to Gaul with him and Aurelia. Genevieve is punished by Gremion for having disobeyed him but she takes strength in the words of the Nazarene. Genevieve and Aurelia fashion for themselves two small silver crosses to remind them of the inspiring words of the Nazarene which they heard in Judea.

Genevieve is tortured

Genevieve’s husband Fergus is still as weak-willed as ever and he admits that his only purpose in life is to serve his master like an automaton:

To rise early every morning to weave cloth; and go to bed at night. To interrupt the long hours of my monotonous work in order to eat a meagre pittance. Sometimes to be beaten either on account of my master’s whim or his bad temper.[10]

Truly pathetic and yet—how many of the nineteenth-century working classes were essentially Fergus? This is the message which Sue wants to drive home to them through his novel: Fergus’s ancestors, and Jesus after them, showed that one can resist the system and fight for a better world. They may not always be successful, but they would gain self-respect and die heroic. Yet Fergus has sealed his own fate by resigning himself to a life of bondage, which is why nineteenth-century European radicals often spoke of the working classes with terms such as “modern serfs,” “white slaves,” “modern peasantry.”

Genevieve and Fergan have a son named Judicael who likewise remains resigned to slavery his whole life. The relics—the gold sickle, the brass bell, the iron collar, a silver cross—and the narrative of his family history pass to him and thence to his son Mederick. The latter will play a central role in the next instalment of The Mysteries of the People titled The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, the Mother of the Camps.

[1] George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, p. 79.

[2] Eugene Sue, ‘Mysteries of the People; or, The History of a Proletarian Family from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 19 January 1850, 414 marks the beginning of Sue’s novel in this magazine which ran for a year.

[3] Daniel de Leon, ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Eugene Sue, The Gold Sickle, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1904), pp. i–ii.

[4] Eugene Sue, The Iron Collar, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1909), p. 18.

[5] Stephen Brunet, Stephen, ‘Women with swords: female gladiators in the Roman world’, in A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. by Paul Christessen and Donald G. Kyle (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), pp. 478–91

[6] Sue, The Iron Collar, p. 191.

[7] Eugene Sue, The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1909), pp. 9–11.

[8] Spartacus Educational [online], ‘Moderate Reformers’, accessed 15 May 2021. Available at:

[9] Sue, The Silver Cross, pp. 43–52.

[10] Sue, The Silver Cross, p. 188.