By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds UK.
In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. In it, they argued that all history was essentially the history of class struggle. And they continued to outline how this relationship of oppression between the dominant class and the oppressed class worked in practice for in each epoch of history we have
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
The Red Republican politician and author of The Mysteries of Paris, Eugene Sue, decided to represent this history of class struggle through the medium of fiction. The result was The Mysteries of the People, published at the end of 1848. It was a chronicle of the lives of a proletarian family—originally the Brenn clan, whose chief was named Joel—and his descendants (whose name, over time, is changed to the more recognisably French Lebrenne). Throughout all 21 volumes of this fascinating novel Joel’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 (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. 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 or, as 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.
The Mysteries of the People
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).
However, Mysteries of the People 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.
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 Camps;
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, and the stories of their descendants were told in The Iron Collar and The Silver Cross—in the last of which Sylvest’s great granddaughter, Genevieve, meets “The Socialist of Socialists,” Jesus Christ in 33 A.D. (Christ was called “The socialist of socialists” by Louis Blanc) (follow the links for my discussion of the first four novels).
The Casque’s Lark
The first four novels, however, were really introductory backstories to the fifth story: The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, the Mother of the Camps. It is in this novel that the descendants of Joel first meet the family of the Frankish Neroweg, whose descendants will oppress those of Joel’s over the succeeding centuries. Thus through Sue’s fiction, for the first time, will the oppressor and oppressed meet, after which they will carry on constant opposition to one another.
The Casque’s Lark introduces readers to Schanvoch, Joel’s descendant, who is a military man serving in the Gallic Army c.260 A.D. The period of history in which the novel is set has been designated as “The Crisis of the Third Century”—a time when the Roman Empire nearly broke apart. It was during this time that Gaul, having been conquered by Caesar two centuries earlier, broke away from the Roman Empire and became a de facto independent state with two capital cities: Augusta Treverorum (modern-day Triers) and Colonia Agrippina (modern-day Cologne).
For the fictional Schanvoch, Gaul’s break from Rome represented the winning back of Gallic liberty and freedom which had been trampled upon by Caesar. In real life, Gaul’s independence was achieved under a succession of two generals named Marius and Victorinus. The person who attended to the civil administration of the Gallic Empire, and who advised on Marius and Victorinus on military matters, was a woman named Victoria, Victorin’s mother, and who was affectionately dubbed by the Gallic Army as “The Mother of the Camps.”
All of these real-life historical figures play a part in Sue’s narrative.
In Sue’s novel Schanvoch, it transpires, was raised as Victoria’s foster brother. In the opening chapters we find that a tentative peace treaty between the Gauls and the Franks, who are massing on the other side of Rhine, is on the verge of collapse. Schanvoch is sent by Victoria on a mission to re-negotiate the peace afresh with Neroweg, the Frankish chief. The Franks are absolute savages. When Schanvoch arrives in the Frankish camp, Sue paints a picture of them as utter barbarians: this tribe are known for skinning people alive and offering their heads as sacrifices to their gods, and they live only for plunder—they are truly uncivilised. Instead of negotiating an extension of the peace treaty with the Gauls across the Rhine, Neroweg instead tells Schanvoch that there will be no peace and that he will be sacrificed.
But like all good heroes of nineteenth-century adventure stories, Schanvoch makes a daring escape by stealing a boat, crossing the Rhine, and making it back safely to Triers.
Although Schanvoch makes it back to his wife, son, and foster sister safely, it is clear that another battle between the Franks and the Gauls is brewing. A few months later one such battle occurs when the Franks cross the Rhine. Led by Victorin, the Gallic Army repulses the invasion and Schanvoch severely wounds Neroweg, although the latter does not die.
As the victors celebrate their victory on the evening, Schanvoch in particular is filled with misgivings concerning Neroweg:
It was to me, strange and unaccountable as it may seem, as if I abhorred Neroweg by reason of the future as much as of the present; as if that hatred was to perpetuate itself not only between our two races of Franks and Gauls, but also between our families, individually.
In future instalments of Sue’s story this prophecy will come true—oppressor and oppressed, typified in Schanvoch’s and Neroweg’s descendants—will indeed be
“in constant opposition to one another.”
Yet more troubles await the independent Gallic Empire. Although he is a heroic general Victorin, who led the Gallic Army at the Battle of the Rhine, is something of a womanizing and drunken cad. He desires Schanvoch’s wife, Ellen. Victorin therefore sends Schanvoch away on a spurious mission to deliver an apparently urgent message to the governor at Triers, which is several hours’ ride away from Cologne. Of course, the main reason is simply to Schanvoch out of the way for several hours so Victorin can rape Ellen.
On the way to Cologne, Schanvoch’s co-rider comes clean and tells him that a crime is at that moment being perpetrated at his house, and that his wife will be raped. Before Schanvoch can ask any further details the co-rider disappears into the dead of night.
Schanvoch races back home. When he gets there all inside the house is pitch black:
Suddenly the window of my wife’s room was thrown open. I ran thither sword in hand. At the instant when I arrived at the casement, the shutters were pulled open from within. I rushed through the passage and found myself face to face with a man. The darkness prevented me from recognizing him. He was in the act of fleeing from Ellen’s room, whose heartrending cries then reached my ears. To seize the man by the throat at the moment when he put his foot upon the window sill in order to escape, to throw him back into the pitch dark room, and to strike him several times with my sword while I cried: ‘Ellen, here I am!’—all this happened with the swiftness of thought. I drew my sword from the body that lay at my feet and was about to plunge it again into the carcass—my rage was uncontrollable—when I felt two arms clasp me convulsively. I thought myself attacked by a second adversary and forthwith ran the other body through. The arms that had been thrown around my neck immediately loosened their hold, and at the same time I heard these words pronounced by an expiring voice:
“Schanvoch—you have killed me—thanks, my friend—it is sweet to me to die at your hands—I would not have been able to survive my shame—”
It was Ellen’s voice.
Schanvoch has not only killed Victorin, but has also killed his wife accidentally.
Sue was expertly weaving historical facts into his narrative. The real Victorin was indeed murdered by one of his officers whose wife he had seduced. This did not affect Victoria’s position as the esteemed “Mother of the Camps,” however, and Victoria continued to hold the reins of government in Gaul.
In Sue’s novel, both Schanvoch and his foster sister Victoria grieve for their loved ones, although they are soon forced to attend to matters of state and appoint a successor to Victorin. The man whom they appoint turns out to be the governor of Triers, a man named Tetricus. Although Tetricus has always enjoyed Victoria’s confidence, Schanvoch has always been suspicious of him.
Schanvoch’s suspicions of Tetricus are confirmed when, knowing that the army is still loyal to Victoria, he plots to have her killed (historians do indeed think that the real Victoria, dying so soon after Victorin, was the victim of an assassination by Tetric).
Victoria is poisoned by one of Tetricus’s agents and she suffers an agonizing death, but on her death bed she has a vision of what will happen to Gaul in the centuries to come:
“What do I see? Is this the future that unveils itself before my eyes? Who is that woman—so pale, lying prostrate? Her robe is blood-bespattered. Also her chaplet of oaken leaves has drops of blood; the sword, that her virile hand once held, lies broken at her side. One of those savage Franks, his head ornamented with a crown, holds the noble woman under his knees; he looks with mild and timid mien at a man splendidly arrayed as a pontiff. Hesus! The bleeding woman—is Gaul! The barbarian who kneels down upon her—is a Frankish king! The pontiff—is the Bishop of Rome! Blood flows! a stream of blood! it carries in its course, to the light of the flames of conflagrations, a mass of ruins, thousands of corpses! Oh! the woman—Gaul, I see her again wan, worn, clad in rags, the iron collar of servitude on her neck; she drags herself on her knees; bending under a heavy burden! The Frankish king and the Roman bishop quicken the march of enslaved Gaul with their whips! Another torrent of blood; still the glamour of conflagration. Oh, Hesus! Enough! Enough ruins and massacre! Heaven be praised!” cried Victoria, whose face seemed for a moment to beam with divine splendor. “The noble woman has risen to her feet! Behold her—more beautiful, prouder than ever before! Her head is wreathed in a crown of fresh oak-leaves! In one hand she holds a sheaf of grain, grapes and flowers; in the other a red flag, surmounted by the Gallic cock. Superbly she tramples underfoot the fragments of her collar of slavery, the crown of the Frankish kings and that of the Roman pontiffs! Yes, that woman, free at last, stately, glorious and fruitful—she is Gaul! Hesus! Hesus! Be kind to her! Enable her to break the yoke of Kings and Pontiffs! Lead her to freedom, glorious and fruitful without being compelled to reach the goal by wading from century to century through those seas of tears, those seas of blood that affright me!”
Victoria dies after having related her vision.
Of course, Sue’s readers would have known—as we do likewise—that Gaul would indeed have to endure centuries of oppression. The Gauls will be oppressed by the Franks, an event which occurred during the reign of Clovis I (466–511 AD). The freedom-loving spirit of Gaul would also be subjected to the yoke of the Bishop of Rome.
Yet Victoria’s vision is also a vision of the triumph of freedom: in 1789 the woman whom Victoria sees—the personification of Liberty—would rise again and sweep away the descendants of the Frankish kings and organised religion.
After Victoria’s death, as a result of Tetricus’s machinations and secret plots with the Roman Emperor Aurelian, Gaul once more becomes a province of the Roman Empire.
Schanvoch returns to Brittany, the country of his forefather Joel, and becomes a father. To his son Alguen he bequeaths the narrative of his history as well as the relics that have been passed down through the family over generations: Hena’s golden sickle, Guilhern’s brass bell, Genevieve’s silver crucifix, and the casque’s lark—a gift from Victoria to Schanvoch.
The events of this book pave the way for the next instalment of Sue’s fascinating chronicle titled The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan—a tale of the conquests of Clovis and the imposition of feudalism on to the freedom-loving Gallic people, and in that tale Schanvoch’s descendants will indeed come face-to-face with Neroweg’s progeny.
 George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, p. 79.
 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.
 Daniel de Leon, ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Eugene Sue, The Gold Sickle, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1904), pp. i–ii.
 Eugene Sue, The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, the Mother of the Camps, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1911), p. 77.
 Sue, The Casque’s Lark, p. 161.
 Sue, The Casque’s Lark, pp. 195–207.
 Pat Southern, The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine (Routledge, 2001), p. 119.
 David Stone Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, AD 180-395 (Routledge, 2004), p. 272.
 For more information on Victorin and Victoria see: Anon. [online], Historia Augusta: Lives of the Thirty Pretenders (Loeb Classical Library, 1932), accessed 6 July 2021. Available at: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Tyranni_XXX*.html
 Sue, The Casque’s Lark, pp. 271–73.
 Sue, The Casque’s Lark, p. 289.