19th Century

Meeting Eugene Sue in 1832 | G. W. M. Reynolds

Eugene Sue (1804–57) was one of the most popular novelists in early nineteenth-century France, second only, perhaps, to Victor Hugo (who before Les Miserables was known more as a poet than a prose writer).

A daguerreotype of Paris in 1838; the city that Eugene Sue and Reynolds knew.

Sue began his career as a surgeon in the French navy but, this career not being to his liking, he returned to Paris and became a novelist. Much of Sue’s early fiction was historical and resembles that of James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Sue became immensely famous, however, with the publication of Les Mysteres des Paris in 1842. It is this serial which inspired G.W.M. Reynolds to write the long-running weekly penny serial The Mysteries of London (1844–48).

Eugene Sue at about age 35

Reynolds spent a good part of his youth in France, and was there from 1832 onwards. It is fair to say that Reynolds was a ‘nobody’ in Paris; he was working as a bookseller at the Librairie des Etrangers but by 1832 had only published a short tract titled Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed (which had probably been written and submitted to the publisher in 1831).

However, Reynolds does appear to have kept an account of travels in France, an extract of which was later published, and he gave us a glimpse of his fleeting meeting with one of France’s most famous authors.

Rue Croix des Petits Champs today (photo from Wikipedia)

Personal Appearance of Eugene Sue

I was walking one day in the Rue Croix des Petits Champs, in Paris, with a publisher of some standing in that fashionable city, when I saw two gentlemen approaching, arm in arm. Just as they came within a couple of yards, one of the gentlemen, and my friend the publisher, took off their hats simultaneously, and at the same moment I heard my friend whisper to me: C’est Eugene Sue.—“It is Eugene Sue.” But I had already fixed my eye intently upon him, and certainly he had a figure and a face, but especially an eye which once seen, could never be forgotten. He appeared to be about five feet ten inches in height, or rather more, though his figure, which was at once strong and slender, was neither fat nor lean, but very wiry, as if a body at first frail and delicate had expanded into strength and exercise. He certainly was, for his size, one of the most athletic figures I ever saw; and I could easily fancy that he had climbed a hundred times to the mast head in his former profession as a seaman. His gait was extremely free and jocular; and what may be called the manner of his body, as he walked, was very bold and manly. Whoever has read the works of this great writer will look for an expression of unusual manliness in him, and will find it;—but that expression lies in his body and its motions, not in his head, which is small and delicate in proportion.

He appeared to me to be a West Indian, born of European parents; for his complexion is darker than even that of a Spaniard, and his hair black as jet. His face was at that time singularly handsome, but somewhat feminine in shape; and his eyes were the softest and mildest I ever saw either in man or woman. There it is you see where the index lies of that deep and touching pathos which he is so great a master of. There it is you see the cause of that exquisite sensibility which makes this humane author always seek out the excuse for the most criminal offender as he flings abroad the exuberant character of his heart. Those liquid eyes are black, small, and shiny, but not brilliant, and they have none of that arduous energy you might expect from the long continuous passages of savage strength which he indulges in when some great popular principle is in his head. The countenance of Eugene Sue, as I saw it, in himself, not on the canvas, was far more striking than that of our own Charles Dickens, as it exists in the picture by Maclise, which is known to be exaggerated. I thought his forehead rather small, but his mouth was very fine and telling; but the two great characteristics of him, as they struck me, were his lancy iron frame, which spoke of his powerful mind, and the ineffable benignity of his small black eyes, which revealed its inexhaustible humanity. In those eyes there was tenderness enough for twenty authors instead of one.

It was in the month of March 1832, when I met him on the above occasion: he was then about eight and twenty or thirty. He must now, therefore, be about forty, or forty-four: an age at which Rousseaux had done but little, and the author of “Clarissa” nothing whatever.[1]

Eugene Sue in Later Life

[1] [George W.M. Reynolds], ‘Personal Appearance of Eugene Sue’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 2 January 1847, 136.

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