Eugene Sue (1804–57) was one of the most popular novelists in nineteenth-century France and he certainly caught the attention of one young aspiring writer who was living in France during the 1830s. This writer was George W.M. Reynolds (1814–79). Although Reynolds became the author of several controversial works, in the earlier part of his career he also wrote several pieces of serious literary criticism on French novels in The Monthly Magazine. These essays were then expanded and revised, and published in Reynolds’s two volume Modern Literature of France (1839). Reynolds’s remarks about Sue’s early novels, transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, are reproduced below.
Now that France is rapidly becoming one of the greatest naval powers in the world, it is but fair that she should possess her maritime novelists as well as England. She has had eulogisers of her armies and military prowess without number; and she has at length found an author whose delight is to paint the scenes of storm, battle, and ship wreck, in glowing colours. Totally devoid of that intolerable vulgarity which characterises many of the naval novels of English writers, the works of Eugene Sue are as well fitted for the lady’s boudoir as for the officer’s wardroom. They are written in a bold and happy style, which never relapses into coarseness; and even his details of the characters and conversations of the rough mariners whom he patronises, are replete with delicacy and simplicity. His ships are floating palaces, though they smell of powder, of pitch, and of tar; and his heroes have other attributes besides their naval rank and warlike qualities, to interest the reader. M. Eugene Sue has founded the French maritime school of novel; and, like many other originators of new systems or new institutions, has reaped an ample harvest of reputation and of pecuniary emolument.
It must, however, be observed of M. Sue, that his imagination is only rich in inventing and stringing together a host of improbabilities, occasionally bordering upon monstrosity. To say that the incidents of his tales are just possible, is to concede a great deal to this author; but then the very improbabilities which spring exotic from his own strange fancy, are so full of deep and absorbing interest, that the reader forgets whether they be natural or revolting to the most credulous mind, in the amusement which he derives from the contemplation of them. Hence it is well known that the poverty of an author’s imagination may be readily supplied by artificial means; and, as the genius of a great writer vested even the existence of the giant in Frankenstein with an air of truth and interest which imposed upon the reader, so does the talent of M. Eugene Sue conceal the deformitie of those singular beings which his own imagination has conceived and endowed with life.
It will be seen by the extract we shall presently adduce as a specimen of this author’s abilities, that he is as much at home in the pathetic and sentimental as he is conversant with the wild, the gay, the satirical, and the animated. But his pathos is not the whining and sickly murmuring of a Werter; it is the true and natural ebullition of the human heart. In this, at least, he is not at variance with probability: on the contrary, he is a master in painting and delineating the passions and the feelings of his fellow creatures. It is in the incidents, and not in the characters, of his tales that he disputes with fact; he has seen too much of the world, in all its phases and varied hues, to have taken wrong views of its true colours, or to have imbibed defective impressions relative to its principles.
The novels of Eugene Sue are like melodramas in five acts, throughout which the unities are totally lost sight of. His scenery shifts and varies as often as that of the theatre, and each chapter is a new act, commencing with new characters whose range of action is transferred to a new sphere. From the deck of the gallant vessel, magician-like or rather dramatist-like, he will transport the reader to the regal halls of a monarch’s abode; from the raft, floating at the mercy of the wild waves and winds, does he carry his audience to the burning regions of Africa; and thence, again, to the gloomy walls of a noisome prison. His imagination travels faster than those splendid vessels which he describes so well; but the reader is never wearied by keeping pace with him.
The Vigie de Koat Væn is the best of Eugene Sue’s popular romances: it is nevertheless that in which improbabilities abound the most. The interest of the tale turns upon the artifices of a villain to seduce a noble and beauteous lady, who has retained her virtue and her reputation immaculate even amidst the dissipations and luxuriousness of a voluptuous court. The Count de Vaudrey, for a wager, engages to win the love and obtain the favour of this virtuous widow; and, by a series of base arts which none but the most finished scoundrel would have practised, he succeeds in his vile scheme and triumphs over the innocent and affectionate woman who offered him her heart, her hand, her fortune, and her charms. Now any other novelist than M. Eugene Sue, would have represented the injured woman to be successful in obtaining that deadly vengeance for which she thirsts; but in this romance, as strange in its moral as it is preposterous in its incidents, Vaudrey triumphs, and his victim perishes a wretched and unavenged woman!
Vigie de Koat Væn has one parallel work in the French language – a work too licentious to be noticed at length in this book; but a work whose terrible lessons make the hair stand on end, chill the blood in the reader’s veins, harrow up his soul, and for hours — perhaps for years, after perusal, disgust him with this world and its denizens;–a work that was written by a French nobleman, and that purports to be a history of human nature;–a work, the tendency of which has been vituperated and condemned as pernicious in the extreme but a work which, we are fain to confess, tells a tale that is, alas! too true. We allude to Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu; and with these two volumes should Vigie de Koat Væn be bound and placed upon the shelf of the public circulating library, or the private bibliothèque.
In the novels of Eugene Sue the reader must not expect to find a series of “tough yarns” spun by old weather-beaten sailors; nor a catalogue of diabolical oaths, which shock the ear; nor a quantity of sea-slang which none but technicalists can comprehend; nor the way to bend or furl a sail; nor the names of every rope, spar, or department belonging to a ship. He must not anticipate a revolting account of a sailor’s flogging; because that terrible and degrading penalty has long been abolished in the French navy, and would to God! it were in our’s! nor should he hope, when once introduced to the quarterdeck of M. Sue’s vessels, to be surrounded by nought but tobacco smoke, the odours of pitch, and the smell of grog. No: M. Sue entertains his audience with love tales whispered in a cabin, and with incidents which might as well have occurred in a suite of apartments at Paris, as on board the Sylphide or the Salamandre. But he blends the interest of the sea, and of his frigates, and his corvettes, with that of his tales; and the storm, and the naval battle, are necessary to the plan and denouement of his stories. And then again, his ships transport his heroes and his heroines to different climes; and afford him an opportunity of indulging in those descriptions of scenery which he paints so well. The blue waters of the Mediterranean, the vicinity of the Azores, the coast of Coromandel, the scorching climes of Africa, are all included in the map which his graphic pen has traced with more than longitudinal and latitudinal precision. At one time he is full of sentiment and kindness, like the still waters on which his vessels float at the hour of sunset; at another he is boisterous, turbulent, and rapid, like those waters and those vessels contending together beneath the influence of the storm. He is full of life, change, vivacity, and vigour; never prolix–always amusing; and compelling his readers to follow him to the end of his tale, whatever be the pressing nature of their occupations or their appointments .
To write a series of novels which really merit and support the name of naval romances, and to write them in the pleasing and inoffensive style which M. Sue has adopted, was a task of no small difficulty. To describe the habits of the coarse and uncouth in gentle language,—to gild the tarred hull of the mighty vessel,—to paint a picture of the sea, which neither shocks nor intimidates the female mind,–and yet to be true to fact and to nature, was an aim to which he aspired, and which he has successfully worked out. Be it recollected that in the incidents of his tales, which bear no more reference to the sea on which they happened than they do to the land on which they might have happened, he is alone improbable: in description and delineation of scenery, of character, and of passion, he is correct, and his veracity is unimpeachable. There is a joyousness and a gaiety about him when he puts out to sea, which indicate the ardent ardorer of that element, despite its perils and its discomfort; and his heart leaps as he sends his stately vessel forth from Brest to dare the dangers of the deep. There are times when he almost persuades his readers that a sailor’s life is an enviable one, and that a ship is a pleasant and happy abode; so powerfully is his eloquence capable of working upon the mind!
Eugene Sue is in France what Captain Marryat was in England – the principal supporter of the naval school of novels; and in this respect only can the least degree of comparison be drawn between the two authors. His style reminds us of Cooper’s most approved nautical fictions, rather than of the coarse and vulgar “yarns” so tediously spun by Captain Marryat. He introduces us to scenes and adventures of stirring and painful interest: he would resemble the most powerful of the contemporary writers of his country, did he not choose sailors for his heroes, and ships for the stage on which his dramatis personæ figure to so much advantage. He is, indeed, a beautiful writer; his language resembles those gay and sunny climes of the south which he describes so well; his graphic powers approach the pre-eminence attained by Walter Scott. His description of the Salamandre, a corvette, in the novel which bears that name, is not excelled by Scott’s delineation of Cleveland’s schooner in the “Pirate” nor by that of Cooper’s “Red Rover” or “Water Witch.”
Marryat’s novels are one mass of sea-slang from the beginning to the end; and how ladies could ever be found to read them, for understand them they could not, we are totally at a loss to conceive. But there is so little of this atrocious patois in the romances of Eugene Sue, that the most uninitiated in nautical technicalities may peruse them with satisfaction and delight.
 George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, pp. 80–89.
Categories: 19th Century, Essay, Eugene Sue, French Literature, g w m reynolds, History, Literary criticism, novels
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