Eugene Sue

Mysteries of the People, Mysteries of the World: Eugene Sue’s Anti- Medievalism and the Revolutions of 1848

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. The following is the title of a talk that Stephen delivered at the Global Medievalisms conference hosted by the University of Montes Claros, Minas Gerais, Brazil, held on June 22-24, 2022.

Eugene Sue

Introduction

In Brasil in 1850, the translation of a curious new romance appeared for sale in Rio de Janeiro titled Mistérios do Povo; ou uma história duma família de proletários (‘Mysteries of the People; or, a history of a family of proletarians’).[1] Truly a worldwide success and translated into several languages besides Portuguese, the romance was originally written in French (as Mysteres du Peuple, Mysteres du Monde) in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 by the Red Republican writer and politician Eugene Sue (1804–57).

English translation of Mysteries of the People by George W M Reynolds (personal collection)

Mysteres du Peuple told the story of a ‘proletarian family’ and their descendants across the centuries who find themselves embroiled in all of the revolts in French history. When translated into English as Mysteries of the People the novel spanned 21 volumes and the majority of the action takes place during the medieval period. I argue in this paper that Sue’s novel was part of a general trend among socialist and liberal intellectuals after 1848 which sought to reassess the place of the working classes in European and, more generally, world history.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris on 25 February 1848. Found in the Collection of Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Yet as Sue acknowledged in his romance, in his tale the history of one French family’s trials and misfortunes under the boot of a succession of despotic and capitalist rulers was intended to be a source of hope for workers the world over: The road to a better society would not be easy and there would be many insurrections that were crushed, but each successive revolt was taking humanity, piece by piece, into a better future.

Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People (personal collection)

Eugene Sue: The Master of Mysteries

The ‘mysteries’ genre was born in 1839 when Eugene Sue began writing a novel, originally titled Paris en 1839, which was intended to be a narrative of how the lives of the rich, poor, and criminal in nineteenth-century Paris were intertwined.[2] Sue began publishing his novel in the feuilleton section of the Journal des Debatsretitled as Mysteres de Paris—in weekly instalments in 1842.[3]

Title page to Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (Personal Collection)

The novel caused a sensation through the whole of French society, and soon novelists in other countries began writing their own ‘mysteries’ novels which expanded the genre:[4] In England, the radical firebrand George W.M. Reynolds wrote The Mysteries of London (1844–48) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56). In Portugal, Camilo Castelo Branco penned Os Mistérios de Lisboa (1854) and Mistérios de Fafe (1868). In Spain, there was Misterios del Pueblo Espanol. In Brazil, there was Juana Manso’s Os Mistérios del Plata (1852).[5]

Mysteries of London by George W M Reynolds (personal collection)

The ideology of rebellion underpinned most of the mystery novels which flourished at this point: Sue was a socialist and a supporter of the French Revolution of 1848. Reynolds was a major figure in the Chartist movement in England and a regular speaker at mass meetings, including the Chartist ‘Monster Meeting’ in April, 1848.[6] Camilo Branco apparently participated in the Maria da Fonte Revolution in 1846. The Argentine Juana Manso carried on a propaganda campaign against the Argentine dictator Juan Rosas with Misterios del Plata after she was forced to flee from Argentina to the Empire of Brazil.

Sue became a convert to a pre-Marxist form of socialism called Red Republicanism—heavily influenced by J.P. Proudhon[7]—while conducting research for Mysteres de Paris. Coming face-to-face with dire poverty and criminality in Paris’s slums, seemingly forgotten by the French elite, convinced him of the need for social and political reform. After the French Revolution of 1848 and the foundation of the Second Republic, Sue was elected to the French National Assembly and joined the ranks of the ‘Mountain Party’ of Red Republicans. Put briefly, Red Republicans—which had adherents in Germany, Belgium, and Austria—advocated for universal suffrage, the nationalisation of all land and all factories, and free education for all.

The arrival of Vercingetorix in Mysteries of the People (personal collection)

It was in 1849, when he was elected to the French legislative assembly, that Sue began writing the first instalments of Mysteres du Peuple which introduced readers to the Gallic Joel the Brenn and his family who bravely, but forlornly, assist Vercingetorix to resist Caesar’s invasion of Gaul. It is the stories of Joel’s descendants which would be told in subsequent instalments as they face slavery, serfdom, and oppression at the hands of the ruling class throughout the centuries down to 1848. The first instalments were so successful in France that they were translated by George W.M. Reynolds and serialised in Reynolds’s Miscellany in between 1849 and 1850.

Brother Loysik, founder of the Monastery of Charolles in Mysteries of the People (Personal Collection)

Yet both of the major parties—the Red Republicans and the opposition ‘Partie de l’Ordre’—and the French people at large, were not to enjoy living in a republic for long due to Napoleon III’s coup d’etat in 1851. Napoleon III, despite initially claiming in 1849 that he too was a socialist to win votes, went on the offensive against (small r) republicans in both the Parti de l’Ordre and the Mountain. Sue was one of Napoleon’s targets. Shipments of Mysteres du Peuple were seized and booksellers were prevented from selling them.[8] Many French politicians were forced into exile as a result of the coup; such a fate befell the likes of Victor Hugo—another French ‘social novelist’—as well as Sue. Having fled to Savoy, then part of the Kingdom of Savoy, Sue began to finish his epic socialist novel.

Victor Hugo (Personal Collection)

The Immense Human Republic and Sue’s Medievalism

When we examine Sue’s political ideology from 1842 onwards, we see a transformation occurring. In his earliest socialist days, he was concerned solely with social progress in France. Indeed, he had been known, prior to the Mysteres, as a writer of French imperialist naval adventure stories. By 1849, he was an internationalist.[9] Hugo’s words regarding the Red Republican student revolutionary Enjolras in Les Misérables (1862) might easily be applied to Sue:

‘he had accepted, as a definitive and magnificent evolution, the transformation of the great French Republic into the immense human republic’.[10]

Jesus Christ in Mysteries of the People (Personal Collection)

This comes through in much of Sue’s novel. Much of Sue’s action takes place in France and Gaul, but the story of oppression is universal—‘a summary of the centuries-old struggle between the vanquishers and the vanquished, the oppressors and the oppressed’.[11] Thus, much of the narrative takes place outside of France: The descendants of Joel the Brenn find themselves in Judea, where one of them witnesses the death of the ‘Socialist of Socialists’ Jesus Christ. In later volumes Brenn’s descendants are found in Germany, England, and the Low Countries. The descendants’ relation to the histories of North and South America, Africa, and East Indies are also highlighted in later volumes. Truly, the history of Sue’s proletarian family was the history of the world, a fact recognised by the novel’s twentieth-century English-language translator, the socialist activist Daniel de Leon, who remarked that the novel was ‘an inestimable gift’ to all

‘whose country deprives it of historic back-ground’.[12]

Let us now, then, focus upon Sue’s medievalism or, what I shall call, his ‘Anti-Medievalism’. Sue did not, as many of his fellow republicans did, believe that the classical period represented an era of ‘republican’ enlightenment and neither did he believe, as many of his conservative contemporaries did, that the medieval period represented the best of France’s heritage. Instead, the two great points of history for Sue were the time before Caesar’s invasion and the Revolution of 1789.

The Gallic Empire in the third century (Wikipedia)
The vision of Victoria in which the spirit of the French Revolution rises up and sweeps before it popery and medievalism (personal collection)

For Sue, Gallic history progressed in three stages: In the earliest time, prior to Caesar’s Conquest, the Gauls enjoyed unparalleled liberty owing to their ‘communal’ way of life in which each man enjoyed the fruits of his labour. Then the Romans and the Franks came and imposed slavery and serfdom upon the peace-loving Gauls. It was not until the French Revolution of 1789 when ‘Gaul’—representative of the spirit of liberty—arose again and swept before it the Romanism and medievalism of past ages. Sue’s conception of history is neatly summarised in a prophecy related by a woman named Victoria in the instalment titled ‘The Casque’s Lark’:

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 … 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 … Enough ruins and massacre! … [but] Heaven be praised! … 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![13]

Victoria of the Gallic Empire (personal collection)

The medieval period was nothing but Popery, barbarism, and oppression—according to Sue. There were glimmers of hope for the Brenn family during the late antique and medieval period came when they took power to themselves and rose up against their oppressors.

There was the breakaway Gallic Empire of the third century under Victoria the Great—a union of Gaul and Britannia in which, very briefly, Gallic liberty was wrested from the Romans, and in the foundation of which the Brenns play a major part. There was also the Monastery of Charolles, founded by one of Brenn’s descendants, which was a place that was given its very own commune charter, and the inhabitants of which are self-sufficient and labour only for the good of the community. Throughout the whole of the medieval period, the revolts which the descendants of Joel the Brenn are engaged in are doomed to fail, however, because they are disorganised.

The only time that the Brenn family participate in a successful revolt is in 1848 because it was part of a more general organised resistance which included the whole of the working class and resulted in, to paraphrase Karl Marx, a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large which resulted in the foundation of the Second Republic.

Sue’s medievalism and other radical writers

Sue’s conception of history was unique to him in one aspect: As far as can be ascertained, he is the only one who looked as far back to pre-Roman Gaul to find an example of a communistic society. But it should be noted that other French writers poured scorn on the medieval period. Victor Hugo, for example, in his novel Ninety-Three (1874) similarly explained that the Revolution of 1789 marked a high point in history because it was ‘the vast regeneration of the human race’.[14] In that novel, in fact, the Vendean rebels who fight for the restoration of the monarchy are backward medievalists:

Opposite the French Revolution, which represents an immense inroad of all the benefits—civilization in a fit of rage—an excess of maddened progress—improvements exceeding measure and comprehension—you must place these strange, grave savages, with clear eyes and flowing hair, living on milk and chestnuts, their ideas bounded by their thatched roofs, their hedges and their ditches … speaking a dead language, which was like forcing their thoughts to dwell in a tomb; driving their bullocks, sharpening their scythes, winnowing their black grain, kneading their buckwheat dough, venerating their plough first and then their grandmothers; believing in the Blessed Virgin and the White Lady … loving their king, their lord, their priest, their very lice; pensive without thought.[15]

Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three (Project Gutenberg)

This anti-medievalism was not limited to French writers but was a feature of other ‘mysteries’ novels writers. Juana Manso, an admirer of Sue and Reynolds, also denigrated the medieval period when she praised nineteenth-century ‘civilisation’ for dispelling all that was ‘Gothic’.[16]

Edwin B. Roberts, writer of the serialised ‘New History of England’ in 1849, aimed to re-educate the working-class reading public and make them realise disdain their medieval heritage in favour of republican socialism. In the same periodical did James Bronterre O’Brien write ‘The Aristocracy: Its Origin, Progress, and Decay’, and in this Bronterre sought to dispel the myth—common among British radicals of half-a-century earlier—that the Anglo-Saxon period was an era in which Englishmen enjoyed unparalleled liberty. For O’Brien, the Anglo-Saxon period was simply another era in which commoners were enslaved.[17] There was no golden age in the past; that would come in future.

Conclusion

Eugene Sue therefore presents us with what might be termed an ‘anti-medievalism’. He is exploiting, as many great novelists past and present have, medieval history for the purposes of entertainment. He also used the period to make a political point, as many appropriators of the medieval period have done since the beginning of the early modern period. Yet Sue’s highly popular but now forgotten novel can broaden our understanding of nineteenth-century medievalism.

The ‘recovery’ of Sue’s Mysteres du Peuple novel—which unlike his Mysteries of Paris has not been subject to extended scholarly criticism—should remind scholars that not all appropriations of the medieval period in the nineteenth century promoted imperialism and white racial superiority, which is a somewhat caricatured view of Victorian medievalism that has been promoted in recent years, which has a tendency to argue that the majority of such appropriations were reactionary.

Indeed, when the worldwide success of the likes of Sue’s novel is taken into account, it is evident that scholars must allow space in their own conversations of nineteenth-century medievalism, nationalism, and racialism for competing interpretations of the period which, while the period was depicted as one of oppression, were not employed in unsavoury ends but were intended to highlight the abuses of the oppression of the elites.


References

[1] Helena Bonito Couto Pereira and Maria Luiza Guarnieri Atik, Intermediações literárias: Brasil, França (São Paulo: Scorterri Editoria, 2005), 169. I have not found a copy of this Portuguese translation yet; its existence seems only to be attested to in Brazilian newspaper and magazine advertisements.

[2] Eugene Sue, ‘Á Charles Gosselin, 20 avril 1839’, in Correspondance Générale d’Eugene Sue, ed. by Jean-Pierre Galvan, 4 vols (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2010–18), I, p. 28

[3] For a definition of ‘mystery novels’ see Stephen Knight, Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson, NC: Macfarland, 2012), 184.

[4] On Sue’s worldwide popularity see the following: Hernan Páz, ‘Eugène Sue en Buenos Aires: Edición, circulación y comercialización del folletín durante el rosismo’, Varia Historia, 34: 64 (2018), 193–225;

[5] On Manso and the literary context of Brazilian mysteries novels see Alexandro Henrique Paixão, ‘The Literary Taste for Novels in the Portuguese Subscription Library in Rio de Janeiro’, in The Transatlantic Circulation of Novels Between Europe and Brazil, 1789-1914, ed. by Marcía Abreu (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2017), 39–60; Nelson Schapochnik, ‘Edição, recepção e mobilidade do romance Les mystères de Paris no Brasil oitocentista’, Varia Historia, 26: 44 (2010), 591–617. On the history of the Argentine May Revolution see Jorge Gelman and Raúl Fradkin, Doscientos años pensando la Revolución de Mayo (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2010). English-language overviews of Argentine history include Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). See also Santiago Diaz Lage [online], ‘For a History of the Spanish Urban Mysteries’, M19. Medias 19: Littérature et culture médiatique, 12 December 2021, accessed 29 December 2021, available at: https://www.medias19.org/

[6] See Stephen Basdeo and Mya Driver, Victorian England’s Best-Selling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022), 79–81.

[7] See William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton University Press, 2016).

[8] Berry Palmer Chevasco, Mysterymania: The Reception of Eugene Sue in Britain, 1838–60 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), 57.

[9] Jean-Louis Bory, Eugene Sue: Le Roi de la Roman Populaire (Paris: Hachette, 1962), 331.

[10] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Trans. [not credited] (Philadelphia: David Mackay, c.1890), V, 23.

[11] Eugene Sue, The Galley Slave’s Ring; or, The Family of LeBrenn. A Tale of the French Revolution of 1848, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1911), 223.

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

[13] Eugene Sue, The Gold Sickle, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1904), 272–73.

[14] Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three [no Trans. listed] (London: Richard Edward King, c.1890), 66.

[15] Hugo, Ninety-Three, 121.

[16] Juana Manso, ‘Misterios del Plata’, Jornal das Senhores, 1 January 1852, 7.

[17] James Bronterre O’Brien, ‘The Aristocracy: Its Origin, Progress, and Decay’, Reynold’s Political Instructor, 10 November 1849, 5.

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