The Mysteries of Paris – Eugène Sue

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The Mysteries of Paris was the greatest bestseller of 19th century France. Serialised in the Journal des Débats in 1842, it’s a big, sprawling novel (over 1,300 pages in this new translation) full of melodrama, sex, violence, pathos & some of the most exciting cliffhangers in 19th century fiction. It also spawned clones all over Europe – The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of New York etc – & was hugely influential on later French novelists. If you’re read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables you’ll be able to see those influences. It fed the public’s appetite for sensational stories of Paris low-life as well as entering the salons & drawing rooms of the wealthy, showing that evil can lurk at every level of society, no matter what your family or circumstances. It’s impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers as the narrative is so plot-driven so I’ll just describe some of the main characters & try to show the complexity of the interwoven nature of the narrative.

Monsieur Rodolphe – actually the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, a German state. Rodolphe has overcome a traumatic time in his youth & now masquerades as a working man in Paris, helping good people with his wealth & connections while also searching for

Germain, a young man who has been separated from his mother (Madame Georges, who runs a farm Rodolphe has set up on charitable lines to help workers get back on their feet) by his wicked father, known as the Schoolmaster. Germain was placed in a bank with the object of becoming the inside man in a robbery planned by his father. An honest man, Germain denounced his father & is now in hiding. Rodolphe traces him to the boarding house owned by Madame & Monsieur Pipelet where he meets Germain’s neighbour, the hard-working, cheerful seamstress,

Rigolette. A young woman with a sunny personality, she is friendly with her neighbours but allows no romantic entanglements although she has a soft spot for Germain. She knows to within a sou what she must earn each week & keeps her room spotlessly clean. She has, however, spent some time in prison when she was found homeless in the streets & there she met

Songbird. Also known as Fleur-de-Marie. An orphan who is saved from a beating by Monsieur Rodolphe in the opening chapter of the novel. Songbird is good, beautiful & pure, even though she has been put on the streets by the Owl, a wicked old woman who bought Songbird as a child from Madame Seraphin, housekeeper to corrupt solicitor,

Jacques Ferrand. Ferrand has a hand in every plot in the book. The ultimate hypocrite, his outward image of pious respectability hides a truly evil, immoral man. Germain finds himself working in his office & ends up in prison as a result of trying to help the Morel family who live on the top floor of the Pipelet’s house. Louise Morel, working for Ferrand as a housemaid, is seduced by him & rejected when she falls pregnant while her father goes mad & is sent to an asylum while his family are on the point of starvation. Ferrand had bought Songbird from her mother who wanted the child gone & was then told that she was dead. He is also responsible for the ruin of the Baroness de Fermont & her daughter Claire when he embezzles the money they had entrusted to the Baroness’s brother who had unwisely invested it with Ferrand.

I could go on! Other characters include the cold adventuress Countess Sarah McGregor who will do anything for a title; the Slasher, a murderer who becomes Rodolphe’s loyal servant; Madame d’Harville, a young girl forced into marriage by an unsympathetic step-mother with a man who has a dreadful secret. She eventually becomes converted to charitable causes by Rodolphe who she has known since childhood; the Martials, a family of evil scavengers who make a living from crime, robbing & murdering their victims with impunity; the She-Wolf, lover of the Martial’s eldest son, the best of the bunch, who wants to go straight & plans to extricate his two youngest siblings & start a new family.

There are kidnappings, reconciliations, denunciations, terrible scenes of violence & depravity, narrow escapes from death but also many scenes of humour, surprise & very satisfying retribution. Sue was not only telling an exciting story, he was also concerned to expose the iniquities of life for the hard-working, honest poor as well as the corruption in every sphere of public life. The precarious existence of so many people meant that just one false step, one illness that meant you got behind with your rent or couldn’t work, could be the first step to prison or death. Every now & then he stops the narrative to rage against conditions in prison or the tangles that honest people could get into through the evil of others.

Some of the characters are types – Songbird remains pure at heart even though she is no longer innocent. She’s the original prostitute with a heart of gold, untouched by the corruption around her. Rodolphe is more than just a fairy godfather, throwing his money around. He has known real sorrow & his desire for revenge against those who have wronged him is tempered with the knowledge that he has to atone for his own actions as well.

The Mysteries of Paris is a great read. Once I started, I could barely put the book down. I read it with my 19th century bookgroup over the last ten weeks. It divides conveniently into ten books of around 130pp & an Epilogue. I must say that the Epilogue was completely superfluous & added nothing to the story. The ending of Book Ten was just perfect & the Epilogue just seemed unnecessary although it did complete the story of a few characters. Honest piety became sickly & moralistic &, after the frankness of the storytelling, this seemed cowardly & conventional. I would almost recommend skipping it. I could have imagined a much better ending for the characters than the one Sue gave us. Although, in a sense, there are no surprises in the way the plot works out (as Oscar Wilde wrote, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”), it’s the journey that is surprising & very involving. If you’re looking for a big novel to lose yourself in where plot is everything & subtle characterisation is less important, The Mysteries of Paris will not disappoint.

Dickens in December

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For me, December means Dickens. This year I have a treat, a new Naxos recording of Dickens’ Christmas stories.These are the stories Dickens published in the 1840s. The first of them was the perennially popular A Christmas Carol.

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I’ll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading the Carol as I have for the last few years. This new recording is of the other four stories – The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life & The Haunted Man. Even better, they’re read by David Timson, one of my favourite narrators. I listened to his recording of Dombey & Son last year & it was wonderful. He’s also recorded the complete Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon which I’m nearly halfway through. I haven’t read these later Christmas Stories as often as A Christmas Carol – I can recite whole passages from the Carol – but these later stories have never been as popular. The Carol was a hard act to follow. However, I’m finding a lot to admire & enjoy in them. I think listening is the perfect way to experience them.

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I’ve also been catching up on back issues of The Dickensian, watching Ronald Colman (photo from here) in the 1935 movie of A Tale of Two Cities (which made me want to reread the book immediately) & reading this terrific interview with Jenny Hartley where she chooses her top 5 books on Dickens.

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Apart from Dickens, I’m also reading this anthology of Christmas stories. A mixture of old favourites & new discoveries. So far I’ve enjoyed rereading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers & discovering a very Golden Age story by Val McDermid called A Traditional Christmas. There are also stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, Ngaio Marsh & Margery Allingham. I bought the Kindle edition for only about $3 but it’s also available in paperback.

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I’ve also been tempted by bloggers to buy a couple of Christmassy books, the first books I’ve bought for nearly two months. Elaine’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days was so enticing that I ordered it straightaway.

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I was also intrigued by Heavenali’s mention of this anthology of Christmas Stories published by Everyman. I love these chunky little hardback anthologies of short stories. There are several more here that I’m tempted by.

I’ll just finish this ramble with a link to a blog I’ve just discovered. Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books, organises their very popular Walking Book Club & is a freelance reviewer. She also blogs at EmilyBooks. I’ve been enjoying reading her archive as she is a fan of Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, Ann Bridge, Penelope Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Von Arnim.

I was going to finish this ramble but Lynne at dovegreyreader has written about the centenary of Penelope Fitzgerald’s birth here & I like her idea of a Persephone January. There, that really is the end.

Anne – Constance Fenimore Woolson

woolsonAnne (cover picture from here) is a first novel that suffers from the curse of many first novels – cramming in enough plot for several full-length books. It begins as a regional novel about a girl growing up in a remote part of the United States. She then goes to New York to complete her education & enters society with the reluctant help of a miserly great aunt, falls unsuitably in love, nurses during the Civil War & the book ends as a mystery novel. For all that, I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written, the rural scenes are very evocative & Anne is an engaging character whose moral & ethical struggles are very involving.
Anne Douglas lives on Mackinac Island in Michigan with her father, William, & four half-siblings, the children of her father’s second marriage to a young Frenchwoman. William Douglas had been an Army surgeon who married Alida Clanssen to the disapproval of her wealthy family. After her death, he began to doubt his abilities as a doctor & left the Army, refusing to practice at all. He was made Postmaster to the small island community, dominated by the regiment at the Fort, until his many mistakes led to his appointment as Superintendent of roads, a post where nothing was expected of him. His second marriage to Angélique Lafontaine, a mixed race French girl caused consternation, especially in the heart of Miss Lois Hinsdale, who had cared for Anne since she was a baby & cherished hopes concerning William.
Angélique’s death left Anne to care for her family with the help of Miss Lois & the Catholic priest, Pére Michaux, who takes care of the religious education of the younger children. Only a child herself, Anne struggled to make ends meet in the face of her father’s indifference. Her only friend was Erastus Pronando, a young man whose father had also fallen out with his family & spent years on expeditions with fur hunters. Rast is an orphan, brought up by the chaplain, Dr Gaston, at the Fort, & will have to make his own way in the world.
William Douglas’s death brings the financial fortunes of his family to a crisis point. Rast & Anne become engaged, & he leaves to make his fortune. Anne writes to her great-aunt, Katherine Vanhorn, in New York, asking if she will help her complete her education so that she may become a teacher & support her siblings. Miss Vanhorn agrees under very strict conditions. Anne must expect no notice from her great aunt & have no expectations. She has never forgiven her niece, Alida, for her marriage & is determined to allow Anne no favours. At the school where she is learning a few accomplishments, Anne meets Helen Lorrington, a young, rich widow, who becomes a friend. Helen soon convinces Miss Vanhorn to allow Anne to go to Caryl’s, a resort town, for the summer, where she meets a new circle of wealthy, idle people. There, over a summer of dances, walks & botanizing expeditions with her great aunt, she falls in love with Ward Heathcote. However, Helen is also in love with Ward & they have been informally engaged for a long time. Miss Vanhorn favours another suitor for Anne, Gregory Dexter, a rich man who is allowed to believe by the gossips of the party that Anne will be Miss Vanhorn’s heir.
When Anne realises that she has fallen in love with Ward & he declares he is in love with her, she realises she must leave. She is engaged to Rast & Helen is in love with Ward & considers herself engaged to him.  Her great aunt has disowned her after she refused Dexter’s proposal so Anne goes to stay with Mademoiselle Pitre, the teacher Anne had gone to when her grand aunt cut off her allowance. Mademoiselle goes West every year to teach & agrees to take Anne with her.  Anne has no idea that Ward Heathcote is desperately trying to find her & the complications of their story are exacerbated by her flight & later, by the beginning of the Civil War as Ward joins the Union Army & Anne finds herself nursing.
I’m not going to reveal any more of the plot. I found the book unputdownable at this point & the twists & turns of the plot are worthy of a thriller. Anne is Constance Fenimore Woolson’s first novel & she was determined to write a book as unlike the popular novels of the day as she could imagine. She had been known for short stories, often with a regional background, & wanted her first novel to be full of incident & strong, memorable characters. In this, she succeeded. Anne’s journey to adulthood is full of challenges which she meets with courage & imagination. There are some coincidences in the plot (maybe too many) but few clichés & many genuine surprises for the reader. The early sections, set on the island, are a tribute to Woolson’s own youth on Mackinac Island & I was surprised when the scene shifted to New York & the island faded from the story until the very end. In Anne Boyd Rioux’s recent biography of Woolson, she describes the writing of the novel & Woolson’s intention  to create a heroine that readers would care about. She certainly succeeds in that. Some parts of the plot are a little melodramatic & some characters leave the scene, never to return or only through the medium of letters or newspaper announcements. However, she handles a large cast with skill &, as well as the melodrama & high emotion, there is a lot of humour in the story & the tension in the final section leaves the reader truly anxious about the denouement. Anne was a success, serialized in Harper’s Magazine simultaneously in the United States & England (following Henry James’ Washington Square). Her publishers doubled her fee & offered her a contract to publish Anne in book form.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Woolson’s work. I have a volume of her short stories & the biography on the tbr shelves & hope to get to them soon. It would be wonderful to have a new edition of Anne. I hope the resurrection of Woolson’s reputation continues & more of her work finds its way back into print.