“Mysteries of the People” (1848): Eugene Sue’s Epic Socialist Novel

By Stephen Basdeo

In 1848 the master of the “mysteries” novels, Eugene Sue, began the weekly serialisation of a new novel: Mysteries of the People. It was a chronicle of a proletarian family, and their descendants, who participated in all of the major class struggles and revolutions in France, from Caesar’s invasion of Gaul to the French Revolution of 1848. This was a socialist history of class struggle in the guise of fiction.

Eugene Sue (personal collection)

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.

Title page to Mysteres du Peuple

Sue’s novels sold moderately well and, as G.W.M. Reynolds remarked, Sue’s novels were respectable enough for the drawing room.[1] 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. He was never a Marxist communist. Indeed, Sue’s “conversion” to socialism predated the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848). Instead 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.

American dime novel version of 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 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).[2]

However, the novel 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.[3]

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:

  1. The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen;
  2. The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death;
  3. The Iron Collar; or, Faustine and Syomara;
  4. The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth;
  5. The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother of the Fields;
  6. The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan;
  7. The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles;
  8. The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine;
  9. Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne;
  10. The Iron Arrow-Head; or, The Maid of the Buckler;
  11. The Infant’s Skull; or, The End of the World;
  12. The Pilgrim’s Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman;
  13. The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel;
  14. The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion;
  15. The Executioner’s Knife; or, Joan of Arc;
  16. The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer (2 vols);
  17. The Blacksmith’s Hammer; or, The Peasant-Code;
  18. The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic (2 vols);
  19. The Galley-Slave’s Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn.
The arrival of Vercingetorix

In the first instalment readers were introduced to Joel the Brenn, living in the first century BC, who is the Chief of his “Brenn” clan (his descendants’ surnames evolve through the ages until 1848 when they are called Le Brenne). Living on the edge of a forest of Karnak in Breton Gaul (Britanny), the multigenerational family’s life is idyllic. It is not only his family who lives here, however, but others and—in what would have been seen as a proto-communistic set up—they all work the land in common:

The number of men, women and children—all more or less near relatives of Joel—who cultivated fields in common with him, was considerable. These lodged in the houses attached to the principal building, where they met at noon and in the evening to take their joint meals. Other homesteads, similarly constructed and occupied by numerous families who cultivated lands in common, lay scattered here and there over the landscape and composed the ligniez, or tribe of Karnak, of which Joel was chosen chief.[4]

These Gauls are subsistence farmers but they are also mighty warriors. Then their world changes forever.

One evening a traveller is granted refuge and they share a meal with him. The traveller is Vercingetorix who is on a mission: to unite the Gallic clans to fight against Julius Caesar who, if his forces conquer the whole of Gaul, will enslave the Gallic race. Imbued with a love of liberty and patriotic spirit, Joel commits his clan to help in the fight against the invading oppressors.

Hena, Joel’s daughter

Vercingetorix and the Druid priests call the heads of all the Gallic clans to a secret meeting in the Forest of Carnac. There they offer up human sacrifices to the gods to ensure their success. Among the victims is Joel’s own daughter Hena, who willingly offers herself. Interestingly, Sue does not moralize upon the barbaric practices of those who followed the ancient Druid religion. The human sacrifice ‘victims’ willingly go to their deaths. It is depicted as a noble death, even if readers in the present imagine it to be a profoundly misguided practice.

Druid Human Sacrifice

There were parallels between the Roman conquest of Gaul in the novel, and nineteenth-century Europeans’ invasion of Africa and the East. Romans did not engage in human sacrifice and it could be argued that they were bringing “civilisation” to the Gauls. Similarly European colonialists often justified their actions on the basis that they needed to stamp out ‘barbaric’ practices in the colonies—the British East India Company’s prohibition against sati—the burning alive of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre—is a case in point. The British authorities argued that they had to interfere in and legislate against native Indian customs. Yet Sue’s treatment of human sacrifice, as an honourable death which any self-respecting Gaul would gladly go through—and which the Romans would put a stop to—makes the reader question whether it is morally right to invade a country merely to civilize it when the invasion might result in the dispossession of the natives. There are no easy answers of course.

The battle between the Romans and the Gauls commences outside the town of Vannes. This is the Gauls’ last stand, for the Romans have gradually conquered their way through Gaul.

Joel’s son Guilhern distinguishes himself in the battle but it is all for nothing. The superior Roman army wins the day. Joel falls in battle. Guilhern and his two children, Syomara and Sylvest, are sold into slavery. The family’s plight after the Roman conquest of Gaul reminds us that not every class struggle ends with a victory for the proletariat. Marx and Engels echoed some of these sentiments in 1848—the same year that Sue published the first instalment of Mysteries of the People—when they said:

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-masterand 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. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations (emphasis added).[5]

Gallic society was truly “reconstituted” in Sue’s novel: the natives of Gaul have their lands stripped from them. The survivors became slaves to Roman masters. Sue’s descriptions of the inhuman treatment of the Gallic slaves is truly horrific. With slavery still rife in many parts of the world—an institution that Sue vehemently opposed—his descriptions of the “Roman” slave markets were inspired by those still being held in nineteenth-century American cities.

Guilhern is captured

Guilhern wakes up in a cage, his hands and feet manacled. He is dehumanised by his captors who say that he now has no name, merely a number. They shave his long hair—which was a mark of pride for all Gallic warriors—and paraded in the market place. He is stripped fully naked and prodded and poked as prospective buyers inspect the “flesh” of the “stock:”

My master made me step out of my cage; I traversed the booth, in which I saw not a single slave left. I found myself face to face with a gray haired man, of a cold, hard countenance. He wore the military dress, limped very badly, and supported himself on a vine-wood cane, which was the mark of the centurion rank in the Roman army. The dealer lifted from my shoulders the woolen covering in which I was wrapped, and left me stripped to the waist; he then made me get out of my breeches also. My master, with the air of a man proud of his merchandise, thus exposed my nakedness to the customer. Several of the curious, assembled outside of the stall, looked in and contemplated me. I dropped my eyes in shame and sorrow, not in anger. After the prospective purchaser read the writing which hung from my neck, he looked me over carefully, answering with affirmative nods of the head to what the merchant, with his usual volubility, was saying to him in Latin. Often he stopped to measure, with his spread out fingers, the size of my chest, the thickness of my arms, or the width of my shoulders.[6]

Guilhern remained ignorant of his children’s plight until the day of the sale, when he sees that his seven-year-old daughter, Syomara, and his eight-year-old son, Sylvest, are also up for sale. He tries to free himself from his manacles but he cannot. He watches in horror as his daughter is sold to a depraved Roman aristocrat who has a reputation for molesting his young female slaves. Guilhern’s purchaser also buys his son, Sylvest, whom he puts to work in the fields by day and lodges in a cage at night, only rarely allowing the father and son to meet.

The market in slaves

These events form the first two novels, The Gold Sickle and The Brass Bell. The latter ends with Guilhern’s suffering a horrific punishment for attempting to escape. He is tied up. His naked body is lathered with honey. He is then covered with ants and a variety of other insects who slowly gnaw away at his flesh. Some of crawl inside his nose and his ears. It is an excruciating death and his body is left to rot in the open fields to serve as a warning against all slaves who might think of escaping.

Sylvest is soon sold to another master but before he is, he manages to preserve the writings of his father, and his grandfather Joel, about his person. He also obtains possession of the brass bell which adorned the horse that his father took into battle, and which will be handed down to future generations. This paves the way for the third novel, The Iron Collar, which is the chronicle of Guilhern’s son and daughter’s lives in captivity.

For many French intellectuals in the age of revolution, the Roman Republic was the epitome of freedom and liberty. The French Revolutionaries in 1789–99 appropriated Roman signs and symbols when they dismantled the monarchical system and set up a republic. Later French radicals followed suit, adopting symbols such as the fasces and the Phrygian cap in engravings that accompanied their periodicals and newspapers. William Clare Roberts in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (2016) has also shown how even Marx—to a limited extent—adapted the language of Classical Republicanism and liberty in his own writings, notably Das Kapital (1867). The Roman period in many French historical novels was depicted as something of a “golden age” when people enjoyed an unprecedented political liberty. Yet Sue has a different opinion. The Roman conquest of Gaul, for him, brought with it an erosion of liberty and rights. It was the equivalent of the Norman Conquest of 1066 in England. It led to the enslavement of the entire population and lasted for centuries. If French socialists wanted to look to the past and be inspired by a truly free society then they should, so argues Sue, look back to pre-Roman Gaul.

As I read on, I shall provide further summaries of this fascinating chronicle of class struggle.

Daniel de Leon’s 1904 translation of Sue’s novel (personal collection)

[1] George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, p. 79.

[2] 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.

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

[4] Sue, The Gold Sickle, pp. 11–12.

[5] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [online], The Communist Manifesto (1848), accessed 13 April 2021. Available at: http://www.marxists.org.

[6] Eugene Sue [online], The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1908), accessed 13 April 2021. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org.

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