The Revolutionary Life of Eugene Sue (Part I)

By Stephen Basdeo

To us, therefore, who have known and loved him—who are proud of having been his dearest and best affection, who mourn him in so many ways—to tell Eugène Sue’s life story—a joyful, restless, then grave and thoughtful life … it is up to us to show the man as he was at different periods of his life. It is in truth a strange task which seems to us to be devolved, but we will do it.

Marie de Solms née Bonaparte on Eugène Sue (1858)

Rue Cambon (formerly Rue Neuve Luxembourg) pictured in 2019

The Rue Cambon in modern-day Paris is a street that is steeped in literary and revolutionary history. On this street once lived the intellectual ‘encyclopediste’ Jean-François Marmontel. On this street also lived the regicide and member of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, Philippe-François-Joseph Le Bas. The street was also home to a variety of actresses, artists and, in short, we can say that it was a truly ‘bohemian’ area. At the commencement of our history this street—which during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was known as Rue Neuve de Luxembourg—would also be a witness to the birth of a man who was both a literary superstar and a revolutionary.[1]

Empress Josephine Bonaparte

It was in the early evening of 26 January 1804 (5 Pluviôse in the Year XII of the French Republic) that several eminent people from French high society were gathered at number 160 Rue Neuve de Luxembourg. Among them was Jean Baptise-François Legros, the Auditor of the Public Treasury. The French military commander Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, who was adopted son of First Consul of the French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte, was there as well. Also in attendance was Beauharnais’s mother and Napoleon’s wife Josephine Bonaparte—later in this same year, 1804, Napoleon would crown himself Emperor of the French and Josephine would be granted the title of empress.

Tomb of Jean-Joseph Sue (from the website of Xavier Riaud)

These luminaries of French political and military life were gathered to witness the birth of a child. The soon-to-be-born child’s father was a highly esteemed surgeon in Napoleon’s army named Jean-Joseph Sue (1760–1830). Jean-Joseph’s wife and mother of the imminent new arrival—who was no doubt laid up in bed in extreme agony upstairs while the guests were congregated below—was Marie Sophie Derilly. Jean-Joseph was descended from a long line of esteemed surgeons. Jean Joseph’s brother, Pierre Sue, had also qualified as a surgeon and was professor of medicine at the University of Paris. These men’s father—also named Jean-Joseph Sue (1710–92)—had been surgeon to the French royal family. Jean-Joseph and Pierre’s grandfather, Pierre-Jean Sue (d.1714) had also, like his grandson Pierre, been a professor of medicine. With her husband being a medical man, at least Marie was in good hands should any complications have arisen during her labour.

The Duke of Orleans

Marie was not Jean-Joseph’s first wife. On 28 December 1795 (8 Nivose Year III of the French Republic) Jean-Joseph had married the nineteen-year-old Adele Sauvan. Prior to the French Revolution the Sauvan family had been very close to the French royals, in particular the Duke of Orleans (1747–93). Adele’s father had given the duke a gift of 240,000 francs to help him adjust to life in the self-imposed exile that the duke was planning when the French revolution turned violent and the Reign of Terror began. This payment to the Duke of Orleans brought the Sauvan family patriarch under the suspicion of the Jacobin-dominated Committee of Public Safety. The Committee decided that Sauvan was one of the enemies of the revolution, and consigned him to the Conciergerie. In there he was made to await execution by guillotine. He managed to escape when he was granted day release from prison, having requested from a sympathetic gaoler to be granted the opportunity to ensure that his affairs were in order and that his daughter was settled in life before he died. Once outside the prison he fled Paris. Left on her own in the capital during the tumultuous times of the revolution, Adele ingratiated herself with the republican elite and formed a romantic connection with the lawyer and orator Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud.

The Reign of Terror

It was Jean-Joseph who was to be Adele’s first husband, although their marriage does not appear to have been a happy one. It seems that—with some justification—Jean-Joseph suspected her of infidelity and, adding further levels of despair to the marriage, their first son Émile sadly died before reaching his first birthday. A daughter, Adélaide, was born early in 1799 but by 28 July 1799 (3 Thermidor Year VIII of the French Republic) Jean-Joseph and Adele obtained a divorce—which during the years of the revolution was remarkably easy to obtain—on the grounds of ‘incompatibility of humour and character’.

Adele quickly married the poet and playwright Gabriel-Marie Legouvé. Two years after the divorce Jean-Joseph married Marie. Meantime Jean-Joseph’s medical career went from strength-to-strength. Napoleon appointed him to the position of Physician of the Guard of the Chief Consul, based in Paris, which meant that he could spend more time with his family rather than on campaign with the French soldiers and generals who at this period were at war with the United Kingdom. Settled in the house on the Rue Neuve Luxembourg, it was at seven o’clock in the evening, on the aforementioned date of 26 January 1804, that Jean-Joseph and Marie’s child was born.

Gabriel Marie Legouve

The child was a boy. The name he was given was Marie-Joseph Eugène Sue, although since early boyhood the lad adopted the simpler name of Eugène Sue. But each of his names paid homage to one of those who were in attendance at his birth on that evening in 1804: Marie was taken from his mother’s name; Joseph after that of the father; and Eugene after that of the French general in attendance. The soon-to-be Empress Josephine was to be the child’s godmother.

As a child descended from a long line of well-connected physicians young Eugene’s path seemed to be set for him from birth. There was an expectation that he would join the navy as a surgeon and no doubt continue to hold a high-ranking position in the Napoleonic, and later royal, French courts. This was not to be, however: Eugene would choose a different path. He would go on to become a writer and produce a thrilling exposé of vice and crime in French high and low life titled The Mysteries of Paris (French: Les Mysteres des Paris) in 1842. The research that he did for this novel—spending time in the ‘low’ quarters of Paris and witnessing first-hand the poverty experienced by many living in the city’s slums France—would also affect his politics. In later life he became an outspoken socialist politician and he was eventually elected to serve in the French National Assembly. This earned him no favours and eventually he would die in exile.

This is the story of the revolutionary life of nineteenth-century France’s biggest-selling author: Eugene Sue.

(To be continuedEvery month I shall be uploading a new instalment of this biography with the aim, eventually, of publishing it as a book)


[1] This work is a précis of information gleaned from three French language biographies of Eugene Sue: Marie des Solms, Eugene Sue: Photographed by Himself; Fragments of Uninterrupted Correspondence From 1853 until 1 August 1857; The Day before His Death. Preceded by Details on his Life and his Published Works (Geneva: C.L. Sabot, 1858); Jean-Louis Bory, Eugene Sue (Paris: Hatchette, 1962); and Correspondence Generale de Eugene Sue, ed. Jean-Pierre Galvan, 4 vols (Paris: Champion, 2010).

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