June 19th, 1842 was a Sunday, like today. At the time, the bottom of the front page of the French dailies was occupied by a novel in serial form. On this day, the Journal des Débat Politiques et Littéraires, a popular Parisian daily, published the first installment of a tremendously important work of literature that is all but unknown in the English-speaking world today.
The author, Eugène Sue, was born rich. He led a dissipated life in the Paris of the 1830s, writing books but mostly enjoying the trappings of high society. When his friend suggested that for his next book he infiltrate the slums of the center of Paris incognito, Sue thought it was a terrible idea. Nevertheless, he ended up doing it. Soon The Mysteries of Paris was born.
After only three paragraphs, Sue writes:
This beginning announces to the reader that he will, if he agrees, see sinister scenes, enter into horrible, unknown places where hideous, terrifying characters abound in this cesspool like reptiles in a swamp.
The hero is a man named Rodolphe who, despite his aristocratic origins, spend his time in the lowliest neighborhoods of Paris to do good deeds and help the common people – a sort of early version of Batman. In the course of his adventures, he meets an extraordinary gallery of prostitutes, thieves, ex-convicts, and common people, a number of whom have gone down in French lore.
It’s easy to get caught up in social commentary: how this book made people aware of the living conditions of the Parisians working class, how it announced the social forces that would lead to the Revolution of 1848, and how it described neighborhoods that have now disappeared because the City of Paris administration of Georges-Eugène Haussmann destroyed them entirely twenty years later.
But the fundamental thing is that The Mysteries of Paris is a good read, with lively stories and great characters. When it came out, it was a huge success. All of France followed the twists of the plot with every new issue. In the morning, people would rent out their copies of the day’s Journal des Débats by the hour. Théophile Gautier even claimed that there were terminally ill people who fought off their illness so that they could hear the end of the the story. Anyone with interest in Paris who enjoys a good book can read it with pleasure today.