The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Hunchback, or the Small Parisian (1857)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Hunchback, or the Small Parisian (original: Le Bossu, ou le Petit Parisien) was written by Paul Féval and first appeared as a roman feuilleton in Le Siècle (May 7-Aug 15, 1857). Féval (1816-1875) was a popular French author of swashbucklers, historical novels, and crime thrillers.

The titular hunchback is Henri Lagardère, one of the King’s Guards in 1699. As a child he was orphaned and taken in by a stranger, who taught him about fencing. Lagardère joined the army as a young teenager and his exploits earned him fame and an appointment to the King’s Guards. He was already famous for his skill with the blade, but there was a particular move which he did not know. Philip of Lorraine, the Duke of Nevers, had been taught an unstoppable sword thrust by Old Master Delapalme, a move which is “quite certain of pinking a man in the middle of the forehead between the eyes.”Lagardère wanted to learn this move, so he approached Nevres. The two became friends, and Nevers taught Lagardère the stroke. But the Duke’s cousin Philip of Gonzague is jealous of Nevers and desires his sweetheart, Blanche de Caylus, as well as Nevers’ treasure. Gonzague sends assassins to kill the Duke, Lagardère, and Blanche. Lagardère helps defend the Duke, but while Lagardère is thus occupied a disguised Gonzague stabs the Duke in the back, killing him. Before the Duke dies he gives his infant daughter, Aurore, to Lagardère and asks Lagardère to avenge him. Lagardère barely escapes from Gonzague’s men and with Aurore joins a troupe of traveling Italian performers.

Sixteen years later Gonzague rules the Rue Quincampoix, an early version of the stock exchange. He is “after the regent and John Law, the richest and most important man in France.”2 Blanche has married Gonzague in order to help find and protect Aurore, but she told Gonzague that she would kill herself rather than let him touch her. Gonzague has been assisted in his rise to power by Æsop, “the Hunchback of Quincampoix,” who enriched himself through the Rue Quincampoix. Lagardère murders the hunchback and takes his place; as a child Lagardère knew a hunchbacked beadle and liked to imitate him, and Lagardère continues that imitation now. Aurore has grown into a beautiful and spunky young woman. Rumors that Lagardère and Aurore are still alive begin to circulate around Paris, and while Gonzague searches for Lagardère he kills Gonzague’s men and foils his plans. Eventually Gonzague begins to suspect Æsop of being Lagardère. Lagardère reunites Aurore with her mother before Gonzague captures him. Lagardère is tried by the French regent for the murder of Nevers, but through a clever trick Lagardère gets Gonzague to betray himself in front of the court and admit that he murdered Nevers. Gonzague flees, and Lagardère pursues, corners him, and kills him in a duel. The regent then makes Lagardère the Duke of Nevers.

The Hunchback came from a suggestion made to Féval by Anténor Joly, editor of Le Siècle, to create a competitor to Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris.3 Féval, writing a roman feuilleton in the fashionable mode of The Three Musketeers, won a great success with The Hunchback, and Lagardère, Gonzague, and Aurora became archetypes in French popular literature, as The Hunchback became one of the archetypal French cape-and-épée novels. An 1862 dramatization of The Hunchback was similarly successful, to the point that the 1863 Spanish translation of the stage version of The Hunchback led the Spanish public to consider Féval a Spanish rather than a French writer.4 The Hunchback was eventually translated into multiple languages.

The last English translation of The Hunchback appeared in 1887, and the translator, Henry Llewellyn Williams, Jr., did a mediocre job. Names and dates are changed, catchphrases are altered, and the English prose is generally stiff and old-fashioned, especially in comparison to translations of Dumas père and Victor Hugo. But even Williams cannot obscure the good humor and high spirits of The Hunchback. It is entertaining adventure fiction, lacking in description or characterization but also in turgid melodrama. It is colorful, fast-moving, and full of brave, noble men and despicable villains, and is recommended to readers looking for something in the vein of Dumas or Weyman.

Recommended Edition

Print: Paul Féval, “I am here!” Lagardére; or, The Hunchback of Paris. New York: Pollard & Moss, 1887.



1 Paul Féval, Le Bossu, ou le Petit Parisien (Paris: H. Geffroy, 1905-1907), 54.

2 Féval, Le Bossu, 94.

3 Angels Santa, “De la novela popular al melodrama. El ejemplo del Bossu de Paul Féval,” Scriptura 15 (1999), 177.

4 Santa, “De la novela popular al melodrama,” 181.