The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Mysteries of Paris (1842-1843)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Mysteries of Paris (original: Les Mystères de Paris) was written by Eugène Sue and first appeared in Journal des Débats (Jun. 19, 1842-Oct. 15, 1843). Marie Joseph “Eugène” Sue (1804-1857) was acclaimed during his lifetime as “the king of the popular novel” (original: “le roi du roman populaire”).1 Sue made the roman feuilleton a successful and fashionable medium and was a more commercially successful novelist than even Dumas père and Honoré de Balzac. Sue wrote prolifically, sold hugely, and by the time of his death was perhaps the best-known man of letters in France. And in a further indication of the fickleness of literary reputations, by 1910 Sue was nearly completely forgotten. Critical opinion of Sue is again ascending, however. The Mysteries of Paris was Sue’s most successful and influential novel.

The Mysteries of Paris cannot really be said to have a main character. The novel is as much about Paris and its poor and needy as it is about one character. But Rodolphe von Gerolstein is the closest thing that the novel has to a protagonist. Rodolphe is the Grand Duke of the small German state of Gerolstein. Rodolphe was brought up in his father's court by Polidori, an evil man who did his best to warp Rodolphe's mind. Polidori forced Rodolphe into a morganatic marriage (a marriage between a royal and a commoner in which any children do not receive the privileges of royalty) with Lady Sarah Macgregor, a beautiful and sinister woman. Lady Sarah got pregnant by Rodolphe and fled to London, where she had the child, a girl. Rodolphe's father, furious with Rodolphe, annulled the marriage, which prompted a quarrel between Rodolphe and his father. After Rodolphe threatened to kill his father, he was exiled and cut off from his fortune. Rodolphe was told daughter is dead, although she was actually given to a group of criminals who raised her and forced her into stealing for them. Rodolphe spent months in London learning how to be a dandy and posing as a Scotland Yard inspector. After his father’s death Rodolphe was made the Duke of Gerolstein. He moved to Paris, where the action of the novel takes place. Rodolphe and his friend and servant Walter “Murph” Murphy roam the streets and sewers of Paris in disguise, fighting crime and learning the secrets of the city and its underworld. They rescue a young girl, Fleur-de-Marie, who turns out to be Rodolphe's long-lost daughter. Rodolphe manages to protect her from those who would ruin her, and eventually she is redeemed and sent to a convent, where her innate goodness is instantly recognized and she is made an abbess. (She dies from the honor). Rodolphe goes on to live a double life, the toast of Paris society and the scourge of the underworld. Rodolphe is not so much a punisher of thieves as someone who helps all the good, poor people he runs across, although he does blackmail an evil lawyer into using his criminally gotten money to establish worthy charities. In the course of the novel Rodolphe defeats and converts a variety of enemies, including the “The Schoolmaster” (original: “Maître d'École”), “The Stabber” (original: “Chourineur”), and “The Owl” (original: “La Chouette”).

Unlike The Wandering Jew, The Mysteries of Paris will not bring substantial pleasure to the modern reader. It reads like a roman feuilleton, with a surfeit of incident and melodrama and an emphasis on plot complications over characterization or style. But unlike The Wandering Jew the over-the-top elements of The Mysteries of Paris do not provoke delighted laughter. The reader accepts them for a while, but by the halfway mark the reader will likely tire of them. As a main character Rodolphe is not as engaging as Father Rodin is wonderfully despicable, and Fleur-de-Marie does not pique the reader’s interest the way Adrienne de Cardoville and Mother Bunch did in The Wandering Jew. The didacticism of The Mysteries of Paris is more clumsy than it was in The Wandering Jew. The characterization is simplistic, as it was in The Wandering Jew. Lastly, The Mysteries of Paris is written in a slang- and patois-heavy fashion which makes reading it far more difficult than The Wandering Jew.

But even if it is not a pleasurable reading experience The Mysteries of Paris deserves study as a cultural artifact and as a novel which was important and influential in its time and still has literary significance.

The Mysteries of Paris was staggeringly successful. Its episodes were translated into English, Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch within the first three months of its publication, and by 1844 it was being translated into ten different languages. Imitations of The Mysteries of Paris number in the hundreds. By July 1843 there were over twenty French Mysteries, and in 1844 thirty-six different German towns and cities had Mysteries written about them. The second half of the 1840s saw numerous Mysteries written about cities around the world. Both George Lippard’s The Quaker City and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables were inspired by Sue’s work. Numerous English serials and penny bloods were influenced by The Mysteries of Paris, with George W.M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1845-1855) being the most popular English-language version. Most French mysteries and novels of criminal life following Sue were influenced by The Mysteries of Paris to a much greater degree than English mysteries were influenced by the Newgate novels (see: Proto-Mysteries). Sue, via The Mysteries of Paris, invented the “urban mysteries” genre, “a fictional response to urbanization and its institutions in the mid-nineteenth century, and a bridge between two more well-known genres, the Newgate novel of the 1830s and the sensation novel of the 1860s.”2 The “urban mysteries” genre retained its power long after the novels had fallen out of favor with the public:

as late as 1906 George R. Sims entitled his journalistic expose The Mysteries of Modern London…but the period in which the mysteries novel found its clearest expression corresponds to the consolidation of economic and political power in the big cities, especially London—that is, the two decades from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s. The mysteries novel could not come into being until the modem city itself was visible, until the effects of rapid expansion and change were evident in the disappearance of the old and construction of the new, until the unavoidable and startling contrasts between classes of people and places that resulted from rapid growth were a commonplace, and, most importantly, until the institutional structures which were to manage growth and control its results were a recognized part of urban life.3 

The Mysteries of Paris was hugely popular and widely imitated, but it was also influential beyond literary circles. It was one of the first sensations of a still-developing mass media culture—Sue received large amounts of fan mail, around 1200 letters from working class men and women4—and was positioned to have its message reach far greater numbers of people than ordinary novels would or could. Two-thirds of the readers of the Journal des Debats were not from Paris, so Sue’s portrayal of the urban hell of Paris was influential in changing the opinions not just of the usual middle-class readers but also those of the lower classes, who gathered in numbers to hear the latest episode read to them. Sue was a social reformer, and the opinions he sought to change were those of society regarding its treatment of the less fortunate, especially those in Paris. In 1842 Paris was an awful place. There had been a cholera epidemic in 1832, with over 20,000 killed, primarily due to grossly inadequate water and sewage treatment. The Industrial Revolution had produced disquieting changes in the traditional social structure as well as a burgeoning underclass. Years of high unemployment, squalor, and desperation had produced ever-increasing crime rates. And the legal system catered to the powerful and rich rather than following ideals of justice. Changing the conditions which produced these things was difficult and required not just an investment of time and money but altering societal attitudes. It was Sue, through The Mysteries of Paris—which can be regarded as the roman feuilleton version of the “Condition of England” novel (see: The Invisible Man)—who began this process.

The renovation of Paris began in 1854 when Baron Georges Haussmann (1809-1891), the Prefect of Paris, began the destruction of slum areas and rat-infested buildings, the renovation of the Parisian sewer system, and the expansion of many of the boulevards. Much of the modern look of Paris is due to Haussmann’s actions, which removed many of the traditional meeting places for the workers and the poor in Paris. This was a result of the 1848 Paris revolt, but much of what caused the revolt were the conditions which Sue documented and brought to the attention of the French public. The 1848 revolt also brought about changes in the French legal system. Again, what Sue wrote conditioned the public for necessity of institutional and social change.

Sue spent a substantial amount of time doing research for The Mysteries of Paris. As Victor Hugo previously had in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sue read a great deal of material so that his portrayal of Paris would be accurate. More than that, however, Sue spent time dressed as a working man and wandering through the slums and lower-class neighborhoods of Paris. The result is a city which becomes the novel’s main character, in much the same way that the Cathedral of Notre Dame is the main character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sue creates a detailed topography of Paris, both geographically and socially. If his details are sometimes exaggerated for the sake of drama, the atmosphere and his depiction of the social conditions of the slums are faithful to reality. Sue’s lower-class audience recognized this and saw that The Mysteries of Paris was told in a way sympathetic to them. Sue’s middle and upper-class audience read about miseries which existed in their own city rather than in some far-off location. If Sue played to the class prejudices of his audience and allowed them to play tourist in the slums of their city, he was at least honest in not hiding from his audience the human cost of being forced to live in such places.

But Sue’s Paris is filled with more than misery, just as George Lippard’s Philadelphia, in The Quaker City--a work influenced by The Mysteries of Paris—is not merely a city in which women are seduced and ruined. Sue’s Paris is a place of claustrophobia and evil, in which crime, alcoholism, prostitution and murder are commonplace, and in which good behavior is effectively impossible. Those trapped inside Paris should be held blameless for their actions, for there is no other way for them. (The only character who is truly evil in The Mysteries of Paris is the greedy, lecherous, hypocritical church-going notary Jacques Ferrand, who is part of the bourgeois and is crooked by choice and not out of circumstance). The only rescue for the inhabitants of the city, Sue says, is from some figure out of Gothic fiction, like Rodolphe—unless the readers decide to change things as they are into what they should be. It was this vision of the city that Sue’s many imitators responded to, rather than a simple desire to capitalize on his popularity, and which can be seen in works like Lippard’s The Quaker City.

If Paris is the novel’s main character, Rodolphe is its Fifth Business, the character necessary for resolution of the plot. Rodolphe is an evolutionary descendant of the heroic bandit of the räuberromane. He is not an outlaw, but he works outside the law and follows his own morality rather than that of society or the law. Rodolphe anticipates the lone avengers of later romans feuilleton, like Dumas’ Edmond Dantès (see: The Count of Monte Cristo), as well as the vigilante detectives of mystery fiction, including the casebook detectives who would appear in Britain within a decade. At a greater remove Rodolphe is a precursor to the Great Detectives who right wrongs while remaining above their surroundings. Rodolphe exposes social injustices while acting the trickster, but also works with the police when necessary. He is a fictional version of Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective).

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Rodolphe created a fictional archetype:

Sue created, through his Paris, the archetypal version of the city in need of a hidden master, and created, in the character of Gerolstein, the hidden urban ruler, the one true king–but in disguise–of the city. Gerolstein dominates his city, prevents evil from being done, defeats a variety of exceptional villains…directly or indirectly controls the actions of and secures the lives and safety of dozens if not hundreds or thousands of men and women. Gerolstein is a stout fighter when called upon, but is consumed by compassion more than by vengeance. His function is to provide an effective de facto ruler to a city whose de jure ruler(s) are hapless or helpless or corrupt. He uses disguise to present different identities to the world. If Nick of the Woods [see: Nick of the Woods] is, as comics writer Michael Lopez is reputed to have phrased it, “Batman in buckskin,” Rodolphe von Gerolstein is Batman in breeches, the unofficial, hidden monarch of Paris–in Eco’s words, “judge and executioner, benefactor and reformer without the law." And uncountable readers nationwide, including in England and the United States, were exposed to this character type via Les Mystères de Paris, which took the fame and reach of Zschokke’s Abällinothe first version of the hidden urban master–and multiplied it.5 

Recommended Edition

Print: Eugène Sue, The Mysteries of Paris, transl. Carolyn Betensky. New York: Penguin Classics, 2015.


For Further Research

Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Stephen Knight, The Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Christopher Prendergast, For the People, By the People? Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris.” A Hypothesis in the Sociology of Literature. Oxford: European Humanities Research Center, 2003.


1 120 years later Jean Louis Bory would entitle his biography of Sue Eugène Sue: le roi du roman populaire (Paris: Hachette, 1962).

2 Anne Humphreys, “Generic Strands and Urban Twists: the Victorian Mysteries Novel,” Victorian Studies 34, no. 4 (Summer, 1991): 455.

3 Humphreys, “Generic Strands,” 456.

4 Christopher Prendergast, For the People, By the People?: Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris: A Hypothesis in the Sociology of Literature (Oxford: European Humanities Research Center, 2003), 23.

5 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 104.