The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Rocambole Adventures (1857-1870)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Rocambole Adventures, which began with The Mysterious Inheritance (original: L’Héritage Mystérieux, 1857) were written by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. Ponson du Terrail wrote eight more romans feuilleton (novels serialized in newspapers) from 1858 to 1870. Pierre Alexis, Vicomte de Ponson du Terrail (1829-1871) was a hugely popular feuilletonist and the rival of Paul Féval (see: The Black Coats Adventures). Ponson du Terrail was best-known for Rocambole, who was so popular that the word “rocambolesque,” or “colorful, fantastic, and adventurous,” was based on Ponson du Terrail’s character.
The Mysterious Inheritance is about a heroic French nobleman, Armand de Kergaz, whose father was murdered by his step-father. Armand receives the Kergaz estates in his father’s will. Armand’s step-brother, Andrea, swears vengeance on Armand, flees to England, and becomes a major figure in the British underworld under the pseudonym of “Sir Williams.” Sir Williams returns to Paris and he and Armand duel. One of Sir Williams’ assistants is the resourceful teenaged orphan Rocambole, who is the adopted son of the evil, aging bawd Maman Fipart. Even as a teenager Rocambole displays a great deal of charm and ability, and he eventually switches sides (for money) and helps Armand defeat Sir Williams.
In the next two novels, The Club Of The Jack Of Hearts (original: Le Club des Valets de Coeur, 1858) and The Exploits Of Rocambole (original: Les Exploits de Rocambole, 1858-1859), Rocambole rises in power in the Paris underworld. He again betrays Sir Williams, who is blinded, maimed, disfigured, and exiled to South America. Rocambole takes over Sir Williams’ criminal organization. In these first three novels Rocambole is at the height of his evil abilities. He is a brilliant schemer who is ruthless and entirely motivated by greed. He has no conscience and steals and murders without compunction. When Sir Williams returns from South America, he becomes Rocambole’s mentor in evil, but Rocambole eventually murders both Sir William and Maman Fipart, Rocambole’s adoptive mother. Even in these years, Rocambole has a wry sense of humor and a knack for witty banter. But one of Rocambole’s old enemies, the winsome ex-courtesan Baccarat, discovers Rocambole’s true identity and engineers his arrest. Rocambole is punished, his face is burned with acid, and he is sent to a hard labor camp in Toulon.
The fourth novel in the series, The Knights of Moonlight (original: Les Chevaliers du Clair de Lune, 1860-1862), brought back Rocambole in a Count of Monte Cristo-like story in which he is pardoned and then financed, as an agent for good, by Armand de Kergaz. But Rocambole’s role in the novel is as a plotter and schemer rather than an active hero, and the readers reacted negatively to that. So the publisher of La Patrie, where all of the Rocambole romans feuilleton had appeared, asked Ponson du Terrail to revise matters. He did, ending The Knights of Moonlight quickly and, three years later, publishing The Resurrection Of Rocambole (original: La Résurrection de Rocambole, 1865-1866), which pretended that The Knights of Moonlight had never happened. No longer disfigured, Rocambole escapes from the hard labor camp at Toulon and undergoes an epiphany. He decides to become a force for good and gathers a crew of assistants. He helps protect two orphaned girls, and when Baccarat encounters him she is eventually persuaded of his conversion. Through the final four novels Rocambole continues to do good, although his exploits become increasingly fantastic. He travels to India, fights Thugs who have come to France to kidnap virgins for Kali, and learns mysterious Asian secrets. He helps the heir to a wealthy Irish estate, terrorizes the English underworld in the guise of the “Man in Grey,” is imprisoned in Newgate but then escapes, and then helps another victimized heir, this one imprisoned in Bedlam. Ponson du Terrail’s death in 1871, at the hands of the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War, ended the series prematurely.
In the 1860s, however, Féval was eclipsed by parvenu writer Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, author of the wildly popular "Rocambole" series. Unlike Féval, there was absolutely nothing "literary" about Ponson's interminable Rocambole series, widely ridiculed by critics and parodied in the popular press for its totally unbelievable and completely over the top "rocambolesque" plots. Yet despite his lack of talent, Ponson had made a tremendous innovation in his feuilleton novel: the series protagonist, Rocambole, was not a virtuous and avenging hero, but an energetic, conniving, and murderous criminal. The series was a popular sensation, rendering Ponson the most widely read popular fiction author of the French Second Empire. When Ponson temporarily suspended the Rocambole series in 1860 to turn his attention to other projects, Féval jumped into the vacancy with Les Habits Noirs, a feuilleton epic about a criminal secret society of "Black Coats," spanning thousands of printed pages and produced over twelve years, 1863–1875. When Ponson returned to his series with La Résurrection de Rocambole in 1865, once again Féval was eclipsed by the more popular author.1
Although Ponson du Terrail was a very popular author whose works were vigorous and imaginative, he cannot be called a particularly original author. When he began “The Drama of Paris” (original: “Les Drames de Paris”)—his name for the entire Rocambole saga—his intention was to copy Eugène Sue's The Mysteries of Paris. As mentioned, a later novel would copy Alexandre Dumas. As a whole, the series is similar to Féval’s Black Coats series, but Ponson due Terrail de-emphasized the conspiracy angle, instead concentrating on the individual exploits of Rocambole, who begins as a ruthless Hero-Villain and undergoes a conversion to heroism. Rocambole returns from ten years’ imprisonment to become the leader of a group of assistants who are devoted to him and to the cause of justice. Like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Joseph Peters (see: Three Times Dead) before him, and like Lester Dent’s Doc Savage after him, Rocambole used assistants who came from every class of society and had a variety of talents. Rocambole was as much a covert plotter as a man of action, and had inherited the secrets of an ancient Tibetan civilization. In this Rocambole anticipated both the heroes of twentieth century pulp fiction as well as comic book superheroes.
In fact, Rocambole not only anticipated twentieth century pulp and comic book heroes, he influenced one particular group of them. He was the Man of Extraordinary Capabilities (see: The Count of Monte Cristo), but the evolutionary version of it:
He was the first Man of Extraordinary Capabilities whose brief and focus were fighting a variety of criminals over a series of books rather than taking revenge (as with Edmond Dantès) or asserting urban rulership (as with Rodolphe von Gerolstein). Second, he was the first major proto-superhero to assemble a team of talented assistants, from every class of society and with a variety of talents, to aid him in the fight against crime. Ponson du Terrail wasn’t the first author to do this--but Ponson du Terrail, because of his widespread readership, was the more influential--and the idea of a hero with a gang of capable assistants, which shows up throughout the pulps (in Walter Gibson’s Shadow stories and in Doc Savage stories, to name just two) and the comics (the Batman Family), begins with Ponson du Terrail and Rocambole.2
The significance of the Rocambole stories lies in their role in beginning the transition in France from Gothic novels and Walter Scott-influenced historical romances to modern heroic fiction. Most of the archetypal elements of modern comic book superheroes and supervillains can be found in the Rocambole stories, including the concept of the villain who converts to the side of good. At the same time, however, much of the Rocambole series is devoted to depicting the crimes of Rocambole—something irresistible to the French public:
The Rocambole series marked the beginning of a type of crime novel that the French made particularly their own. It reflected the ambivalent attitude of Parisians toward the forces of law and order. Whereas Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is an escaped convict, he is not really a criminal, but Rocambole is truly a malefactor, and not one who occasionally aids the police or helps damsels in distress. French readers liked him for his cleverness and resourcefulness and elaborate adventures—and also because he lived outside the law. This sympathy for the devil had deep roots in French literature, starting with François Villon, the great poet and criminal of medieval Paris, whose works celebrate the pleasures of life—wine and women—at the same time that they lament illness, poverty, old age, and death.3
The Rocambole stories are not well-written, but the series as a whole is worth paying attention to because of its influences and anticipations.
Print: Ponson du Terrail and Basil Balian, Rocambole: Volume 1 – The Dark Side. Amazon: Createspace, 2012.
Online: https://www.ebooksgratuits.com/pdf/ponson_du_terrail_rocambole_heritage_mysterieux.pdf (there are no English-language translations available online).
1 Walz, “The Crime Factory.”
2 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 109.
3 Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler, The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 89.