Posts tagged ‘serial’

02/05/2017

The father of crime

Frances Trollope’s Hargrave came to my attention when I was researching the roots of modern crime and detective fiction and, as it turned out, rightly so; but while that novel was singled out for its criminal content, there are further indications that several of Trollope’s novels contain crime subplots—and, perhaps more importantly in context of this historical study, that her novels were influential upon other writers who would play a part in the development of this branch of fiction. As the 19th century wore on, Trollope’s novels fell out of favour in England, where her Regency outspokenness offended Victorian sensibilities; but that they continued to be embraced in France is evident from the fact that when the next important work in the evolution of the detective story appeared, its author used the pseudonym Sir Françis Trolopp.

Paul Henri Corentin Féval (also known as Paul Féval père) is a pivotal figure in 19th century crime writing: literally pivotal, as he was the first to seize upon and expand the format initiated by Eugène Sue in his Les Mystères de Paris, and also – or so says the dogma; we shall investigate presently – the first to introduce into his sprawling crime stories the figure of the professional detective. Furthermore, some years later, after founding a magazine devoted to crime stories, Féval employed and collaborated with Émile Gaboriau, who later wrote what is arguably the first modern detective series, with his stories featuring police detective Monsieur Lecoq.

Paul Féval was trained as a lawyer, but he soon gave up his legal career to become a writer; quickly gaining a reputation as the author of entertaining historical swashbucklers. In terms of his later career, his most important early work was Le Loup Blanc, published in 1843, the hero of which is a Zorro-esque figure who fights against injustice—and may be the earliest example of the crime-fighter with a double life and a secret identity. (He’s also an albino, because if there’s one thing Paul Féval believed in, it was piling it on.)

Féval’s breakthrough work, however, was 1844’s Les Mystères de Londres which, although a clear imitation of Eugène Sue’s crime drama, dropped the social criticism which was a major aspect of Sue’s work while adding several components to the mixture that would dictate the immediate future of crime writing, particularly in France. In this respect, Féval’s most important decision was to make his hero an anti-hero, the secret head of a criminal gang who is also a political plotter masterminding a scheme to bring about an English Revolution. Féval’s revenge-focused central character is recognised as an influence upon Alexandre Dumas père, whose The Count Of Monte Cristo appeared the following year. Subsequently, French crime writing would come to be dominated by narratives of criminal life, and stories of criminals evading the law, in a manner which clearly invited the reader to side with “the bad guys”. This form of writing climaxed with the creation by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre of the seminal figure of Fantômas.

Unfortunately, however, for those of us interested in the history of crime fiction but who don’t have French as a second language, Paul Féval was not the only writer for whom Eugène Sue’s complex crime drama became a model. In fact, over the next decade magazines and newspapers worldwide would almost drown in serial stories promising to reveal “The Mysteries Of— “…and a poor city you were if somebody didn’t want to unravel your mysteries.

In England, the person to make this form of writing his own was George William Macarthur Reynolds, a critical figure in the development of both crime fiction and horror fiction in England (about whom, we shall be hearing a great deal more in the future). In August 1844, just as Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres was coming to its conclusion in Le Courrier Français, a new weekly eight-page serial (a form of publication which Reynolds dominated, as we shall later see) appeared in England, bearing the title, The Mysteries Of London.

Féval was furious, rightly anticipating that this home-grown serial would supersede his own work. Content with their own story, English readers showed no interest in a foreign version of the same, with the result that, unlike Les Mystères de Paris, Les Mystères de Londres was not translated into English. Three years later, a translation of sorts did appear; and a year after that, another was published in America. The former is a significant abridgement; the latter seems to have been released in loose-leaf, paper-serial form only, never in book form, and no copies are available.

Thus, though Féval’s work has been regularly reissued in France, including as recently as 2015, there is currently no such thing as a full-length, English-language edition of Les Mystères de Londres. Therefore, all we can do is take a look at the 1847 translation by one “R. Stephenson”: a wholly inadequate version of the original, but the best available.

 
 

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23/10/2015

The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight

BlackBand1    In the lanes and alleys of the city, in the dismal rookeries where destitution and crime herd together in dismal companionship, the thief plies his dangerous trade, and the thief-catcher watches for his victim. In the gayer streets of the Western world of rank and fashion, the wretched daughters of sin, with silken garments and aching hearts, wait upon the miscalled pleasures of the wealthy and dissipated. Guilt and degradation are abroad beneath the midnight sky. Crime stalks beneath the quiet stars, and fears not to show its hideous face, hidden from the broader light of day…
    Oh wondrous mysteries of midnight! The felon doomed to die on the early morrow waits the coming of his executioner, with parched and burning lips which refuse to pray; with listening ears that count the strokes of the last hours left for his guilty soul; with dazzled eyes that see strange sights in the dim obscurity of his narrow cell; visions of horror and departed peace; of his victim’s death struggle, and of the happy home of his childhood. Oh, who shall tell of the tortures of the murderer’s last midnight? Far away in foreign lands, the soldier watches in his tent, on the eve of some decisive battle. He may never again hear the hour of twelve strike from distant turrets. There are prayers to be hastily murmured—prayers whose sincerity none can doubt, whose acceptance who shall fear? There are letters to be written to the grey-haired mother, tender words to the fair young wife waiting and hoping in the distant English home; while far away the clashing of arms, the galloping of horses’ hoofs, tell of preparations for the coming morn.
    No, midnight is not the hour of rest and silence we are so apt to deem it. The mighty wheel of Life and Time still rolls on. The ceaseless waves of the ocean still bent on the troubled shore; and that which is more restless than the ocean wave, or hurrying cloud, the heart of man, still fights the terrible battle—still suffers and still sins…

One of the remarkable things – one of the many remarkable things – about Mary Elizabeth Braddon is that while she was pursuing a successful public career as the author of “real” albeit rather shocking novels meant for middle- and upper-class readers, she was simultaneously toiling away at penny dreadfuls published in magazines aimed at the working-classes. Most of Braddon’s work in this area was conducted anonymously, and it is only recently that her activities have been brought to light.

Braddon’s first attempt at a penny dreadful was The Black Band; or, The Mysteries Of Midnight, which ran in The Halfpenny Journal between July 1861 – June 1862 at an average of two chapters per week. In 1877, the tale was reissued in book form by the publisher George Vickers, but it was heavily abridged; there was likewise a pirated American edition which was even more altered from the original. The Black Band was not reissued unabridged until 1998, when The Sensation Press released a limited edition.

It is easy enough to see the connection between The Black Band and Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris; in fact, imitations of Sue’s work were popular for many years, with authors all around the world offering to reveal “The Mysteries Of—” this, that or the other city to their wide-eyed readers. The difference is that Sue used his sprawling serial as a forum in which to raise and debate various social issues, whereas his copyists were, for the most part, content to shock and entertain. The latter is mostly true of Braddon’s work, although – typically, as we have already seen – she does also voice a number of social criticisms when her plot allows.

Another connection between The Black Band and Les Mystères de Paris is that its constantly multiplying storylines* make it impossible to review; all we can really do is offer an outline of its dizzyingly complicated tangle of subplots, and then highlight some of its more interesting features.

(*In the Sensation Press edition, The Black Band runs 612 pages; Braddon is still introducing new characters and subplots at page 505.)

Rather than “a plot”, as such, The Black Band has a central premise, one which allows Braddon to pile incident upon incident upon incident for one hundred and one breathless – not say exhausting – chapters, most of which end upon a cliff-hanger. Along the way, the reader is edified with murder, attempted murder, adult abduction, baby abduction, death-faking, imprisonment, attempted rape, forgery, bigamy, arson, robbery, a mock marriage, illegitimacy, insanity, suicide, a variety of betrayal and treachery, and some extremely bloody vengeance.

It can be fairly said, I think, that the readers of The Halfpenny Journal got rather more than their money’s worth.

So: at the centre of this story is Colonel Oscar Bertrand, an Austrian soldier of high social standing, but who is also the head of a secret criminal organisation called “The Black Band”, otherwise known as “The Companions Of Midnight”:

“I am the centre of a system so vast in its operations, that it extends over the greatest part of civilised Europe. I am the captain of a company so large that there are men in it upon whose faces I have never looked, and never expect to look. It is a company which, though continually at war with society, can yet – secure in its internal strength and the unfailing prudence of its operations – afford to defy society year after year. Recall to your recollection some of those gigantic robberies which have startled the wealthiest cities of Europe – robberies in which a skill has been displayed partaking almost of the supernatural – robberies which have defied the determination and the perseverance of the cleverest police in Europe, and which have remained undiscovered until this hour. Remember these, and you may form some idea of the resources of the mysterious company of which I speak.”

We eventually learn that Bertrand’s ultimate personal goal is to establish himself himself with the Austrian government by bringing about the destruction of those who have devoted themselves to freeing Venice from Austrian rule.

Braddon became aware of Italy’s struggle for independence when she was commissioned to write the epic poem Garibaldi in 1860, and she put her researches to effective if somewhat cynical use in The Black Band. Although she positions her Venetians amongst her “good” characters and shows herself sympathetic with their cause, ultimately their role is to step up at the end of the story, when it’s time for gruesome retribution to be dished out to her bad characters; thus leaving her good English characters with clean hands.

We note with amusement that most of those good characters have something in common: The Black Band is full to overflowing with poor and/or working-class people who are happy because they are virtuous; whereas all the rich people are miserable, and most of them criminal. While obviously this is Braddon catering to her target audience, it is not mere pandering: we must remember that Braddon herself knew what it was to be poor, and to struggle to earn a living wage. Her family was left in an extremely precarious situation after her irresponsible father finally did a bunk (not coincidentally, I’m sure, The Black Band is full of terrible fathers; the one or two good ones are adoptive, not biological), which led to Braddon going on the stage when she was only a teenager. When she speaks bitterly of starvation wages and the battle simply to survive from day to day, we can feel that she is drawing upon her own early experiences.

While he keeps a company of professional burglars at his disposal, most of what we see of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment to his criminal society is done amongst the upper-classes—where there is no shortage of secrets to be exploited. Bertrand will help cover up a crime, if that is what is needed, or he will help in the commission of one. He particularly excels in helping people to come into possession of, or to keep, a fortune—for a price, of course.

Bertrand is one of these super-criminals who never seems to sleep. He spends his time flying from one end of England to the other, and from England to Italy and back again, seeking out dirty secrets he can use to bind new members of the Black Band to him, and others from which he can profit. Bertrand is a master manipulator, who uses the weakness and greed of others to his own ends. Recruits to the Black Band are tied to the society under threat of death, should they try to leave or betray the society in any way.

The Black Band opens with scenes of Oscar Bertrand’s recruitment of Lionel Mountford:

    The face of the young nobleman grew ghastly white at the Colonel’s last words. “And you ask me to join a band of robbers?” he said.
    “I ask you to do what better men have done before you,” said Colonel Bertrand, coldly. “Members of the company have been the inhabitants of palaces before today. From the highest to the lowest—the strength of the band lies in that. Wherever there is genius, courage, endurance, and patience; a hand that can strike, or withhold from striking; a tongue that can be silent, and a head that can think,—wherever there are these, there is a worthy member. High or low, let him enter the band. He will never leave it.”
    “Your words appal me,” said Lord Lionel, gloomily.
    “Will you join us – yes or no?” said the Colonel.
    “What do you promise me if I do join you?”
    “The wealth you desire, and the hand of Lady Edith Vandeleur before the next year is out.”

And on these terms Lionel recklessly throws in his lot with the Black Band. He is blindfolded and carried off to a strange rendezvous with an assembly of masked men:

    “You hear, brother,” said the Colonel, “you are accepted by the Companions of Midnight. Is it not so, brothers?”
    The masked company raised their hands simultaneously. Lord Lionel noticed that while many of the hands were coarse and large, others were small, white, and delicate, and adorned with costly rings.
    “Executioners of the Order, advance!” said the Colonel.
    Two men rose, and advanced from the opposite sides of the amphitheatre. They were both dressed in black from head to foot, and Lord Lionel perceived that they each wore a long slender knife, fastened to a belt which went round their waists.
Each of them silently took one of Lord Lionel’s hands, which he held while the Colonel uttered the following words,—
    “Executioners of the Order of the Companions of Midnight, the brother whose hand you now clasp will never be harmed by you, while faithful to the society which he this night swears to serve. If unfaithful to that society, he will become yours to strike when you can, and how you can. Mercy is unknown to you – you are the blind and pitiless instruments of the order to which you belong. If the new brother is too weak to take the oath of the Order, let him release your hands as I speak these words. If he holds your hands after these words, he is supposed to have taken the oath. If he refuses to join, let him drop the hands of the executioners.”
    A deadly shiver agitated the frame of the young nobleman, but his hands tightened upon the hands of the executioners, which he grasped with convulsive strength…

The woman for whom Lionel takes this drastic step is one of The Black Band‘s wickedest pleasures, with Braddon showing what she could do when her hands weren’t tied by tenets of middle-class morality. Lady Edith Vandeleur loves Lionel Mountford (albeit that her feelings are repeatedly qualified with remarks like, “As far as a woman of her nature could love—“), but she will not marry a penniless younger son. She wants fortune and splendour, and a title if she can get it. It is her cold-blooded spurning of Lionel that drives him into Oscar Bertrand’s clutches.

However, not knowing that the Colonel is keeping his word to Lionel by disposing of his elder brother, a wealthy Marquis, Edith lures into marriage Robert Merton, “the millionaire-merchant”. Driven frantic by her subsequent discovery that, had she bided her time just a little longer, she really could have had it all, Edith herself becomes Colonel Bertrand’s next recruit—and she, the daughter of an earl, raised in luxury and privilege, takes to a life of crime like a duck to water.

Braddon has a lot of evil fun with Lady Edith, having her move from one shocking piece of behaviour to the next, and dwelling in mock-horror upon her transgressions, each one worse than the last, even while she punctuates her narrative with tut-tut passages like this one:

    “Goodness, virtue, truth!” she cried, with a sneer; “will those win me admiration or respect? No! I must be able to outdo them all in pomp and splendour, and then, though they may hate me, they will bow to me, and lick the dust under my feet.”
    If anybody who beheld this lovely creature (crowned with snow-white flowers, emblems of the purity which was a stranger to her guilty soul), could have known the secrets of her wicked heart, how loathsome would her grandeur and beauty have appeared!
    How far before her the poorest cottage girl, walking barefoot over her native heath, whose heart could glow with a sincere affection, and whose soul could scorn a falsehood!

And of course, Braddon serves up several poor-but-virtuous young women to act as a direct foil for Edith, the most prominent of whom is Clara Melville who, interestingly enough, works as a dancer to help support her father and younger siblings. And Clara is not the only one of Braddon’s good characters who is “on the stage”: Clara is befriended by a prima ballerina called Lolota Vizzini, who is a foreigner as well as a professional performer, but who is warm-hearted, generous and thoroughly honest. We also have an actor called Antony Verner, who is a quiet, well-behaved, high-principled young man.

At one point, Clara is hired to perform in a Christmas pantomime. As she prepares to make her debut, we get a sudden interjection from Braddon:

Merry children with bright and joyous faces were assembled in the boxes; happy tradespeople, dressed in their best, filled the crowded benches in the pit; stalwart mechanics, in tier after tier, looked down from the immense and noisy gallery. All was noise, bustle, and enjoyment. It was altogether a pleasant sight to see; and the austere teachers, who cavil at the harmless amusements afforded by a well-conducted theatre, might have learned a lesson thgat night. Husbands were there, surrounded by their wives and children; brothers with their sisters. Surely this was better than the gin palaces…

Braddon’s personal exasperation with the automatic damning of the stage as “immoral” is very evident through these subplots. She goes out of her way to show how performing is just a job like any other and that, if young women on “the stage” do go wrong, it is not because of any inherent immorality, but because of greedy employers who pay wages their performers cannot live on—particularly if they are working to support dependents. And because she is talking to a working-class readership, Braddon can speak frankly about the sheer necessity that drives young girls to supplement their incomes by immoral means; and while she does not condone this choice, neither does she condemn the girls who make it, keeping her anger for the men who prey, one way or another, upon the vulnerable.

(In pursuit of her argument, Braddon introduces a theatre manager called Rupert de Lancey, who pays his young women as little as he can get away with, among other wrongs. There is so much venom in Braddon’s sketch, and she kills de Lancey off so horribly, that we can only conclude he was based on someone she knew in her theatre days.)

Daringly, Braddon makes Clara Melville, who we must call the heroine of The Black Band, a ballet-dancer attached to the Opera House: these young women had the worst reputation of all those in the various stage professions, with many a young man treating the environs of their theatre as their hunting-ground. Clara, however, wants only to do her work, earn her wage, and go home. Her beauty attracts attention, but she is scrupulous in avoiding the men who hang around the stage doors—until she encounters one who will not take no for an answer, in the form of the old roué, Sir Frederick Beaumorris. Enraged by the scorn with which Clara spurns him, Sir Frederick has her abducted and carried off to a property in France that he keeps for these situations. He doesn’t believe that Clara really means what she said to him, mind you; he assumes she’s merely trying to drive up her price; but if she did mean it, well, that’s just too bad…

Clara avoids A Fate Worse Than Death by the unexpected intervention of Oscar Bertrand, who forestalls that, at least, by revealing to Sir Frederick that she is actually his own niece, the daughter of the younger brother whom he defrauded and left destitute by means of a forged will. This knowledge does not make Sir Frederick any less eager to destroy Clara; he just alters his approach. He joins the Black Band in exchange for assistance in keeping his crime concealed; which, since it turns out that the original will was not destroyed after all (one of the conspirators getting cold feet), may require the permanent removal of Jasper Melville, aka Arthur Beaumorris, and of his daughter, Clara.

One of the most outrageous characters in The Black Band is Dr Montague Valery, a West End physician who maintains a successful practice despite the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients; or rather, because of the astonishingly high death-rate amongst his patients:

    It was strange that, clever as the physician was, he rarely went into a house whose threshold was not speedily crossed by the dark visitant, Death.
    The wife, whose husband Montague Valery attended, wore weeds soon after the coming of the physician. The heir, who summoned Valery to attend his father, rarely waited long for his heritage. Behind the doctor stalked the invisible form of Death; and, go where he would, the undertaker was apt to follow.
    He was at home when Sir Frederick Beaumorris called…

The will that should have enriched Arthur Beaumorris is eventually unearthed in the rackety old house which Antony Verner shares with his mother, and which in time also becomes the home of Clara and her younger siblings. The house previously belonged to Antony’s uncle, who was one of Sir Frederick’s co-conspirators, and who said just enough on his deathbed to let his nephew know there was a mystery. On Clara’s behalf, Antony hires a lawyer to instigate proceedings against Sir Frederick Beaumorris in the Court of Chancery, and that lawyer, Weldon Hawdley, comes accessorised by a shabby-looking, middle-aged clerk. It is, however, soon evident who the brains of the outfit is, and that whatever professional success Hawdley has had, it has been on the back of the efforts of Joshua Slythe, who progressively emerges as the unlikely hero of The Black Band.

As with Lady Edith, Braddon has a lot of fun with this improbable but entertaining character; though we sense she’s not kidding with her contention that real heroes do sometimes come in very unexpected forms:

Again Joshua heard the key turned in the door. He wondered what was meant by this proceeding on the part of the agent. A coward would have trembled. Alone, in a strange house, in a strange corner of town, and completely in the power of a wretch, whose character he knew to be infamous, Joshua Slythe was certainly in no pleasant situation; but the old clerk was not an ordinary man; fear to him was utterly unknown. Many a stalwart giant, upwards of six feet high, might have envied the brave spirit of the lawyer’s confidential clerk.

We have seen already, in our examination of The Trail Of The Serpent, that Braddon was an important figure in the development of English crime fiction, and she takes another step in that role here. Slythe is not really a detective, but he is an investigator; he is also the honest (and of course, working-class) counterpart of Oscar Bertrand, in that he has a profound understanding of human nature in its blackest forms, and an unerring instinct for a secret. His hard-earned knowledge has left Slythe with a cynical patina, but he is unshakeably on the side of the angels. Late in the book he forms a couple of interesting working partnerships, the first with a pugnacious farmer, John Atkinson, the second with Antony. Both men are initially bewildered by Slythe’s manoeuvring; both, however, quickly learn to follow his orders without question.

It is Slythe, then, who tracks down Arthur Beaumorris after he is abducted and imprisoned in a private lunatic asylum; it is Slythe who recognises Montague Valery’s evil designs upon Arthur and Clara, and takes steps to circumvent them; and it is Slythe who breaks up the burglary arm of the Black Band’s English branch (although amusingly, most of the criminals succeed in escaping the law; still, their activities are put a stop to).

Meanwhile—

We left Lady Edith furiously and disgustedly married to Robert Merton. To cut a very long story short, she tries to murder her husband, fails and is caught, is incarcerated (privately, under the guise of “madness”, to avoid shaming her family), escapes and flees, all at the prompting, and with the connivance, of Oscar Bertrand (well, except for the failure), who subsequently reunites Edith with Lionel and packs the pair of them off to Venice, where Lionel’s job is to infiltrate and betray an important anti-Austrian secret society.

While separated from Edith due to the events above summarised, Lionel made the acquaintance of Lolota Vizzini, who fell in love with him. At that time, Lionel was still fixated upon Edith, but he was clear-sighted enough to recognise the vast difference between the two women (that is, between the foreign ballerina and the earl’s daughter), and likewise the very different quality of Lolota’s love. However, even had Lionel then been able to cure himself of his love for Edith, it could not have been—because Lolota is a married woman.

At seventeen, Lolota married a man she did not love to escape her brutal father, only to discover that she had merely gone from frying-pan to fire. She eventually separated from Antonio Vecchi and struck out on her own, finding success and fame as a dancer; however, her achievements bring her no happiness because of her situation, with Vecchi turning up periodically to demand large sums of money as the price of staying away.

Vecchi is a member of the Black Band (no big surprise, there) and he is tasked with carrying the information gained by Lionel back to London. Vecchi is a serial betrayer, with a history of joining political societies, learning their secrets, and selling them to the highest bidder; he decides to circumvent Bertrand and carry his information directly to Austria, to reap all the benefits himself. It is, of course, a fatal mistake:

    Colonel Bertrand took a key from his pocket, and deliberately unlocked the grated door of the cell. He stood aside as he opened this door, and, with a howl of fury, an enormous tiger bounded from its den and leapt upon the Italian traitor. It seemed as if the animal had power to divine the purpose of its master.
    The dagger dropped from the hand of Antonio Vecchi. He fell to the ground beneath the weight of the powerful animal. The atmosphere was filled with blood. He was helpless—suffocated. The weight of the monster’s paws upon his breast stifled him, a jerk, and the spinal cord was dislocated, the traitor expired…

Yes, that’s right: Oscar Bertrand keeps a tiger around, just in case.

Although this dramatic execution is intended both to fulfil the conditions of the warning contained in the oath that all members take to the Society, and to act as a grim warning to those watching, it naturally has the side-effect of widowing Lolota Vizzini; so that when she and Lionel meet again, she is no longer a married woman…

In Venice, Lionel and Edith pose as brother and sister, she furthermore as the widow of a French nobleman. Lionel at this time is as miserable as he can be, worn down by guilt and self-hatred, and by something else:

    For years Lady Edith had been the lodestar of his existence—the bright and wandering meteor leading him through seas of guilt, indifferent whither he went in pursuit of her he loved.
    But, during those past years he had only seen her at intervals. He had beheld her the queen of a ball-room, the idol of a crowd—he had seen only her beauty and fascination, and for these he had alone worshipped her.
    Within the last few weeks he had learnt to know her!

Such is Lionel’s state of mind when he discovers that Lolota is appearing in Venice; Lolota, whom he has learned to appreciate and to love. In their moment of reunion, neither can conceal their emotion—Edith sees it clearly enough, and is overwhelmed with jealous rage. Even as Lionel and Lolota make secret – they think – plans to flee, from Edith and the Black Band alike, Edith begins making plans of revenge. The lovers intend to slip away to Naples in the first instance, travelling separately to avoid attracting attention. This gives Edith her chance: working with a conspirator from the Black Band, she succeeds in decoying Lolota into a fever-ridden corner of the city, gloating at the thought that even if Lionel manages to find her, he will only find a corpse…

That taken care of, Edith makes plans for her own future:

    Within a fortnight of Lord Willoughby’s departure from Venice, the marriage of the Marquis and Constance de Grancy (it was thus that Edith called herself) was solemnised with great pomp and splendour in the church of St Mark.
    Lady Edith had declared herself a Roman Catholic. What mattered the difference of creed to this fiend in human form—this worshipper of Satan, who could scarcely have believed in the existence of an all-seeing and avenging Deity.
    The vows were spoken which united Constance de Grancy and Lorenzo de Montebello in the holy bonds of matrimony. The would-be-murderess added the guilt of bigamy to her list of crimes.

Throughout her time in Venice, Edith has lived in dread of meeting someone who knows her as Lady Edith Vandeleur or, worse, as Lady Edith Merton. Should this happen, her plan is simply to deny her identity and brazen it out; but this doesn’t work when it is Oscar Bertrand who confronts her. The information gathered by Lionel had no long-term effect upon the conspirators, and the Black Band needs to try again. Edith’s husband knows when and where the next meeting of the anti-Austrian society is to be held: Bertrand gives her a week to get the information out of him; if she fails, she will be exposed.

Edith succeeds, but only just; in the extreme urgency of the matter, she and Bertrand are just a little careless: their conversation is overheard…

Braddon concludes The Black Band by dealing out happiness and retribution with a liberal hand—in a few cases, we are surprised at who is deemed worthy to warrant the former, or at least to avoid the latter. However, there’s never any question of what’s coming for Lady Edith and Oscar Bertrand, after their plot against the Venetians is discovered.

On one hand:

    The niche, or recess, measured about three feet and a half in breadth, and six feet in height… As Lady Edith looked at these things a stalwart figure emerged from the opening in the rock, and Black Carlo appeared before the masked leader.
    “We have done our work, Captain,” he said.
    “Ay,” answered the mask, “and you have done it quickly and well. The niche is neatly made, and we have brought the statue.”
    One of the masked guards laughed.
    “Come, Signora,” said the Captain, “can you guess now why we have brought you here?”
    “To murder me!” exclaimed Lady Edith.
    “No,” answered the mask, with horrible deliberation; “to bury you alive!

…while on the other, Oscar Bertrand is lured into drinking some “wine” prepared by a scientifically inclined member of the Venetian society:

The handsome face of the Austrian was now a ghastly and revolting spectacle. Every spark of intelligence had fled from his once brilliant eyes. His chin fell forward upon his breast, and his under lip hung powerless upon his chin, while a white foam oozed slowly from his open mouth. His head, which, four-and-twenty hours before, had been carried with the haughty grace of an emperor, now trembled like the head of some wretched being in the last stage of decay. His hands hung loosely from his wrists, as if every sinew had been withered and every nerve destroyed. He stared straight before him—his dull meaningless laughed the discordant gibbering laugh of an idiot…

This is our last glimpse of Colonel Oscar Bertrand in The Black Band:

The wretched creature burst into a loud peal of shrill laughter, and tottered away, gibbering and mouthing as he went…

Note, however, that Braddon does not explicitly kill him off. Even at this early stage of her writing career, she knew better than to do THAT to her master-criminal…

BlackBand2

27/02/2015

The Mysteries Of Paris

Sue4b“You know my ideas on the subject of the good which a man ought to do who has the knowledge, the will, and the power. To succour unhappy, but deserving, fellow creatures is well; to seek after those who are struggling against misfortune with energy and honour, and to aid them, sometimes without their knowledge,—to prevent, in right time, misery and temptation, is better; to reinstate such perfectly in their own estimation,—to lead back to honesty those who have preserved in purity some generous and ennobling sentiments in the midst of the contempt that withers them, the misery that eats into them, the corruption that encircles them, and, for that end, to brave, in person, this misery, this corruption, this contagion, is better still; to pursue, with unalterable hatred, with implacable vengeance, vice, infamy, and crime, whether they be trampling in the mud, or be clothed in purple and fine linen, that is justice; but to give aid inconsiderately to well-merited degradation, to prostitute and lavish charity and commiseration, by bestowing help on unworthy and undeserving objects, is most infamous; it is impiety,—very sacrilege! it is to doubt the existence of the Almighty; and so, he who acts thus ought to be made to understand.”

I have long and sorely neglected my investigation of the roots of modern detective fiction, but now it is time to return to the murky depths of 19th century crime fiction. In an earlier post, I examined Catherine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley, which I described as a literary bridge between the Newgate Novels of the 1820s and the sensations fiction of the 1860s. The main thread of the novel describes the efforts of various characters to solve the murder of a Mr Wentworth, and to clear the name of his manservant, Andrew Hopley, whose disappearance has led to an assumption of his guilt. Around this anchor plot is built a dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities.

“A dizzyingly complicated narrative with a myriad of intersecting plots and numberless characters with multiple identities” also describes the next important entry in the timeline of detective fiction, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris. Sue himself was something of a contradiction, a young man born into the upper middle classes and with aristocratic, even royal, connections – his godparents were Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and the Empress Joséphine – but who became an impassioned and vocal socialist. After a varied career as a naval surgeon, Sue settled in Paris and found work as a journalist with the liberal press, in time acquiring various publications himself and becoming an early “press baron”. He began writing fiction in the early 1830s, attracting readers with his exotic settings and scandalous plots. His fame today, however, rests chiefly upon his work for the feuilletons.

A “feuilleton”, meaning “leaf” or “scrap of paper”, was a supplement in a polical newspaper or magazine, offered in addition to the news and political editorialisation. In the earliest use of the term, it often referred to an arts or cultural section; later, usually to a work of fiction. Most popular of all were lengthy serial stories published over months or even years, such that “feuilleton” eventually became another word for “serial”. Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris appeared in Le Journal des Débats from June 1842 to October 1843.

Les Mystères de Paris was wildly popular, and not just in France. It was reprinted all over the world (sort of, as we shall see), and inspired a barrage of copycat publications, including two that we shall also be examining in this series of posts: Les Mystères de Londres by Paul Feval, another important figure in the development of crime and detective fiction, and its direct competitor, The Mysteries Of London / Mysteries Of The Court Of London by the king of English pulp fiction, George W. M. Reynolds. Another of Les Mystères de Paris‘s immediate offspring was Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, while its use of interlocking plots and interconnected characters, its sprawling, often undisciplined narrative and its use of fiction as a vehicle for social criticism were a significant influence upon Victor Hugo in the writing of Les Misérables.

Les Mystères de Paris was, as I say, republished all over the world, but in many different forms: there really is no such thing as a “definite edition”. However, conversely, some releases are to be avoided at all cost. Abridged versions are common, while certain English editions were also significantly bowdlerised. To the best of my knowledge, the Project Gutenberg version, based upon the 1899 6-volume Boston edition, is complete, and probably the safest copy to access. In this form, Les Mystères de Paris is 1,384 pages long.

I started out comparing Les Mystères de Paris to Adventures Of Susan Hopley and I’m about to do it again, inasmuch as I am going to declare it similarly impossible to summarise: it is, likewise, the kind of thing that demands either six blog posts or only one, and the interests of everyone’s sanity, I’ve decided on just one. Rather than really trying to convey its multitude of plots, I want to concentrate instead on some of the most striking aspects of this work, and in particular how it differs from contemporary English writing in the same field, which is shown up as shamefully timid by comparison.

The main character of Les Mystères de Paris is a certain M. Rodolph. The opening section of the novel finds its hero intervening between a young girl of the streets and a former convict known as “Le Chourineur” (the butcher), the latter a local terror for his violent temper, his enormous strength, and his history as a killer who served fifteen years in the hulks for murdering a soldier while in the grip of what we might today describe as a psychotic break. It is not entirely clear what Le Chourineur intended to do to the girl – he later insists he only meant a bit of rough fun, though we’re inclined to doubt it – but Rodolph does not wait to find out. A desperate fight between the two men ends with the Chourineur thoroughly vanquished—which earns Rodolph his respect and admiration.  Le Chourineur insists upon both Rodolph and the girl accompanying him to a nearby “tapis-franc” – a thieves’ haunt, where liquor and food is served – where over a rough dinner Rodolph persuades the other two to tell him their stories.

In many ways Les Mystères de Paris is an extremely peculiar book. It serves up any amount of sex, violence, intrigue, plot and counterplot—while every now and then halting the action so that Eugène Sue, either through Rodolph or via his omniscient narrator, can deliver a lecture on the prevailing social conditions, unjust laws, the responsibility of the rich to the poor, the selfish immorality of the aristocracy, the state of the prison system, or some other personal bugbear. The result is what might reasonably be described as “socialist-sensation fiction”.

Eugène Sue’s main thesis is made crystal clear at the outset. Although the streets of Paris swarm with criminals, although for many theft, fraud and even murder are a way of life, there are others who hold fast to a moral code and try to live a decent life. These are the people, Sue contends, to whom the rich have a duty; who should be sought out and rewarded for their tenacious honesty. It is this cause to which Rodolph has devoted himself.

Most critically, however, and most praise-worthily, Sue believes in redemption. The people who Rodolph helps are not only those who have stayed honest all along, but those who have repented their sins and are trying to make a new start. He spends much time decrying the conditions that make this almost impossible, either because someone who has been in jail can’t get a job, or because of the sheer inadequacy of the wages offered by most employers. Temptations to crime are everywhere, encouragements to stay honest few and far between.

Unexpectedly, one of those who is trying to stay clean is Le Chourineur, whose personal code will not allow him to stoop to theft—even though he would live better either as a robber or a convict. Here we hit another of Sue’s red buttons, the fact that people are often better off in prison than they are in the world at large, there having at least a roof, a bed, food, and the chance to earn a little money (although that said, he’s not happy about prison conditions, either). Rodolph is struck by this aspect of Le Chourineur’s history:

    “You were cold, thirsty, hungry, Chourineur, and yet you did not steal?”
    “No; and yet I was horribly wretched. It’s a fact, that I have often gone with an empty bread-basket for two days at a time…but I never stole.”
    “For fear of a gaol?”
    “Pooh!” said the Chourineur, shrugging his shoulders, and laughing loudly… “An honest man, I was famishing; a thief, I should have been supported in prison, and right well, too! But I did not steal because—because—why, because the idea of stealing never came across me; so that’s all about it!”

Rodolph is moved by this rough honesty into declaring Le Chourineur to have both “heart” and “honour”, which in turn serves to attach the former convict to him with dog-like devotion.

The “unconscious rectitude” of Le Chourineur’s code, as it is called, highlights another of Sue’s beliefs. Although he was hostile to the Catholic church as an entity, he was nevertheless religious, and this display of conscience where it might be least expected is a recurring theme. It is a display which tends to happen more amongst the working-classes than the aristocracy, we note; and yet—and yet–

For someone writing in 1842, Eugène Sue’s views seem not merely progressive, but often startlingly so—but they are undercut (at least to modern eyes) by a taint of classism. In spite of his socialist tendencies, it is clear that Sue did not believe in genuine equality; further, that he believed that there were actual, ingrained differences between the nobility and the common people, as is shown most distastefully in two of the most shocking of the novel’s many subplots, both of which feature a young girl being drugged and raped—one because she resists the advances of her employer, the other as the fastest route into a life of prostitution.

The terrible vulnerability of poor girls is another of the novel’s many concerns. The latter victim is the girl whom Rodolph saves from Le Chourineur, and who is also – although with reluctance and shame – persuaded to tell her history. Her name is Marie, known as Fleur-de-Marie for her delicate appearance, once called “La Pegriotte” (little thief) and now “La Goualeuse” (the sweet-voiced one, for her singing) – like I said, everyone here has at least two names – and her short life has been one of misery and abuse.

Abandoned on the streets of Paris when little more than a baby, she was taken in by a vicious hag known as “La Chouette” (the screech-owl) and subjected to all sorts of deprivation and violence. Running away at the age of eight, she was picked up as a vagabond and spent the next eight years in prison—being released when deemed “an adult”. Subsequently she fell into the hands of the owner of the tapis-franc, “the Ogress”, who also happens to be pawn-broker, a fence—and a pimp. Fleur-de-Marie has been only six weeks on the job when she comes to the compassionate attention of Rodolph.

Mind you—you have to do some mighty fine reading between the lines to take in the full story of Fleur-de-Marie at the first reading. Here’s how her rape and her brief career as a prostitute are described:

“At this moment I met the Ogress and one of her old women who I knew where I lodged, and was always coming about me since I left prison. They told me they would find me work, and I believed them. I went with them, so exhausted for want of food that my sense were gone. They gave me brandy to drink, and—and—here I am!” said the unhappy creature, hiding her face in her hands.

Compare this to the frank recitation of Louise Morel, daughter of a working-class family, who is taken into service by one of the novel’s leading villains, M. Ferrand, a notary, a thorough-going hypocrite with a public reputation for rectitude and piety and a private life steeped in vice and crime. One of Ferrand’s main amusements is bringing young girls into his household, ruioning them, them casting them aside. In Louise’s case, her father is in debt to him, and will be imprisoned at a word from Ferrand, meaning that Louise’s mother and numerous siblings will be left to starve. She herself is subjected to violence, and restrained and starved, but nevertheless holds Ferrand off, until he finally goes to extremes:

    “This lethargic feeling,” continued Louise, “so completely overpowered me, that, unable any longer to resist it, I at length, contrary to my usual custom, fell asleep upon my chair. This is all I recollect before—before— Oh, forgive me, father, forgive me! indeed, indeed, I am not guilty; yet— I know not how long I slept; but when I awoke it was to shame and dishonour, for I found M. Ferrand beside me…
    “My first impulse was to rush from the room, but M. Ferrand forcibly detained me; and I still felt so weak, so stupefied with the medicine you speak of as having been mingled in my drink, that I was powerless as an infant. ‘Why do you wish to escape from me now?’ inquired M. Ferrand, with an air of surprise which filled me with dread. ‘What fresh caprice is this? Am I not here by your own free will and consent?’ ‘Oh, sir!’ exclaimed I, ‘this is most shameful and unworthy, to take advantage of my sleep to work my ruin; but my father shall know all!’ Here my master interrupted me by bursting into loud laughter, ‘Upon my word, young lady,’ said he, ‘you are very amusing. So you are going to say that I availed myself of your being asleep to effect your undoing. But who do you suppose will credit such a falsehood? It is now four in the morning, and since ten o’clock last night I have been here… What, in Heaven’s name, can you tell your father? That you thought proper to invite me into your bedroom? But invent any tale you please, you will soon find what sort of a reception it will meet with…’.”

M. Ferrand proceeds to blast Louise’s reputation, wailing to anyone who will listen to him about his horror at discovering that he, the very personification of virtue, has being harbouring a whore under his roof; and subsequently, when Louise’s baby is born dead, he has her arrested on charges of infanticide and so facing the guillotine. But luckily for the Morel family – and most unluckily for M. Ferrand – by this time Rodolph has interested himself in their affairs…

The resolutions of the twin plots of Louise and Fleur-de-Marie differ as radically as the telling of their sad histories. Louise, though suffering horribly, refuses to take any guilt upon her own shoulders and sensibly gets on with life; while Fleur-de-Marie, who is filled with guilt and shame when we first meet her, only becomes more so over the course of the novel, until it literally subsumes her. The unfortunate implication seems to be that while a working-class girl might be able to survive such a trauma, this is a task beyond anyone with the sensibilities of “a lady”—even if she doesn’t happen to know she is “a lady”…

At the conclusion of Fleur-de-Marie’s account of herself, we are given the following:

    Rodolph had listened to the recital, made with so painful a frankness, with deep interest. Misery, destitution, ignorance of the world, had weighed down this wretched girl, cast at sixteen years of age on the wide world of Paris!
    Rodolph involuntarily thought of a beloved child whom he had lost,—a girl, dead at six years of age, and who, had she survived, would have been, like Fleur-de-Marie, sixteen years and a half old. This recollection excited the more highly his solicitude for the unhappy creature whose narration he had just heard.

Immediately, of course, a knowing grin starts to slide across the face of the experienced sensation-reader; but Eugène Sue has a surprise in store for us. Before the first volume of Les Mystères de Paris has concluded, he gives us the following blunt statement:

At this moment, we will content ourselves with stating, what the reader has no doubt already guessed, that Fleur-de-Marie was the fruit of the secret marriage of Rodolph and Sarah, and that they both believed their daughter dead.

It is, however, about a thousand pages further on before Rodolph finds out the truth. By withholding this information from the characters but not from the reader, Sue adds a fiendishly tortuous quality to his telling of the many, many subsequent travails of Fleur-de-Marie.

If Fleur-de-Marie is actually a lady, then of course Rodolph, despite his working-class disguise and the ease with which he moves through the various levels of Parisian society, is a gentleman. In fact, he is rather more than that. The novel is only a few pages old when Rodolph’s companion is softly calling him “Your Highness”, and not much older before Eugène Sue has revealed his hero to be no less a person that the Grand Duke Gustavus Rodolph of Gerolstein, a (fictional) German principality. After being taught a variety of painful life-lessons by a series of tragedies, the Grand Duke left Gerolstein for France where, after adopting the persona of M. Rodolph, a simple workman, he made it his mission to seek out and secretly assist the worthy poor—while also punishing (sometimes with startling violence and even cruelty) the worst of criminals. Meanwhile, in his own persona, Rodolph moves freely amongst the French aristocracy, where a whole series of parallel subplots unfold.

As I have already intimated, and as must already be clear even from this brief overview, the plot of Les Mystères de Paris is too insanely complicated even to begin trying to summarise it; so instead I’ll simply try to give you an idea of its main threads:

First, of course, there’s Rodolph himself. He was only a teenager when his father, the previous Grand Duke, committed the fatal blunder of putting his education in the hands of a certain Doctor César Polidori, “a renowned linguist, a distinguished chemist, learned historian, and deeply versed in the study of all the exact and physical sciences”—but also “atheist, cheat, and hypocrite, full of stratagem and trick, concealing the most dangerous immorality, the most hardened scepticism, under an austere exterior”—and a very ambitious man. Polidori makes it his business to encourage all the worst features in Rodolph’s character, in particular encouraging in him to neglect his duties; foreseeing a time when he might be the power behind the throne in Gerolstein.

(Polidori turns up in various guises, involved in various nefarious plots, all the way through Les Mystères de Paris.)

Meanwhile, Rodolph also falls victim to an even more insidious danger. Sarah Seyton, a beautiful young Scottish girl, the daughter of a baronet, had become obsessed with the thought of making a royal marriage even since having her fortune told to that effect. Sensibly not setting her sights too high, Sarah targets the inexperienced but hot-blooded young heir to the Grand Duchy of Gerolstein; further assisted in this plan by her late father’s political connections, which secure her an introduction to the Gerolstein Court. After ingratiating herself with the susceptible Grand Duke Maximilian, Sarah then gets to work on Rodolph, finally inflaming him to such a degree as to draw from him a proposal of marriage.

Rodolph, though dizzy with his first serious passion, is only too well aware of what his father’s reaction will be to such a mésalliance, and presses upon Sarah the absolute necessity for secrecy. She agrees and, with the connivance of Polidori, with whom Sarah has entered into a partnership of exploitation, the two are married. Sarah has no intention of staying in the shadows a second longer than absolutely necessary, however, and as soon as her pregnancy is sufficiently advanced, she begins dressing so as to reveal it…

The consequences are tragic, and very nearly fatal, as in the inevitable violent confrontation between Rodolph and the Grand Duke, the young man is provoked into drawing his sword upon his father—saved from parricide only by the swift intervention of Sir Walter Murphy, the blunt, painfully honest Englishman to whom Rodolph’s physical education has been entrusted. In the subsequent fallout, Polidori is arrested. To save his own skin, he proves that the marriage isn’t legal, and also sells out Sarah, producing one of her letters to her brother and accomplice, which he took the precaution of acquiring earlier, in which her schemes against Rodolph are spelled out in the most cold-blooded terms—and in which she hints at the possible disposal of the Grand Duke Maximilian.

Overwhelmed with grief and remorse, Rodolph did everything he could to expiate his guilt, leaving Gerolstein for a time at his father’s command, and later obediently marrying a bride chosen for him. During his absence, Sarah was banished from the country and the whole business hushed up. At that time, Rodolph’s deep bitterness and resentment did not leave him much feeling for his child, but later, when he heard that Sarah had remarried – or married – he found himself yearning for his daughter. He tried to contact Sarah, in order to beg for custody of the girl, by then four years old, but for two years was unable to gain any word of the child—and when he finally hear from Sarah, it was to inform him that their daughter was dead…

One of the novel’s surprises is that Sarah, too, genuinely believes her daughter dead; it isn’t just another scheme, or at least, not on her part. As part of her preparations for her marriage with the Count Macgregor (I’m not sure how anyone gets to be “Count Macgregor”, and the novel isn’t telling), she farms the girl out and arranges for her to be raised on the proceeds of a trust fund. Unfortunately, the people who have charge of Amelia (aka Marie) decide that such a nest egg would be wasted on the child and appropriate it for themselves, covering up the business with a fake death and an equally fake investment failure: a transaction facilitated by our old friend, the notary M. Ferrand.

When first sent away by his father, Rodolph swore a solemn oath:

“From that hour I have been a prey to the deepest, the most acute remorse. I immediately quitted Germany for the purpose of travelling, with the intent, if possible, of expiating my guilt; and this self-imposed task I shall continue while I live. To reward the good, to punish the evil-doer, relieve those who suffer, penetrate into every hideous corner where vice holds her court, for the purpose of rescuing some unfortunate creatures from the destruction into which they have fallen,—such is the employment I have marked out for myself.”

Such he did until summoned back to Gerolstein to marry, and such he begins doing again after the death of his wife. One of the first recipients of his assistance is a certain Mme Georges, real name Mme Duresnal, a connection of some close friends of his family, who he found in great distress in Paris, and removed to his model farm in the countryside. Mme Georges has the misfortune to be married to a man who, although well-born, has become one of the most vicious and feared of the Parisian criminal element. Many years earlier, Duresnal not only left his wife destitute, but stole away their only child, a son, with the aim of raising him to follow in his own footsteps. Unfortunately, from his father’s point-of-view, the boy took after his mother; and when as a mere youth he was placed in a bank with the sole purpose of facilitating a robbery, he blew the whistle on his father and his associates. Swearing bloody vengeance on his son, Duresnal was sentenced to life imprisonment—but subsequently escaped…

Rodolph’s plunge into the Parisian underworld is in hope of finding some hint of the fate of the boy, who after living under a series of false names, and moving from job to job, has disappeared—having either gone into hiding, or having fallen victim to his own father. The only clue to his identity that his grieving mother was able to offer Rodolph is that the last time she saw her child, he was wearing “a small Saint Esprit, sculptured in lapis lazuli, tied round his neck by a chain of silver”.

Various plots and manoeuvres bring Rodolph into contact with a notorious criminal known, for his superior education, as the Schoolmaster; his partner in crime (among other things) is none other than Fleur-de-Marie’s old nemesis, La Chouette. Rodolph is trying to lure these two vile criminals into a trap when he makes two startling discoveries: they have knowledge of Fleur-de-Marie’s origins, and La Chouette is wearing the lapis lazuli keepsake of Mme Georges’ son. The Schoolmaster is known as an escaped convict, one who has gone to length of horribly disfiguring his own face in order to conceal his identity: it occurs to Rodolph that he may be none other than M. Duresnal.

So begins a violent conflict that forms one of the main threads of the novel, as Rodolph counters and thwarts the criminal pair, earning their deadly enmity and finding himself in ongoing danger of his life, all while trying to discover what exactly the Schoolmaster and La Chouette might know about Fleur-de-Marie and the missing youth, and also protecting Fleur-de-Marie herself, against whom La Chouette nurses a venomous hatred. One of her favourite fantasies involves throwing vitriol into the girl’s lovely face… And horrifying as this is—we must observe that the punishment which Rodolph eventually inflicts upon the Schoolmaster comprises the novel’s most shocking moment.

Meanwhile, Rodolph is not the only one who has been widowed. A free woman again, Sarah is back on his track, more obsessed than ever not just with the thought of marrying royalty, but of drawing Rodolph back into her web. At this time Sarah does not know that Rodolph saw her incriminating letters, as so fools herself that she might be able to make him love her again. She follows him, spies upon him, weaves schemes around him…and sees that he is in love with another woman, and a married woman at that, who becomes the target of her secret emnity as a consequence. (I’m not even going to touch that incredibly convoluted subplot.)

Finally Sarah decides that the only way she can possibly recapture Rodolph and the crown of Gerolstein is through their daughter; their dead daughter. She has marked Rodolph’s protection of, and deep affection for, Fleur-de-Marie, and realises that she has identified his most vulnerable point. Were their daughter still alive, she could surely persuade him into a marriage that, however little he wanted it personally, would legitimise the girl. Sarah begins plotting to impose a fake Amelia upon Rodolph—deciding also to simultaneously remove an unwanted complication and increase Rodolph’s emotional vulnerability by having Fleur-de-Marie murdered. It is not until after she has set her plot in motion that Sarah finds out who Fleur-de-Marie actually is

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Sue7