Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Eugène Sue (1804–1857)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE FAME of Eugène Sue as the author of two works, ‘The Wandering Jew’ and ‘The Mysteries of Paris,’ has spread far beyond his own country. He wrote upwards of forty other novels; he was very much of a personage in the social and intellectual life of his day, when romanticism was popular in the literature of several lands. But those two fictions are now his passport to consideration. They were extravagantly lauded in their time; their vogue was great. Judged critically they have faults enough; but their conspicuous merits can be detected almost as easily now as when they were written, half a century ago. Detached from their time, they have permanent qualities for success. Sue was a man of cultivation and social position, of much and close observation: he had seen many men and many things. Moreover he was a born story-teller, who had the knack of vivid presentation, the feeling for drama. Again, in his middle life he became interested in socialistic ideas, and gave attention to the state of the Parisian working-folk,—of the poor and outcast. He put them into his fiction with lavish detail, with sympathy and picturesque power. It was a novel thing in fiction. It gave Sue’s stories what would now be called a “purpose” flavor. It lent fascination and raison d’être to his work. Sue was, like Dumas, an improviser, and possessed remarkable fecundity and invention. To these qualities add the instinct for portraying the weird and the terrible, and it is not hard to understand why he was popular in his day, and retains a good share of that popularity still.  1
  Both his father and grandfather were distinguished surgeons in the navy. Eugène—Marie Joseph was his baptismal name, but he took that of Eugène because Prince Eugène Beauharnais and the Empress Joséphine were his sponsors—was born in Paris on December 10th, 1804, and was sent to a city school. As a lad he was full of pranks and of a lively wit. He was educated to his father’s profession, and when twenty-three went aboard ship as a surgeon. Six years he spent in the navy, storing up impressions and experiences. He retired upon the death of his father in 1830, which made him heir to a large fortune. At this juncture Sue was a fashionable young fellow, with every temptation to become an idle man-about-town; but there was good stuff in him, and he had a desire to exercise his talents.  2
  His turning to literature seemed accidental. At the opera one evening, a friend who edited a dramatic paper suggested to Sue a plot for a nautical tale. The latter went home and wrote it out, and the editor and his readers liked it. This furnished the necessary impulse for a series of novels, in which Sue made use of his naval life, introducing a good deal of exotic color—as Pierre Loti was to do later. ‘Plick and Plock’ (1831) was the first; and ‘Kernock the Pirate,’ ‘Attar Gull,’ and ‘La Coucaratcha,’ are other representative works of the class. They have the negligences and extravagances of the hasty writer of talent; and situations and heroes have a tendency to be Byronic. Their reception was flattering. Sue became a literary idol; not only read by the multitude, but praised by the best critics. Sainte-Beuve declared of these earlier stories that Sue had been the first French writer to venture on the sea story, and to discover the Mediterranean for literature. He was hailed as the French Cooper.  3
  A tone of worldliness and skepticism characterized Sue at this stage of his career,—a mood to be thrown off in subsequent and more earnest fiction. A period was put to his use of the sea by a five-volume ‘History of the French Navy,’ which appeared in 1837, and would perhaps have been taken more seriously had the author’s reputation as a romancer been less firmly established. After trying his hand at historical romances like ‘Latréaumont’ and ‘Jean Cavalier,’ Sue became imbued gradually with socialistic doctrine, and under this influence wrote ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ (1842) and ‘The Wandering Jew’ (1844–5). There is no question about the boldness and brilliancy of conception in these books, nor of their earnestness of intention and varied attraction. The former is not so much a close-knit novel as a great number of loosely connected episodes and pictures. Sue is eminently episodical; his canvas is a vast one, and he crowds it with figures. Yet such is his gift that this social kaleidoscope leaves distinct impressions; his moving scenes enthrall the beholder. He is facile rather than deep; but his representation of social misery and depravity in France did good in arousing people’s minds to the facts, as did Dickens’s representation of similar evils in England. In ‘The Wandering Jew,’ the central idea of the wretch doomed to wander for centuries from land to land, leaving woe in his tracks, is handled allegorically to suggest the release of this symbolic personage as typical of the future release of humanity from all its social bondage. In this romance again Sue is rambling and diffuse, and lacks unity of construction. But there is genuine grandeur at times, and much that is strong and striking. Such a work must always command a wide audience,—witness the many editions and translations. When these two romances were given to the public, the romanticism of Dumas the elder on the one hand, and of Hugo on the other,—the body and soul of the romantic,—was in the air. Sue in both manner and matter contributed to this school of writers. He had something of the narrative gift of Dumas, and of the ethical earnestness of Hugo.  4
  Eugène Sue’s sympathy with radicalism was illustrated in practical life when he sat for Paris in the Assembly of 1850,—being elected by a very large majority. The child whose sponsors were royalty, and whose early works savored strongly of court life and intrigue, had come a long journey. The Coup d’État of 1852 drove him into exile at Annecy in Switzerland, where he spent the remaining years to his death on July 3d, 1857. This final period was active so far as the making of novels is concerned: some eight or ten stories were published, one posthumously; but they added nothing to his reputation, though showing that the increase of years had little effect upon his fertility. But it is Eugène Sue’s production during his middle period—the manner and motive of ‘The Mysteries of Paris’ and ‘The Wandering Jew’—that make him an attractive figure, a favorite writer of romance.  5

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.