InSerial: The Mysteries of Paris, Part Nineteen


The previous chapter of The Mysteries of Paris can be found in the July issue of InTranslation, and earlier chapters can be found in the Fiction section of The Brooklyn Rail, where they were serialized in seventeen parts from September 2018 to May 2020.

Translator’s Note

Eugène Sue owed his immense popularity to the series of sensational novels of Parisian low life he began in 1842 with Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris). The book appeared as a serial novel, or feuilleton, in the conservative newspaper Le Journal des débats. It provided readers with an examination of working-class and criminal Paris that no novel had until then portrayed. With its portraits of prostitutes, criminals, and villains of all stripes, who speak in their own language and move about in their own milieu, the book caused a scandal upon its release. Unlike his contemporaries, Sue abandoned the drawing rooms of the beau monde for the dive bars and cabarets of central Paris, the Ile de la Cité, where the story is set.

There had, of course, been fictional descriptions of urban life before, but their focus had been on the Parisian bourgeoisie and its interaction with the remnants of the French aristocracy. Sue upset the codes of contemporary action and introduced a dark, violent underworld, a secret Paris as exotic, as foreign as any city portrayed in Sue’s popular maritime novels. Although colorful characters and cunning criminals were not unknown in French fiction, Sue’s brand of insistent realism was more in keeping with the methods of a social worker or journalist. His gritty depictions of the poor and the criminal classes eschew the elements of the fabulous and the burlesque to portray characters in their natural setting. There are elements of Dickens in his work, but without the latter’s good-natured bonhomie and humor. And while our attitudes of what is acceptable or appropriate in literature have broadened considerably since the 1840s, there was nothing picturesque about the book at the time of its appearance. The scandal was real, and Sue was reviled by conservative literary critics of his day for having shoved their noses into the gutters of Paris. He was also accused of literary speculation and said to have profited from a depiction of the poor and the downtrodden. This was to be expected. Elements of the socialist press took Sue at his word, however, and championed the book as a denunciation of poverty and a plea in favor of the common man, those who were referred to as les classes populaires.

Sue’s characters are types–the abandoned girl forced into prostitution, the ex-convict who is expert with a knife, thugs and thieves, and the avenging angel of upper-class guilt who disguises himself as a laborer and mingles with the habitués of low bars and cabarets in search of a long-lost daughter–but they are drawn from life. They speak, in part, the language of their world, and Sue’s Mysteries incorporates the mid-nineteenth century argot of the criminal underworld to more accurately capture their reality.

Not a form of muckraking so much as an expression of the moral regeneration of society, Sue’s work embodies the spirit of social reform then coming into vogue (the book helped inspire the 1848 revolution and, in its writing, Sue himself became a republican-socialist). Like many of his contemporaries on the left, he had ideas about social reform. He believed criminals should be locked up in prison cells and that there should be created a “court of virtue” that would publicly recompense exemplary activities. These attitudes are directly reflected in the novel.

Obviously, at some 1,300 pages in length, the cast of characters is large and varied, and ample space is given to digressions of a moral and social nature on the betterment of society and suggestions for the improvement of “public morals” and reform (Sue was a firm believer in philanthropy). But what is most immediately apparent is Sue’s willingness to depict his characters much as he found them. It is this sense of vitality and the boisterous intermingling of high life and low that made the book such a success upon publication. That, and the fact that it spoke directly to the “people,” depicting the populace, the “rabble” in all its motley glory. For this Sue has been justly praised.

What is most fascinating about Sue’s book and its method of publication is that it functioned as an early form of interactive media. The novel was published serially between June 1842 and October 1843. Sue wrote daily installments of a chapter in length, which appeared at the bottom of the paper’s front page. The novel became so popular that copies of Le Journal des débats were read aloud in cafés throughout the city and frequently stolen by those who did not have the means to buy them. Its readers came from nearly every stratum of society, from street sweeper to senator. It stirred up such interest and such controversy that the newspaper and Sue himself received an unprecedented number of letters from readers. Many of these have survived and are preserved in Paris (see Christopher Prendergast, For the People by the People? Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris: A Hypothesis in the Sociology of Literature, Oxford, 2003). The letters congratulate, praise, criticize, and exhort Sue, frequently correcting him on the verisimilitude of his characters, their speech, dress, behavior, and mannerisms. Some authors, notably Louis Chevalier (Classes laborieues et classes dangereuses), feel that these readers had a direct influence on the shape of the novel, modifying its structure and characterizations as it progressed. “What starts out as a fairly conventional crime novel, with its roots in the inherited tradition of popular melodrama, becomes, under the impact of the letters, progressively transformed into a novel of contemporary working-class life” (Prendergast). Therefore, while The Mysteries of Paris was not the first novel to be serialized in France, it was the one that had the greatest impact on its readers and–if we are to trust Chevalier’s research–the one that was mostly greatly influenced by them in turn.

The following chapter is taken from Part 2 of The Mysteries of Paris. In Part 1 we were introduced to several of the book’s leading characters: Rodolphe (the Prince of Gerolstein, acting incognito as a common laborer), La Goualeuese (an orphaned young woman rescued by Rodolphe), the ex-convict Chourineur, the Schoolmaster (a criminal mastermind) and his companion, Finette, David and Cecily. At the end of Part 1, Rodolphe has paid La Goualeuse’s debts to the Abbess, owner of a local dive bar for whom the young woman is forced to work, and taken her to a farm outside Paris run by one Madame Georges, who agrees to watch over the young woman as if she were her own daughter. Rodolphe returns to Paris to settle matters with the Schoolmaster once and for all and to offer Chourineur an opportunity to lead a life outside the confines of the criminal underworld. In a scene of unqualified revenge, Rodolphe has his personal physician, David, a former slave on an American plantation in Florida whose freedom Rodolphe has bought, blind the Schoolmaster to ensure he will never commit another crime. After leaving him with sufficient money to enable him to obtain food and lodging for the future, he sends him off into the night.

Part 2 begins with Rodolphe’s offer to set Chourineur up in business for himself as recompense for changing his ways and coming to his aid. Rodolphe entrusts his private secretary, Sir Walter Murph, and the Baron de Graün, a member of the court of Gerolstein, with obtaining information about the birth of La Goualeuse and the whereabouts of a young man by the name of François Germain, the Schoolmaster’s son. We are introduced to the Marquis d’Harville, an old friend of Rodolphe’s, to whom, it turns out, Madame Georges is related. A brief history of David and Cecily and their escape to France with Rodolphe is given. The installment presented here, chapter 9, continues a scene in the house on the Rue du Temple, where Rodolphe is renting a room as a base of operations from which he can continue his search for François Germain.

– Robert Bononno

9. The Three Floors

“I ran to get Alfred. There in our lodge was the porter’s wife from number 19 and the oyster seller who stands by the door of the bar just adjacent. I told them about how the Commander had called me his angel and grabbed me by the waist. And we all laughed, and Alfred as well, although he’s often quite melan…, yes, melancholic, as he calls it, although he’s quite melancholic according to that monster Cabrion.”

Rodolphe looked at her with astonishment.

“One of these days, when we know one another better, I’ll tell you all about it. But Alfred, in spite of his melancholy, began calling me his angel. At that moment, the Commander stepped out of his apartment and closed the door, but because he heard us laughing he didn’t dare come downstairs, fearing we would make fun of him, as he had to pass before the lodge to leave. Once we figured this out, the oyster seller, with her loud voice, began to shout, ‘Pipelet, you’re late, my angel!’ With that the Commander stepped back into his apartment and slammed the door violently, a real terror he is, he must be as furious as a tiger that one. Why, the end of his nose is white. After a while he opened and closed the door perhaps ten times to see if there was anyone in the lodge. There were, we hadn’t budged. Finally, when he saw that we weren’t going anywhere, he made his move. He came down four steps at a time, threw the key at me without a word, and ran off angrily as we burst out laughing, and all the while the oyster seller kept repeating, ‘You’ve come so late, my angel!’”

“But what if the Commander refuses to employ you further?”

“He wouldn’t dare. He has no choice. We know where his little floozy lives and if he were to say anything, we’d threaten to divulge his secret. And who else is going to clean house for him for his lousy 12 francs? Some woman from the outside? We’d make her life a living hell. That miserable tightwad! And would you believe, Monsieur, that he’s so petty that he looks after his own wood and counts the number of logs we burned while waiting for him? He’s a parvenu for sure, a rich good-for-nothing. The head of a lord on a beggar’s body; a spendthrift one moment, a miser the next. I have nothing against him, of course, but it pleases me that his lady friend is taking him for a ride. I’d wager the same thing happens tomorrow. I’m going to tell the oyster seller who was here the other time, it’ll amuse her. If the little lady shows up, we’ll see whether she’s a brunette or a blonde, and if she’s polite. Really, Monsieur, can you imagine what a dolt the husband must be! What a farce. But that’s his business, the poor dear man. Tomorrow, we’ll see the little lady and, in spite of her veil, she’ll have to lower her nose pretty far if we’re not to know the color of her eyes. The woman has no shame, as we say where I come from. Shows up at a man’s house and pretends to be afraid. But excuse me, I have to take my pot off the stove, it’s done singing and my stew is begging to be eaten. I made tripe; Alfred will be delighted. He’s always saying, ‘I would betray France for some tripe.’ His beloved France! The old dear.”

While Madame Pipelet attended to her household affairs, Rodolphe succumbed to a series of doleful reflections. The woman in question (who may or may not have been the Marquise d’Harville) had no doubt hesitated, struggled at length before acceding to a first and then a second rendezvous. Terrified at the consequences of her imprudence, a salutary remorse had most likely prevented her from fulfilling her dangerous promise. Finally, yielding to an irresistible drive, she arrives in tears, agitated by a thousand fears, at the door of this house. But on the threshold of eternal obloquy, the voice of duty calls her back and she escapes dishonor once more. And for whom does she risk such shame, such danger?

Rodolphe was familiar with the world and the human heart, and was able to ascertain the Commander’s character based on the handful of features sketched by the porter’s wife with a rough artlessness. The man’s foolish vanity allowed him to take pride in the use of a title that was meaningless from a military point of view. He was so devoid of tact that he failed even to wrap himself in the most profound incognito or surround with impenetrable mystery the questionable activities of a woman who risked everything for him; a man so stupid, so avaricious, that he failed to understand that in attempting to save a few louis, he exposed his mistress to the insolence and mockery of the inhabitants of that house!

And so, the following day, spurred on by some fatal urge, but realizing the immensity of her guilt, having nothing to support her amidst the terrible anguish other than her blind faith in the discretion and honor of the man to whom she had given more than her life, this unfortunate young woman arrived at the rendezvous, her heart pounding, distraught; and was forced to endure the shameless observation of a handful of ill-tempered women and listen to their distasteful witticisms.

What shame! What a terrible lesson. And what an awakening for a fallen woman whose illusion of love had been, until then, none but the most charmed and poetic. And what of the man for whom she endured such opprobrium and risk, was he at least affected by the heartbreaking anxiety he caused?


Poor woman. Passion blinded her and thrust her one last time to the edge of the abyss. A courageous effort to maintain her virtue preserved her once more. And what did the man feel about her painful yet guileless struggle? Only contempt, anger, and rage at the fact that he had gone out of his way three times for nothing and that his foolish vanity had been gravely compromised–in the eyes of his porter. Finally, and this was the ultimate sign of his great and vulgar ineptitude, the man spoke and dressed in such a way for this first interview that he surely piled shame and confusion upon a woman already crushed beneath the weight of shame and confusion.

What a painful lesson it would be, Rodolphe thought, if this woman (hopefully unknown to me) had overheard the words used to describe behavior, certainly culpable, that had cost her so much love, terror, and remorse, and so many tears as well. And when he considered that the Marquise d’Harville could be the sad heroine of this adventure, Rodolphe wondered through what aberration, what fatality the young, Monsieur d’Harville, spiritual, devoted, generous, and tenderly in love with his wife, could be sacrificed to a man so foolish, avaricious, egotistical, and ridiculous. Had the marquise fallen in love with the appearance alone of this man, who was said to be quite handsome?

However, Rodolphe knew Madame d’Harville to be a woman of passion, wit, and refinement, a woman of exalted character; not the slightest reproach had so much as grazed her reputation. Where could she have met the man? Rodolphe saw her quite frequently and did not recall having met anyone at the d’Harville home who resembled the Commander. After these mature considerations, Rodolphe had almost convinced himself that the woman was not the marquise.

Madame Pipelet, having concluded her culinary responsibilities, resumed her conversation with Rodolphe.

“Who lives on the second floor?” he asked.

“Mother Burette, an excellent reader of cards. She can read your hand like an open book. Some very high-class people come to see her to have their fortune told. She makes so much money her purse is fatter than she is. And yet, that is only one of her skills.”

“Oh? What else does she do?”

“She maintains what you might call a private pawnshop.”


“I’m only telling you this because you’re a young man and it will help you decide to become our tenant.”


“Carnival will soon be starting; the season of dairymaids and strongmen, Turks, and savages. That’s when the well-heeled are sometimes a little short of cash. And it’s always convenient to have a resource close to home, instead of having to ask your aunt, and we all know how humiliating that is since everyone knows your business.”

“Your aunt? Does your aunt lend money?”

“What, you didn’t know? Come, come, you’re pulling my leg. And at your age!”

“How am I pulling your leg, Madame Pipelet?”

“Asking me if my aunt makes loans.”


“Because every young person above the age of reason knows that ‘going to see your aunt’ means that you’re bringing something to a pawnshop.”

“Oh, now I understand, the woman on the second floor also lets you pawn things for cash?”

“Very clever, very clever. Of course she lends money, and for a lot less than the pawnbroker. And it’s much simpler. There’s no embarrassment, no paperwork, no receipts, no figures, and on and on. For example, if you bring Mother Burette a shirt that’s worth three francs, she’ll lend you ten sous. One week later you bring her 20 sous, otherwise she keeps the shirt. Simple, isn’t it? Always round numbers. A child could understand it.”

“Oh, it’s all quite clear; but I thought it was illegal to lend money that way.”

“Hah, hah, hah,” Madame Pipelet burst out laughing. “Did you just escape from your village, young man? Excuse me. Pretend I’m your mother and you’re my child.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“Of course it’s illegal to take goods in pawn, but if we only did what was permitted, we’d all of us be standing around with our arms crossed doing nothing. Mother Burette doesn’t write anything down, doesn’t give you a receipt, there’s no proof against her, she laughs at the police. It’s wonderfully amusing. You should see the junk they bring her. You have no idea what she lends money for sometimes. Once, someone pawned a gray parrot that would swear like a pirate, the scoundrel.”

“Pawned a parrot? For how much?”

“Wait, I’ll tell you. The bird belonged to the widow of a postman who lives nearby, Rue Sainte-Avoye, Madame d’Herbelot. She loved her parrot more than her life. So Mother Burette said to her, ‘I’ll lend you ten francs against your bird, but if I don’t have my 20 francs by noon, one week from now…’”

“Her ten francs.”

“With interest it comes to 20. Always round numbers, remember? ‘If I don’t have my 20 francs, and the cost of feeding the bird, I’m going to give Jacquot a little parsley salad, seasoned with arsenic.’ She knew her customers alright. Frightening her the way she did, Mother Burette had her 20 francs a day early, and Madame d’Herbelot returned home with her filthy bird, who burst our eardrums day in and day out with his F this and S that and B this, enough to make Alfred blush, and he’s quite the prude. Of course, there’s a simple explanation. His father was a priest–during the Revolution; you know, there were priests who married nuns back then.”

“And Mother Burette has no other profession, I assume?”

“No other profession that I know of. But I have no idea what sort of hanky-panky she’s up to in that small room, where nobody enters except Monsieur Bras-Rouge and some old shrew they call the Owl.”

Rodolphe looked at the woman with astonishment. Seeing the look of surprise on her future tenant’s face, she remarked, “It’s a strange name, isn’t it, the Owl?”

“Yes it is. Does she come here often?”

“I haven’t seen her for six weeks, but the day before yesterday she was here. Limping slightly.”

“And what does she do with this fortune teller?”

“Well, I don’t really know. As for the hanky-panky in that little room I mentioned, where the Owl, Bras-Rouge, and Mother Burette all meet, the only thing I noticed was that the woman with one eye always brings a package in her basket and Monsieur Bras-Rouge always has one beneath his coat, but they never leave with anything.”

“And what’s in those packages?”

“I have no idea except that they must be making one hell of a ratatouille. There’s an odor of sulfur, carbon, and melted tin when you pass by on the stairs. And you can hear them huffing and puffing, like a blacksmith. Of course, Mother Burette must be up to something that has to do with fortune telling or magic, at least that’s what Monsieur Bradamanti said, César Bradamanti; he lives on the third floor. Now there’s a strange one. An Italian who speaks French as well as you or me, except for his accent, of course. But that’s not important; a real thinker that one. He knows about herbs and can pull teeth–not for money, no, but for the privilege of it. Yes, Monsieur, the privilege. Let’s say you have six bad teeth. He himself would tell anyone who’d listen that he’s going to pull the first five for free and will only make you pay for the sixth. It’s not his fault if the sixth one is all you have.”

“Very generous!”

“He also sells a very good elixir that prevents hair from falling out, cures eye problems, removes corns, relieves stomach ailments, and kills rats without arsenic.”

“His elixir relieves stomach ailments!”

“That very same elixir.”

“And it also kills rats?”

“Never misses a one, because what’s good for a man is bad for a beast.”

“True, true, Madame Pipelet, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And to prove how good it is, it’s made with herbs that Monsieur César gathered in the mountains of Lebanon, next to some Americans, where he got his horse, which looks like a tiger. A white one with bay spots. When Monsieur Bradamanti is sitting on that horse, with his red jacket with yellow lapels and feathered cap, you would pay to see him. Why–and I speak out of respect–he resembles Judas Iscariot with his big red beard. A month ago he hired Monsieur Bras-Rouge’s boy, little Tortillard. He dressed him up like a troubadour, with a black cap, a high ruff, and an apricot jacket. He beats the drum around Monsieur César to attract customers, and he also takes care of the dentist’s tiger horse.”

“It appears that the son of your primary tenant has a rather modest employment.”

“His father said he wants to teach the boy to understand poverty, otherwise he’ll end up on the scaffold. He’s a clever little monkey, and a mean one. He’s pulled more than one trick on Monsieur Bradamanti, who’s the picture of honesty. Ever since he healed Alfred’s rheumatism, we’ve had a soft spot in our heart for him. But, Monsieur, some people are so unhinged that . . . No, no, it would make your hair stand on end. Alfred says that if it’s true, they would get hard labor.”

“What, there’s more?”

“I don’t dare, no, I can’t.”

“Let’s not talk about it then.”

“It’s just that–I swear it’s true–to say such a thing to a young man.”

“Let’s speak no further of the matter, Madame Pipelet.”

“Well, since you’re going to be our tenant, it’s better that you know right from the start that they’re nothing but lies. You’re in a position to become friends with Monsieur Bradamanti–isn’t’ that so?–to share his company. If you were to believe such stories, you might be repulsed by such an acquaintance.”

“Please go on, I’m listening.”

“Well, they say that sometimes young women do foolish things–you understand, don’t you?–and then fear the consequences.”


“One moment, I don’t dare.”

“What, again?”

“No. Besides, they’re only foolish stories.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“A bunch of lies.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Idle gossip.”

“What, again?”

“Some people are jealous of Monsieur César’s tiger horse.”

“Of course, of course, but what did they say?”

“I’m embarrassed.”

“But what connection is there between some young girl who’s gotten into trouble and this charlatan?”

“I didn’t say it was true!”

“But in heaven’s name, what is it?” shouted Rodolphe, exasperated at Madame Pipelet’s bizarre reticence.

“Listen, young man,” she began with great solemnity, “swear on your honor that you’ll never repeat this to anyone.”

“When I find out what it is, I’ll tell you whether or not I’ll swear.”

“If I do tell you, it’s not because of the six francs you promised me or the cassis.”

“Very well, very well.”

“It’s because of the confidence you inspire in me.”


“And to help poor Monsieur Bradamanti by demonstrating his innocence.”

“Your intentions are excellent, I have no doubt. Well?”

“They say–but nothing leaves this room.”

“Of course. They say that…”

“Oh, I don’t dare, I don’t dare. Very well, I’m going to whisper it in your ear, that way it won’t be so bad. I’m being childish, aren’t I?” And the old woman whispered a few words to Rodolphe. He shivered with fear.

“Oh, but that’s horrible!” he burst out, involuntarily rising as he said this, and looking around in terror, as if the house were cursed. “My God! My God!” he murmured to himself in a low voice, shocked, “Are such things possible? Is this hideous old woman so indifferent to the horrible secret she has revealed to me?”

The woman wasn’t listening to Rodolphe and went on, as she busied herself with her housework, “Just a bunch of gossip, isn’t that so? How could it be that a man who healed Alfred’s rheumatism, a man who brought a tiger horse back from Lebanon, a man who is willing to pull five teeth out of six for free, a man who has certificates from all over Europe, and who pays his rent on the dot–well, I’d rather die than believe that!”

As Madame Pipelet manifested her indignation at Bradamanti’s calumniators, Rodolphe recalled the letter addressed to the charlatan, a letter written on coarse paper, in a falsified hand and half-erased by the traces of a tear. In that tear, in that mysterious letter addressed to the tenant, Rodolphe’s discerning mind sensed a terrible drama. An involuntary presentiment told him that the vicious rumors about the Italian were true.

“Look, Alfred’s here,” shouted Madame Pipelet. “He’ll tell you as well as I that malicious gossips spread those horrid rumors about poor Monsieur Bradamanti, who cured Alfred of his rheumatism.”


Eugène Sue

Eugène Sue (1804–1857) was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. Like his father, Sue studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write. In 1842, he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published serially in Le Journal des débats. It was the first novel to expose readers to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité. His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.

Robert Bononno

Robert Bononno is credited with the translation of over two dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction, and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel’s My Body and I, a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize, Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow’s Swan’s Way. In 2002, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the nonfiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt, and in 2010, he received an NEA grant for the retranslation of Eugène Sue’s classic crime novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Mr. Bononno’s latest translation, Pascal Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father, was published by Bellevue Literary Press.

English translation copyright (c) Robert Bononno, 2020.