Friday, 24 January 2014

`For the Best’: the Multiple Identities of Paul Féval

Stephen Knight

This paper was written for a 2013 conference on global crime fiction and I here wanted to develop some thoughts about interconnections of theme and influence between England and France in the early period, here focussing on the work of Féval and taking my account of his writing beyond the chapter in my book The Mysteries of the Cities which looked only at his Les Mystères de Londres. As this was the only paper on an early topic, I decided not to include it in the special issue of Clues which Stewart King and I are editing from the conference – I have substituted a piece on Vikram Chandra’s ultra-modern cities novel Sacred Games.

In the early to mid nineteenth century there appears to have been more cultural contact between Paris and London  than is usually recognised – far more than in the twentieth century. Crime fiction shows this clearly. The Mémoires de Vidocq were translated into English book and theatre form in 1828 almost as soon as they appeared in Paris, and translation seems not always to have been needed: the novels of Mrs Trollope were well-known in Paris though very few were translated, and this was true in London as late as about 1870 with Gaboriau’s work. In a chapter called `The Language of Auguste Dupin’ Maurizio Ascari has shown in his book a Counter-History of Crime Fiction how many interchanges there were: for example, Hawkshaw the Detective, much admired in mid-century England and America, had a French origin in Le Retour de Melun. Though Maurizio sadly cannot be here at this conference, at least some of his learning is present.

We know especially abut Mrs Trollope because her name was used in a major Paris/ London link. In 1842-3, Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris was doing very well as a feuilleton on the front page of Le Journal des Debats, Anténor Joly looked for something to match it for Le Courrier français. He turned to a young writer, the Breton lawyer turned novelist Paul Féval, who had just done well with Le Club des Phoques, `The Seals’ Club’. By December 1843 the paper was printing Les Mystères de Londres, under the by-line Sir Francis Trolopp, a change of gender and spelling from Frances Trollope, well-known as travel writer and novelist, not yet as mother of Anthony Trollope.

The serial did well and Féval went on to many successes, specialising in criminal melodramas,  under his own name. But the hijacked name was not the only form of multiple identity. In his early plots Féval would write some distinctly international mysteries, and inside them he would deal almost obsessively with issues of multiple identity of characters – maybe they had some origin in his life as a Breton lawyer turned Parisian writer, but also they seem to speak of movements towards the formation of something like  a European identity, if primarily a threatened and even a threatening one.

It is true that the central figure of Les Mystères de Paris is international: Prince Rodolphe comes from a small German principality, but he spends all his effort countering crime in Paris, and his displacement is based on Sue’s liberal reaction to the conservatism of the French aristocracy. Feval’s internationalism in Les Mystères de Londres is much wider-ranging, though it is ultimately focused on a hostility to England that is quite in keeping with French attitudes post-Waterloo.

This time the interest of the outsider aristocrat is simply to destroy English society. The Marquis of Rio Tinto plans to rob the  Bank of England (via a tunnel), blow up the Houses of Parliament, execute the King (William IV),  and with an army of one hundred thousand Irishmen completely take over London. Where Rodolphe battled against the professional criminals of Paris, the Marquis has enlisted `the gentlemen of the night’, and allows them little liberty for personal criminality.

But who is this Marquis ? He is not a blue-blooded liberal, like Prince Rodolphe. In a plot that deliberately slowly unravels – a feature of Féval’s techniques – he turns out to be Fergus O’Brian, whose parents were native Connaught gentry ruined by an English landlord. They moved to the Irish slum at St Giles in London, and died. He became friends with a Scottish family, but was framed for crime by an English lord who also loved the family daughter, and was transported to Australia.

As is surprisingly common in these grand melodramas he escapes, and grandly. He captains an eighteen-gun sloop that becomes a world-wide pirate ship, and he assembles a massive international set of allies that enables him to set up in London as the Marquis, with international supporters, like the Russian ambassador Prince Tolstoy, and with a set of corrupt British professionals and dedicated London criminals. There is the beautiful Susannah, thought wrongly to be the daughter of a Jewish master criminal, and the wicked false Duchesse de Grèves, and a double-identity lieutenant who is both the blind criminal Tyrrel and the robust gentleman Sir Edmund Mackenzie.

Féval uses a basically tourist version of London – he visited for the first time half way through the novel’s serialisation and was pleased with his relative accuracy—and there are some fine elaborate scenes, notably on the river and at the opera. The Marquis’s great plot fails on the day it is launched, but that it is because of personal betrayals being avenged, not because the novel shows the plot is illegal or even unwise. It is brought down by a mix of Scottish and English aristocrats and gentry: Féval was no social radical, just a French ultra-patriot. The novel did quite well in France, and quite well in the USA – there has never been an England-based translation. The novel combines a deeply anti-English plot with a range of wry and sometimes snide comments: wife-selling is described as `a barbarous and cowardly custom, only known in England’.

The novel was part of the spirit of the international times: His city was Londres, not London,. As it was finishing there appeared the English version of Sue, George Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, starting in August 1844 as a weekly eight-page serial. This was rich with English radicalism – Reynolds was a Chartist and decidedly on the left, but it too had an international element, but not through Féval’s influence, Reynolds had lived in Paris for nearly ten years and had written well on French fiction. His hero, the son of a London banker, gets into trouble and then into jail through no fault of his own, but meets an Italian liberal count, loves his daughter and will soon command his army as the Count takes back his principality: Richard will himself become a European liberal prince just like Rodolphe, but one by his own efforts not birth – and here too there is an escape from Australian transportation story, but of a rather admirable criminal who turns to good when back in London.

If Reynolds follows an international path not entirely unlike Féval’s for contextually parallel reasons, in his next novels Féval worked along a richer and more positive version of the same themes. After Les Mystères de Londres he published regularly – Le Bossu (1857) was the most successful, a Europe-wide disguise-based melodrama, but he also dealt with England and Ireland at times, and turned back to international themes in Jean Diable appearing in 1862-3. Brian Stableford, its translator and a serious Féval scholar, has claimed it is the first police detective novel: that view is over-excitable: but the novel is still interesting for its internationality.

It starts in Paris 1863, its year of publication, but looks back to London, in 1817 – watch this date. Gregory Temple is Scotland Yard’s leading detective – some 24 years before they existed and he has been there since 1790, a revolutionary date there as well. He has written a major book on the art of detection entitled The Art of Discovering the Guilty, stressing – well ahead of Sherlock Holmes -- that apparent impossibility is the way in to solutions. He has an assistant, James Davy. The big current case is the murder of Constance Bartolozzi, in London. It may involve the mysterious and polymorphous master criminal Jean Diable, John Devil. There are sudden problems: Gregory drafts his resignation and stalks out. James Davy remains behind. He goes through the files and destroys some. Have you noticed his initials ?

The story relocates to France where it will stay, though it makes a range of international adventures, mostly in back stories. Central, if also multiple in identity is Henri de Belcamp, son of the Marquis de Belcamp, and so he is Comte de Belcamp. The father lives in a castle in a peaceful part of the Oise valley – Féval likes these rural settings not far from Paris. But Henri has been away for a long time. His mother was an English beauty called Helen Brown, the daughter of a rich brewer. Both his partners became the fiancé of Constance Bartolozzi, recently murdered, who also came from Miremont-sur-l’Oise. There is too much riotous elaboration of plot to bother with, either here or in general, but what we do need to know is that the Marquise Helen moved on, and started drinking and stealing, but she also supported Henri when he studied. And did he study? He started at Edinburgh, and by now, 1817, has gathered five doctorates, from Edinburgh, Cambridge Tubingen, Prague and Jena. He returns home to the castle and seems to like the local beauty Jeanne, inheritor of nine million francs. Money floats around Féval novels in huge amounts, sometimes as forged banknotes, but not here.

Henri has friends who look like him, don’t sound like him, but seem to cross his tracks. One is the English Percy Balcombe (note the resemblance to Belcamp). Another is Henri’s mother Helen Brown’s other son Tom who is apparently the same age as Henri. Then there is John Davy. By the end it is  pretty clear that Henri and Percy are the same and it is hard to believe that Jeanne, to marry Percy but saved from death by Henri,  does not know this. The plot seems to make it clear that Henry and  John Davy are the same as well, and that he or they are probably also John Devil. The Tom Brown issue remains a puzzle: after Henri dies at the end, by his own hand, Tom Brown is said to be executed in London. Perhaps Féval meant that: or perhaps he ran out of time or room to explain how Henri arranged a substitute, which is what he does a lot of the time. Even more than in the Mystères de Londres the characters assume identities and cross nationalities as part of their criminal or indeed anti-criminal identities. Reynolds did that too. Only Prince Rodolphe is always the same: the possibly criminal characters are as multiple as modernity makes possible.

There are some other familiar events. One is the Australian adventure. Helen and Tom were, it seems, transported. Percy was also in jail in Newcastle Penitentiary, whatever that was. But Henri was also out there (to make money in mining, proleptically). He helped Percy out of jail and they took off across the country, towards Adelaide, got bailed up by fierce aborigines near the Lachlan River, and narrowly escaped, to find some German missionaries, one of them very beautiful as you might expect. Henri looks very like her fiancé, but he turns up.

If that excitement reminds us of the Marquis of Rio Tinto, we are also locked into his politics. There is throughout not only a criminal class led by John Devil, whoever he may be at any given time. There is also `The Knights of Deliverance,’ who are like a freemasonry with the code word `For the Best’. With many high and also low confederates, their role is to plan the escape and re-establishment of the emperor. But not just that. Led by Henri, they are planning to deploy the new steam-driven ships which are being built by an Englishman named Perkins. Henri met him in Australia. With them they will make the restored Emperor invincible and in particular establish a French international empire based on what the English currently call India. It’s a positive reflex of Fergus O’Brian’s plan to destroy England.

Like Fergus’s plans, it all goes  fine until very late on, when one ship is destroyed in a riot in an African dock and the other just sinks, full of conspirators. Féval often gets out of dead ends by just jumping the wall. Henri shoots himself after his long-lost mother turns up and dies, and his father is fatally hurt. They all seem to just fade away, but that happens in Féval: it is all plot not morality. If the international and the multi-personal are imagined, it is mostly on the criminal side – except that Gregory Temple, who is pretty off-stage through the story, is nearly as multiform as Henri. The detective matches the criminal, as in Poe and man others after. The only positive uniformity is the lost identity of France, but that itself is not aristocratic or bourgeois, and certainly not rural – there is lively satire of village idiocy throughout. Multiplicity is envisaged, across nations and identities, but that innovative possibility is only a threat or at best a counter-threat.

After this Féval tended to restrain his efflorescent plotting to France. In 1863 he launched  the long series of Les Habit Noirs: they are the criminal organisation that runs France high and low. The first novel is The Parisian Jungle (the French is `forêt’), and central to it is M. Lecoq, the arch-villain. Féval’s editorial assistant at the time was Emile Gaboriau and he would famously redeem this name for his detective in 1869, and indeed Féval’s wicked Lecoq does a lot of detective-like things, not unlike Gregory Temple. And the Habits Noirs have international force. Both the wicked head of the Habits Noirs, the Colonel, and the enduring victim turned avenger Andre Maynotte, have Italian identity – and André and his beautiful and enduring wife Julie are Corsicans, but without any evident Napoleonic connection – it is the 1830s now. Multiple identity still flourishes: André comes back from prison and alleged death and masquerades both as a brisk Norman and a seriously crippled man called Trois Pattes, without the use of his legs who crawls up and down stairs and through the streets, and will eventually behead Lecoq with the sharp edged door of the safe he is trying to rob.

This is grand melodrama: but identity is also grandly melodramatic, and potentially international. Féval takes the urban fluidity that is the first context of self-aware crime fiction and lets it rip in terms of  both its human and its national powers of re-formation. Where Balzac and Dickens stuck to humanist morality and class separation, where Reynolds and Sue had overriding if differing political accounts of their world, Féval is just letting urban European modernity run riot. His plots have the same vertiginous characteristics: we are looking at a type of writing so close to the street it is uncensored and unconstrained, and also strangely veridical. Féval is indeed the emperor of crime.


Paul Féval, as `Sir Francis Trolopp’, Les Mystères de Londres,  Paris, Imprimeurs Unis, 1844, serialised in Courrier français, 1843-4, translated  Henry Champion Deming as The Mysteries of London, New York, Judd and Taylor, 1845

 Paul Féval, Jean Diable, Paris, Dentu, 1863, serialised in Jean Diable, 1862-3, translated Brian Stableford as John Devil Encino, CA, Black Coat Press, 2005

 Paul Féval, Les Habit Noirs: le Forêt Parisien , Paris, Dentu, 1863, serialised in Le Constitutionnel, 1863, translated Brian Stableford as The Blackcoats: The Parisian Jungle, Encino, CA, Black Coat Press, 2008

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