The Mysteries of Paris begins in the dank alleyways of the Parisian underworld. A mysterious stranger ‘darted with hasty step into the Cité, that labyrinth of obscure, narrow, and winding streets which extends from the Palais de Justice to Notre Dame.’ That may not sound much like the Parisian streets we know and love, but this book was written before Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, which involved demolishing such medieval (and easily barricaded) streets to make way for beautiful avenues and boulevards. It doesn’t matter though, this book is set in what will always be a fictional Paris, one in which princes wander round incognito rewarding the deserving poor, criminals delight in fiendish plots and virtuous coquettes sing and smile all through their fourteen-hour work days, sustained by happy thoughts and meals of bread and water.
The book is massive; it was published serially in 90 weekly sections and the penguin paperback edition is close to 1,400 pages long. Personally, I was engrossed throughout. As far as I’m concerned, our hero out-swashbuckles the three musketeers put together, while the heroine is so beautiful, perfect and pure she goes through the boring-Dickens-passive-heroine phase and right out the other side. By the end I found myself genuinely caught up in the suspense of where her story could go and how much further Sue could push her angelic characteristics without everyone near her just spontaneously combusting from proximity to her general amazingness.
Possibly the most charming thing about the novel (though it’s a tight field) is the moral imperative that underlies it. Sue was hugely concerned with the plight of the urban poor and while his characters are laughable and his plot absurd he does have a message to share. His descriptions of poverty are shocking and, in their details, frighteningly believable. His polemics against the hypocrisy of legalised prostitution and the enforced squalor in which the artisan class lived are as heartfelt as any passages in ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,’ and turn a guilty pleasure into an important and still relevant read. In some parts, anyway.
I know that bloated nineteenth century melodrama is a hard sell, but if you were looking for a doorstop of a book to indulge in over winter, I heartily recommend ‘The Mysteries of Paris. It’s every bit as sensational and overblown as the promotional poster suggests, but you can always pretend its seriously historical and socially aware fiction if anyone asks.