O'Neil-Henry on Wigelsworth (2016)


Wigelsworth, Amy. Rewriting Les Mystères de Paris: The Mystères Urbains and the Palimpsest. Legenda, 2016, pp. xi + 232, ISBN 978-1-909662-36-0

Anne O’Neil-Henry, Georgetown University

Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris has excited a great deal of critical attention in recent years. The novel was initially published by the Journal des Débats between 1842 and 1843—Sue was well known by then for his maritime novels, historical novels, and romans de moeurs—and it became an instant bestseller. Les Mystères was a mass-market phenomenon that attracted and circulated among readers across the globe. In their introduction to the Medias 19 issue from 2014 titled Les Mystères urbains au XIXe siècle: circulations, transferts, appropriations, Dominique Kalifa and Marie-Ève Thérenty describe the many translations of the novel that appeared in the aftermath of its publication, and the large number of international adaptations “qui utilisent dans leur titre le syntagme Mystères de nom de lieu urbain" (3). The global success of Sue’s blockbuster and the subsequent works it inspired have been the subject of articles like Thérenty’s own “Mysterymania” that appeared in Romantisme (2013), at least two international colloquia to date dedicated to the urban mysteries, and the special issue of Medias 19 mentioned above. Amy Wigelsworth’s book, Rewriting Les Mystères de Paris, a study of the adaptations of Sue’s bestseller, is a timely contribution to this growing field.

Wigelsworth introduces readers to the little-studied “rewritings” of Sue’s novel that appeared both immediately after the best-seller’s publication and later in the century, and invites readers to consider what she terms their “implications” (2). She tackles the subject of the urban mystery genre through a study of these now-forgotten works (by known and unknown writers alike), examines a “broad representative sample” (3), and focuses on the “specificity of the mystères urbains” and the “dialogue between city and text” (2) that she suggests is inherent in the genre. In particular, the author sets out to examine the phenomenon of the mystères urbains through the critical lens of the palimpsest, a figure that she “uses as a cohesive metaphor to explain and interrogate the various types of ‘rewriting’ at stake in the mystères” (7). Relying in part on Gérard Genette’s concept of “hypertextuality,” Wigelsworth examines the “particular pertinence of the palimpsest trope to popular fiction, and to the mystères urbains specifically” (8), ultimately aiming to establish the “inherently palimpsestuous” nature of Sue’s Paris and the “hypertextual ‘mileage’ of Les Mystères de Paris” (52).

Rewriting usefully unearths understudied texts from both the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and offers insightful close readings of them alongside Sue’s novel. To make these now-forgotten works accessible to readers, Wigelsworth helpfully provides lively descriptions of their plots. From Edmond Rochefort and Achille d’Artois’s Les Mystères de Passy (1844) to Aurélien Scholl’s Les Nouveaux Mystères de Paris (1866–67), the urban mysteries evoked here will surely pique the interest of scholars unfamiliar with them. Wigelsworth shows, for example, how certain adaptations, like Jules Lermina’s Les Mystères de New-York (1874), transposed the urban mysteries into an American setting offering a “sense of geographical exoticism” (59). They contained familiar American stereotypes and “exaggerated and excessive strains of violence and sensationalism” (71), but rather than being “simplistic diegetic transpositions” (60), she argues, American mystères written by French authors show a “more sophisticated, less Manichaean approach to mystery” (78). If adaptations set in the past like Pierre Zaccone’s Les Mystères du vieux Paris (1854) recycle tropes from other mystères urbains, Zaccone’s temporal shift shows his attempts to “differentiate himself from the writers who returned time and again to the tiresome clichés of the Middle Ages” (101). Still others, Wigelsworth notes, like Paul Féval’s theatrical adaptation, Les Mystères de Londres (1844), sought to modify and condense elements of the original feuilleton’s characters, space, and action to fit the dramatic context, at times in ways “entirely at odds with the feuilleton aesthetic” (168). While these examples vary in genre, temporality, and geography, Wigelsworth’s analysis nonetheless provides a picture of the mystères urbains as a cohesive genre: “a decidedly self-conscious group of texts, which demonstrate an acute awareness of, and a deliberate playfulness with regard to, their own functioning” (9).

Perhaps because of the “nebulous and inchoate nature” of the “broad representative sample” of works the book treats (3), Wigelsworth’s central argument can occasionally be difficult to follow. The book begins with an introduction, followed by three “context” chapters: one that explores the mystery narrative from medieval mystères to the roman policier; one that surveys the idea of “literature as a spatial phenomenon” (27) and examines both nineteenth-century urban literature and more contemporary theoretical work on urban space; and finally one that investigates the notion of the palimpsest by evoking both Genette’s famous 1982 Palimpsestes and more recent studies of the trope. The lengthy and at times meandering introductory section—“Introduction,” plus three chapters of “Contexts”—comprises almost a quarter of the book, leaving readers wishing for a single and more developed introduction. This organization also results in the book’s deferral of key claims, claims that nevertheless are not always systematically advanced or delivered upon. The introduction, for example, proposes “revealing links” between the palimpsest and the mystères (7), “consider[s] the new lights shed by [the re-writings]” (8) and “draw[s] conclusions” more generally about reading and writing practices (9). The book concludes with similar statements, such as “[i]f Sue’s text was preoccupied with the city, then that city, in turn, was just as preoccupied with the text” (209) and the “mystères also invite us to view literature itself as a palimpsest” (210). Such ambiguous statements may leave readers wishing for a more forceful argument on, for example, the mystères’ status in the emerging mass marketplace. Nonetheless Wigelsworth’s valuable illustration of the self-conscious nature of the mystères urbains genre and her treatment of these popular yet understudied texts will certainly be of interest to nineteenth-century scholars and scholars of French studies more generally.