Thursday, 15 May 2014

Paul Violaine – Apprentice Villain or Unfortunate Victim

In The Slaves of Paris both villains and their victims are trapped by their own passions and desires. Most characters in Gaboriau have both good and bad qualities. Even Mascarin, as we find out at the end of The Mystery of Champdoce has a redeeming feature – he is not all evil.

Paul Violaine’s experience of being caught in the net is the most interesting. Paul arrives in Paris penniless with Rose. He is 23 years of age. He is the bastard son of Montlouis, a merry young man involved in the early romantic and tragic shenanigans of Diana de Mussidan and Norbert Duke de Champdoce. Montlouis is killed by Octave de Mussidan, whose remorse then leads him to support Paul and his mother financially until he becomes of age.

In the opening chapter of Caught in the Net Paul returns to the lodgings where Rose is waiting. He has been unsuccessful in his search for work. Rose is not pleased and an argument follows. Paul complains:

“I ask you have I left one stone unturned? Have I not gone from publisher to publisher to sell the songs of my own composing – those songs that you sing so well? I have endeavoured to get pupils. What fresh efforts can I try?” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1)

He defends himself: “I have no trade; I am no mechanic.” (Ibid.) At his first meeting with Mascarin, the villain pulls no punches talking to Paul:

“You wasted your time over music, and composed songs and, I know, an opera, and thought yourself a perfect genius ...Foolish boy! Every year a thousand poor wretches have been thus intoxicated by their provincial celebrity, and have started for Paris, buoyed up by similar hopes. Do you know the end of them? At the end of ten years - I give them no longer - nine out of ten die of starvation and disappointment, and the other joins the criminal army." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 2)

Paul’s character is established in the opening pages. He is ambitious but lazy. He feels a sense of entitlement. Mascarin offers Paul 12,000 francs a year for an unspecified job. It is an offer Paul cannot refuse. Naïve and covetous, handsome and not very smart, Paul Violaine is just what Mascarin has been looking for. As Dr Hortebise puts it at the cliff hanger ending of chapter 2: “… he will mould this child between his fingers like wax.” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 2)

“Staggering like a drunken man, Paul Violaine descended the stairs when his interview with Mascarin had been concluded.” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 7). Paul is “absolutely stunned” by his good fortune. “Paul was utterly dazed.” (Ibid.) He remains is a state of dazed confusion for much of the rest of the story. He next appears at Mascarin’s office “very pale, and his eyes had the expression of some hunted creature. His attire was in disorder and betokened a night spent in aimless wanderings to and fro.” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10) He declares “My life has ended.” Rose has left him, and he has been accused of stealing the 500 francs Daddy Tantaine lent him. (Ibid.)

When Paul describes the loss of Rose, Mascarin concludes that Paul’s “words were too fine for his grief to be sincere.” (Ibid.) The accusation of theft is a more serious matter. Paul is “horror-stricken,” “utterly bewildered,” he listens to Mascarin in “breathless eagerness,” “a cold shiver ran through his frame,” he stammers, “he was crushed down beneath this weight of argument.” “He had lost the power of hearing.” All this happens to Paul in the space of a couple of pages. By appearing to save Paul, Mascarin alleviates these physical symptoms brought on by Paul’s first brush with crime. Mascarin has captured Paul. He admits that there never was a job for 12,000 francs, but he has “taken a great liking to” Paul. Mascarin will make Paul rich. All he wants in return is “absolute obedience.” (Ibid.)

Mascarin takes Pauls to Van Klopen, a “man-milliner” and “Regenerator of Fashion.” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 11). Listening to Mascarin and Van Klopen plotting “Paul’s cheek had grown paler and paler, for, occupied as he was, he could not fail to comprehend something of what was going on.” Paul begins to learn of Mascarin’s plans: “It was too evident to him that his protector was engaged in some dark and insidious plot, and Paul felt that he was standing over a mine which might explode at any moment.” (Ibid.) The various characters are “all jumbled and mixed up together in one strange phantasmagoria. Was he, Paul, to be a mere tool in such hands? Toward what a precipice was he being impelled!” (Ibid.)

Paul realizes that he is trapped  and there is no way out for him:

“But the web had been woven too securely, and should he struggle to break through it, he might find himself exposed to even more terrible dangers. He felt horrified at his position, but with this there was mingled no horror of the criminality of his associates, for the skilful hand of Mascarin ad unwound and mastered all the bad materials in his nature. He was dazzled at the glorious future held out before him …” (Ibid.)
This is the moment, in this progress of a young rake, when Paul Violaine moves from being a victim and a dumb tool to being a villain’s apprentice. His weak and ambitious nature is seduced. He goes along willingly: “I yield myself up to the impetuous stream which is already carrying me along.” (Ibid.)

Paul’s fall and corruption is completed when Rose arrives with her new lover and he witnesses Rose's transformation. Paul is left gasping, his “legs bent under him, and he staggered.” This is the last straw; now, he says to Mascarin, “I am willing to do whatever you desire.” (Ibid.)

Paul moves into new lodgings and assumes a new identity as instructed by Daddy Tantaine and Mascarin: “You must cast aside your old skin, and enter that of another.” (Caught in the Net, Chapter 25) “Paul’s brain seemed to tremble beneath the crime that his companion was teaching him.” (Ibid.) As soon as he is alone “he was seized with such mortal terror, that he sank in a half fainting condition into an easy-chair. … He recalled the incidents in the life of the escaped galley-slave Coignard, who, under the name of Pontis de St. Hélène, absolutely assumed the rank of a general officer, and took command of a domain.” ((Ibid.)
Pierre Coignard, the “son of a vine dresser” from the Loire region (“Celebrated Trials of the Nineteenth Century,” p405) joined the republican army after the French revolution and “became a corporal in the grenadiers of the Convention But his disposition was ill disposed by nature and soon giving indulgence to his perverted habits he was found guilty of certain acts which occasioned his condemnation for fourteen years to the galleys.” (Ibid.)

“After four years of captivity he broke his irons and escaped from prison” (Ibid.) and returned to France. There he assumed the name and identity of Count de Sainte Hélène and launched himself on a career of crime with a gang of accomplices. He committed fraud and forgery and a string of burglaries using his assumed aristocratic title to gain access to wealthy households. “All the robberies in which Pierre Coignard and his band were engaged had been conducted with a subtle ingenuity that baffled the keen researches of even the police of Paris” (“Celebrated Trials of the Nineteenth Century,” p412)

Eventually, Eugène Vidocq caught up with Coignard and he was brought to trial in June 1819. In the debate about Coignard’s true identity he argued that the scars on his legs that identified him were not really from small pox but  “the effect of bruises which Vidocq had inflicted by severe kicks (“Celebrated Trials of the Nineteenth Century,” p410). Coignard had run out of luck and the judges  condemned him "to the travaux forces for life to exposure in the iron collar and to be branded by the letters TF." (“Celebrated Trials of the Nineteenth Century,” p415)

The story of Pierre Coignard can be read in the April 1833 edition of Fraser’s Magazine (Vol. 7, No XL, pp393-415) in an article entitled “Celebrated Trials of the Nineteenth Century.” The article is a translation from the French original Causes criminelles célèbres du XIXe siècle, rédigées par une société d'avocats (Tome second, 1827, pp219-287). This French compendium of famous trials was a prime source of material for sensational writers like Gaboriau.

Coignard’s criminal career has parallels with Mascarin’s. Scars as an identifying feature appear in Mascarin’s plot, too. Still, Paul Violaine seems to be having characteristically inflated ideas about his own abilities, when he compares his own criminal aspirations with the varied activities of fraud, forgery and theft of Coignard. Paul’s role in Mascarin’s plot is passive. His task is to look pretty and provide Flavia with an aristocratic title.  When he figures out André’s true parentage, h e faints (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 20). Paul Violaine is not exactly master villain material. As Daddy Tantaine observes: “He is a perfect sham! … even his vices are mere pretence.” (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 25)

By the time Paul marries Flavia, he is beyond all caring:

“The change was great, but Paul was no longer surprised at anything. He did not feel the faintest tinge of remorse; he only feared one thing, and that was that by some blunder he might compromise his future ... (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 34)

In the end, Paul’s weak character and overall uselessness in the endeavours of life turn against Mascarin. Like a tool used against its maker, Paul’s very nature becomes Mascarin’s greatest punishment. This is a fitting and deliciously ironic end to Gaboriau’s excellent sensation novel.