- The “Fooliton”: A French Media Invention
Among periodicals of the Victorian era, the French daily newspaper was distinguished by a unique feature: the feuilleton section, found at the foot of the page, and described in French journalism as en rez de chaussée, or “at ground-floor level,” where it was denoted by a dark horizontal line that separated it from the rest of the page. The feuilleton was generally held in contempt by the British; Lord Harmsworth, founder of the Daily Mail, deliberately called it the fooliton. It does, however, accurately define a specific quality of French literary journalism and the French social imaginary.1
As an illustration of this phenomenon, I have chosen the 4 December 1842 issue of the Journal des débats. On that day, the reader could find above the feuilleton, the “premier-Paris,” an editorial column addressing the question of the Orient, as well as a collection of news stories about French foreign policies, readers’ letters, news copied from foreign sources, a series of local crime reports, miscellaneous news items, a mix of advertisements for shows and bookstores, a list of those appointed to public office, a summary of the stock market activity, a list of entertainments, and a series of other advertisements—all spread over four pages. Separated from the rest by a solid [End Page 35] line, in the feuilleton running across the bottom of the pages, is a particularly sentimental serial part from Eugène Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris. Morel, a poor diamond cutter whose granddaughter has just died of cold and hunger in his garret, escapes being taken to prison for his debts. He is saved by the intervention of Prince Rodolphe, the novel’s hero, who gives him the 2,500 francs needed to pay off his debts. The episode ends in a comic sequence in which the caretaker, Mme. Pipelet,2 to chase off the bailiffs, hurls a pot of stew from the top of the stairs—no doubt Sue’s way of easing the tension after several dramatic instalments. Consisting of a very long dialogue, the feuilleton creates an airy typographical space, which sharply distinguishes it from the dense columns on the rest of the page. Curiously, this episode is followed (still in the feuilleton)3—by a very long note signed by the author, consisting of a series of remarks about imprisonment for debt, as well as, notably, excerpts of various stories from Pauvre Jacques, a newspaper published by the Société de la morale chrétienne. In Les Mystères de Paris, Sue ultimately and overtly calls for the reform of legislation that oppressed the poor. From its initial serial publication in the feuilleton on 19 June 1842, Les Mystères de Paris was an unprecedented success, noteworthy for reaching out to readers from almost all social classes.4 Those who could not afford a subscription to the Journal des débats would gather in reading rooms where they could borrow the latest instalment for a half hour a day.
The creation of the feuilleton was, in fact, the fruit of a fiscal subterfuge. Before becoming a genre, the feuilleton was merely a space to be filled, appearing for the first time in the Journal des débats on 28 January 1800. The proprietors of the Journal des débats, having closely examined the law, discovered that they could increase the size of a newspaper page without incurring an increase in taxes. Its original role as a supplement rendered the feuilleton a distinct space, one in which the era’s journalistic writing conventions did not apply. It was a place of resistance, of connivance with readers, of generic innovation—all qualities found in the feuilleton of 4 December 1842. In daring to defend the underclass, Eugène Sue opposed the ideology of the Journal des débats, a conservative organ secretly supported by the government, whose mission was to promote the interests of the industrial haute bourgeoisie. Moreover, Eugène Sue cultivated a certain complicity with the popular class, which for some weeks had sent him a flood of letters encouraging him to continue his work...