By the end of the nineteenth century most newspapers published feuilletons. Immensely popular and widely advertised, these serial novels were a major tool to bind readers to a paper. Many famous French authors pre-published their novels as serials, but even more feuilletons were written by authors who did not quite make the literary canon. In the first ever issue of newspaper Le Journal on 28 September 1892 we find the first instalment of the serial novel La Nymphomane. Une étude passionnelle (The nymphomaniac. A passionate study) by Oscar Méténier. The novel was later published with the slightly more serious sounding subtitle moeurs parisiennes (Parisian customs). Oscar Méténier (1859-1913) was a well-known playwright/novelist/theatre man, famous for his naturalist plays and stories about the working class and underworld Paris. In one of his novels he introduced a prostitute as the main character, something unheard of at the time. He worked with André Antoine for the Théâtre Libre, an experimental theatre devoted to staging realist plays. So realistic in fact that a play about butchers had to be cancelled after the raw meat used as props started to rot and made the audience vomit. Son of a police officer, Méténier had worked for the police himself in his twenties –one of his tasks was to accompany convicts to their execution. He used this experience for his stories. Writing about crime, prostitution and the misery of life in poverty, Méténier’s intention was to show the hypocrisy of a society that judged the crimes of the disenfranchised differently and more harshly than those of the ruling classes.
But this socio-political message might have been lost at times in the way his novels were advertised in newspapers. Under the guise of a serious, sociological study writers –and newspapers – could get away with writing about all sorts of ‘perversions’. The colourful, alluring poster (see here on Gallica) for Méténier’s La Nymphomane by Le Journal should probably be read as: look at this sexy woman immoral nymphomaniac. Read all about this object of our fantasies sexual deviant in minute detail to see how exciting dangerous she is. Through these sort of colourful, tantalising posters and announcements readers were drawn in with the promise of stories about sex and gore more than anything else.
For another lively example of how newspapers advertised their serial novels also take a look here for a poster by Jules Chéret advertising Méténier’s Zézette. Mœurs foraines (1891) in L’Éclair. Interested? You can read Zézette here. For free!