The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola

La Fortune des Rougon, originally published in French in 1871, is the first novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It’s also the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin and the edition I read is an English translation by Brian Nelson.

I’ve already read one of the later books from the cycle – The Ladies’ Paradise – but rather than continue picking them out at random, I thought it might be more sensible to go back to the beginning of the series and try to read them in order. I was a bit hesitant about reading this first book, however, because it sounded as though it was mainly concerned with setting things up for the rest of the series – and that was the case, up to a point, but I found that there was still enough plot to make this an interesting novel in its own right.

The Fortune of the Rougons is set in the fictional French town of Plassans and opens on a Sunday night in December 1851 with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, joining up with an army of insurgents. It’s the eve of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état which will result in the formation of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Silvère wants to give his support to the Republicans who are opposing the coup and thirteen-year-old Miette finds herself coming along to carry the flag.

We then leave Silvère and Miette behind for a while so that Zola can take us back several generations and introduce us to Adelaide Fouque who, through her marriage to the peasant Rougon and a later relationship with the alcoholic smuggler Macquart, is the ancestor of most of the other major characters in the novel. He then follows the lives of Adelaide’s three children – her eldest son, Pierre Rougon, and his illegitimate half-brother and sister, Antoine and Ursule Macquart – as they grow into adults and embark on a family feud. Finally we meet Adelaide’s grandchildren (of whom Silvère is one) and see how they all fit into the events of the formation of the Second Empire.

Once Pierre, Antoine and Ursule have married and had children of their own, the number of characters in the novel quickly multiplies and I’m glad my copy of the book included a family tree as I found myself constantly needing to refer to it. The Rougon-Macquart family are largely an unpleasant group of people – Pierre Rougon tricks his mother into signing over her house to him, depriving his brother of his inheritance, while Antoine Macquart is a violent, aggressive drunk – but there are still some characters with traits I could admire and some I could pity. It seems that Zola’s aim in writing the series was to explore the effects of heredity, so in this book the legitimate Rougon branch of the family are shown to be scheming, avaricious social-climbers while the Macquarts, descended from a rogue, are leading miserable, sordid lives.

The history of the coup d’état and the Second Empire is quite complicated, particularly if, like me, you come to the book with no prior knowledge of these events. With Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence, where Zola himself grew up) being so far from the action, information comes to the Rougons via the eldest son, Eugène, who lives in Paris, and the people of the town gather in the Rougons’ yellow drawing room to discuss the latest developments. This keeps the reader at a bit of a distance and it took me a while to get everything straight in my head, but later in the book when we rejoin Silvère and Miette marching with the army we get a little bit closer to some of the action.

I didn’t really love The Fortune of the Rougons, but there were parts that I enjoyed very much and I’ll look forward to meeting some of the characters again in the other books in the cycle. I wish I had read this one before jumping straight into The Ladies’ Paradise as I would then have had more understanding of Octave Mouret’s background (he is another descendant of Adelaide Fouque).

Have you read any of the Rougon-Macquart novels? Did you read them in order or at random and do you think it makes any difference?

This is book 33/50 from my second Classics Club list.

17 thoughts on “The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola

  1. Jane says:

    I haven’t read any Zola yet and I do like starting at the beginning of a series so I think it’s encouraging that you’re still looking forward to the next instalments and meeting the characters again, may be this is where I should start too!

    • Helen says:

      I hope you like Zola when you get round to reading him. I always prefer to start at the beginning too. When I read The Ladies’ Paradise I don’t think I even realised it was part of a series!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve been intending to start this sequence for a long time and have decided to start at the beginning! I like to read a series in order if I can, especially if it spans a long period of time. Must pull this off the shelf soon!

    • Helen says:

      I think you might enjoy Zola, so I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. Starting at the beginning is definitely a good idea if you’re hoping to read the whole sequence!

  3. Lark says:

    I’ve only read The Ladies Paradise, which I did really like. I’ve also read Zola’s Nana, but I don’t know if it fits in with his Rougon-Macquart novels or not.

  4. FictionFan says:

    I’ve not read any yet but have Germinal on my CC list. I decided to jump in in the middle because I often find the first book in a series disappointing and it leaves me reluctant to continue. I prefer to read one of the popular ones first and then if I like it, backtrack to the beginning – a bit like you’ve done here. Do you think if you hadn’t read the later book before this one you’d have wanted to read on?

    • Helen says:

      I would probably have still enjoyed this one enough to read on, but if you’re not sure whether you would like Zola or not, it’s probably a good idea to start with one that appeals and then go back to the beginning. Most of the books do seem to stand alone anyway, up to a point.

  5. Calmgrove says:

    Aix-en-Provence as Plassans, eh? Having spent a brilliant holiday in Aix before lockdown, reading your crit helped me envisage what life for the Rougons might’ve been like even a century and a half before.

    As for the Second Empire, I supposedly studied this period at school for History but I confess I was a very dilatory student and it’s all a bit of a haze (hopefully dispersed by a quick bit of background research!).

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t been to Aix but I think being familiar with the area would add something extra to the experience of reading this book. Even better if you found you could remember some of the history of the Second Empire as well!

    • Helen says:

      I started to read Germinal last year but I was in the wrong mood for it and gave up – I’m planning to try it again eventually. I’ll look forward to Pot Luck as well. Sorry to hear you were bored with some of the others!

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