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.