Published in 1871 The Fortune of the Rougons is the first book in Emile Zola's twenty volume Rougon-Marquart series. In the preface he writes..
"My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws."
Set in the fictitious Provencal town of Plassans, which is based on Aix where Zola grew up, the present day events take place in 1851 with frequent flashbacks to earlier times.
A family of ' ravenous appetites'
The family story begins with Adelaide, daughter of the richest market gardener in the area and heiress to a considerable fortune after his death, a young woman ruled by her emotions and prone to hysterical fits. She offends public opinion by scandalously marrying one her servants named Rougon, a rough peasant. A year later he dies leaving her with a son, Pierre.
Very soon after Adelaide takes a lover, Maquart, a man of ill repute, a smuggler and poacher and 'rendered vicious with wine.' Two children are born, Ursule and Antoine.
By 1851 these children are all grandparents, the family is growing and the majority of them are quite dreadful people. Pierre has conned his mother out of her money and stolen his siblings share but still doesn't have the money and social standing he desires so much.
" The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal."
With the rise of the Rougons Zola is mirroring the 1851 coup d'etat of Louis-Napoleon and the beginning of the Second Empire. Both of them founded in treachery and betrayal, murder and blood.
Not everyone is bad - within all the nastiness shines the story of the young lovers, Silvere (Ursule's son) and Miette.
|Liberty Leading the People - Delacroix|
Zola's powerful descriptive prose is at its best in telling their story especially the quieter moments spent in the old cemetery ( where the book begins and ends) and out in the countryside.
I'm so glad I decided to stop reading Zola's Rougon-Maquart titles randomly and begin to read in the order he recommended. I now have a family background and, having had little knowledge of French history after the Revolution, a better understanding of that era.
This edition includes an introduction, a translator's note, a bibliography and chronology of Emile Zola, explanatory notes, and a much-needed family tree.
A great start to 2015!