The Fortunes of the Rougons by Émile Zola (1870)

I love Zola’s writing, I have meant to read more of his Rougon-Macquart series, but I hadn’t read anything for such a long time because I was wondering just how to set about it:

  • I could carry on picking random books from the series as they could catch my eye.
  • I could read them in the order they were written.
  • I could read them in the author’s recommended reading order.

I inclined towards the latter, but I hesitated to pick up this first book; because  I feared that it would be a complicated setting a lot of things up but not so interesting for its own sake kind of book.

When I found a group that was beginning to read the whole series, I knew that it was time for me to begin.

I found that my fears weren’t entirely unfounded: there were a lot of characters, there were many stories opening up, and I would have been lost quite early on had my book not had a family tree I could consult; and I’m still not entirely sure about the political history or all of the implications of the story I read.

That said though, I loved this book, I’m very glad that I read it. Zola’s writing about his characters and the world around them is so very vivid, and as I began to the roots and branches of this fictitious family tree I was intrigued by the possibilities it presented; for future stories and for what those stories might say.

The scene is set, and then this story begins with a pair of young lovers who will be caught up in republican protests. Silvère had planned to join the ranks, and he had brought the gun that had always hung on the wall in his grandmother’s home; Miette had thought that she would be left behind, but she was caught up too and found herself  carrying the flag.

Then the story went back in time, recounting the recent history of Silvère’s family.

Adelaide Fouque was the descended from a family of a market gardeners. She was a simple soul, and after the death of her parents during the French Revolution she was wealthy and completely alone in the world.  She was courted by a farm worker named Rougon, she married him, and she gave birth to a son, Pierre.

Rougon died not long after the birth of his son, and  his wife fell in love with a smuggler and heavy drinker named Macquart. They had two children together: a boy named Antoine and a girl named Ursula. The three children grew up in a haphazard wild manner, and it wasn’t long before Pierre soon began to resent his illegitimate half-siblings and his weak minded mother.

Fortune seemed to favour him: Antoine was conscripted into the army, Ursula married and moved away, and when Macquart was killed and Adelaide retired to his cottage to mourn he saw a wonderful opportunity .

Pierre tricked his mother into signing over the family home to him, he sold it off, and he used the proceeds to set himself up in the world. He married Felicité, the daughter of a merchant, and a young woman who was every bit as socially ambitious as he was. They rose very little, but they managed to send their sons to good schools and then university, and they hoped and prayed that they would be successful and elevate their family..

The three boys are educated, but with no capital behind them, their options are limited. Pascal,  the middle child, becomes a doctor, he does good work but the other two … well, they are rather too like their parents …

It seems that the ambitions of Pierre and Felicité will always be thwarted, but finally they have a piece of luck. Their son Eugène had moved to Paris, he was mixing with important people, and he passed information to his parents that would allow them to chose the right associates, express the correct views, and rise to the very top of society in Plassans.

Silvère came to Passans after the death of his mother, Ursula, and her husband, Mouret. He lived with his grandmother, Adelaide, now known to all as  Aunt Dide; he was apprenticed as a wheelwright and he was introduced to Republican politics by his uncle, Antoine.

Antoine had returned from the army and he was the bitterest opponent of his half brother Pierre, who he claimed had cheated him of his inheritance.

When  the clash of the republicans with the government came to its climax, the Rougons’ yellow drawing room had become the centre of political activity in Plassan as the great and good of the town rallied to support the status quo.

Could Pierre and Felicité achive their greatest ambition?

What would happen to Silvère and Miette?

How would the fallout affect Aunt Dide, Antoine, the three sons of the Rougons?

Those are the bare bones of the plot; a plot driven by character, by family relationships and by history. I was so impressed by the portrayal of those family relationships and of how, together with circumstance, they affect the formation of character and the making of decisions; sometimes for good but often, it seems, for bad.

I was impressed by the writing. The characters lived and breathed, and everything feel utterly real. I caught the author’s cynicism; I caught his passion for his subject; and sometimes I caught his anger. One thing that particularly impressed me was the way he could take a small incident and use it to say so much.

I was particularly taken with the story of the young lovers, and the writing about the natural world that ran through their story. That was something that I hadn’t found in Zola’s books before, and it balance the writing about the Rougons and the town beautifully.

There were times when I thought he spent too long with one side of the story; and there were characters I saw too much and others not enough. But maybe as I read on I will see the bigger picture better.

I found much to admire, I felt many emotions as I read; and, most of all, I was struck by how very well Zola laid the foundations for so many more books in this one.

Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (1870)

It is said that Wilkie Collins was at the height of his powers in the 1860s, when he wrote the books generally acknowledged to be his four great novels:

The Woman in White (1860)
No Name (1862)
Armadale (1866)
The Moonstone (1868)

I wouldn’t argue with that. They were the first four of his books that I found and read; and they are the books that I knew that I loved dearly, even when, years after my first readings, many of the details were lost to me.

I’ve re-read two of them, and I was wondering which of the other two to re-visit next, when a copy of another book appeared on the library shelf. ‘Man and Wife’ was the next book after the ‘big four’, it looked intriguing, I really wasn’t sure if I had read it before or not, and so I picked it up; curious both to read it for its own sake, and to see what had changed to make that book not so well regarded as the books that came before.

I found the answer to that question quite quickly, and I have to say that this is a book with many failings; but it is also an intriguing tale, I loved what the author wanted to say, I had to keep turning the pages, and I flew through this big book so quickly.

It begins with a lengthy prologue, set a dozen years or so before the events at the centre of the story.

John Vanborough had parliamentary ambitions, but he knew that the woman he had married stood in the way of his hopes. His clever young lawyer, named Delamayn, knew that the marriage had taken place in Ireland and was able to find a loophole in that country’s marriage laws that allowed John Vanborough to annul his marriage and take another, more suitable, bride.

His abandoned wife, Anne Silvester, and the daughter who shared her name were taken in by her oldest friend, Blanche. Fortunately Blanche had married well and married happily. She and her husband, Sir Thomas Lundie, also had a daughter who had been given the same name as her mother.

As the years passed that 6067069clever young lawyer had risen in society and become Lord Holchester, but he had never forgotten the Vanborough case. He knew that he had done his duty to his client, but he knew that there had been unhappy consequences for the cast-off wife and her child, and he vowed to help them of ever he could.

Anne and Blanche senior had both died, and Sir Patrick had remarried. He too had died, not long after that. His title and estate passed to his  brother, Sir Patrick Lundie, a retired lawyer in his seventies, while his widow, the second  Lady Lundie, took charge of Blanche and Anne.

The story proper begins in 1868 at Windygates, the Perthshire home of Lady Lundie. Blanche was eighteen and Anne, acting as her governess, was a little older.  Among the house party were Sir Patrick; Arnold Brinkworth, who wasengaged to Blanche; and Geoffrey Delamayn, the younger son of Lord Holchester and the school friend who once saved Arnold’s life.

Geoffrey was secretly engaged to Anne; and he regretted the entanglement, while she was eager to move things forward. He agreed to meet her at a remote inn, where they could be married privately. She left the house first, and before he could follow a message arrived from London, saying that Lord Holchester was gravely ill. Geoffrey seized the chance of escape, and persuaded his friend Arnold to go to the inn in his place, and make arrangements foe Anne to stay there until he could return.

Arnold had to present himself as Anne’s husband, to avoid a scandal, and he did everything that he was asked and behaved immaculately.

But Geoffrey didn’t come back. Anne knew that she was ruined, that there was no going back, and that she had to determine her own future.

What nobody knew was that under Scottish Law two people were legally bound by simply presenting themselves as married.

They would all find out.

Anne did everything she could to find out what her situation was, and to protect her friend.

Arnold only learned the implications of his visit to the inn after he had married Blanche.

And Geoffrey did everything he could to manipulate the situation to his own advantage.

There is much to admire in this book.

The elaborate plot twists and turns wonderfully. Sometimes I thought I knew what must happen, but at other times I was taken by surprise.

There was a wonderfully diverse cast of characters: I wanted the best for the heroes and heroines to hoe and pray for; I despised the villain; I was intrigued by woman who clearly had a terrible secret; I appreciated so many different things that the supporting players brought to the story.

The set pieces were wonderful. Sir Patrick brought all of the concerned parties together to determine what must be done; that was wonderfully dramatic and suspenseful.

The very best things were the points that were made about the absurdities of  marriage laws and the inequity of men and women in marriage. They were powerfully made and they were utterly right.

That is both this books greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

The author seems over-bearing when he addresses the reader directly; and his wish to make his point sometimes bends his characters and their stories out of shape.

The sub-plot of Geoffrey’s career as an athlete felt odd and unnecessary.

There are some ridiculous contrivances and coincidences. The terrible secret was revealed in time. It was a wonderful story, but it didn’t sit well in the book and I couldn’t believe in the scenario that allowed it to be told. The whole final act of this book didn’t work.

But, for all of that, the story, the wonderful human drama, held me from start to finish.