Thursday 30 April 2020

The Conquest of Plassans | Émile Zola #FRAclassic

La Conquête de Plassans, or The Conquest of Plassans (1874) is the fourth novel in Émile Zola's twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series that I have been reading with Fanda for #Zoladdiction. My Oxford World's Classics 2014 edition is translated by Helen Constantine and has an Introduction by *Patrick McGuinness. He reminded me that,
Like all of Zola's fiction, (The Conquest of Plassans) is also a novel of human truth told with drama, symbolism, lyricism, and imaginative power.

It's set between 1858 and 1864, straight after the events in the very first book, The Fortune of the Rougons. The central drama follows the political machinations of the Catholic Church and the Second Empire against the disaffected rural provinces. A topic, I confess I knew very little about. Even Wikipedia acknowledges the difficulty for modern readers with this now little-known historical period.
Although the novel does assume in its readers a degree of familiarity with the battle between clerical political interests and governmental influence in the provincial towns of the Second Empire - knowledge which Zola's contemporary readers would certainly have taken for granted, but which seems obscure and almost arcane now - its strength lies not in its politics but in its human drama. On the face of it this could have been a relatively dull series of political observations, but instead by the end it is almost a melodrama, such is the anticlerical fury which Zola instils in his work.
To help me get my head around all the French Empires and Republics, I created my own little timeline below.
  • Kingdom of France 987 - 1872
  • First Republic 1872 - 1804 
    • Napoléon Bonaparte
  • First Empire 1804 - 1815 
    • Napoléon I
  • Bourbon Restoration 1815 - 1830 
    • Louis XVIII (1814-1824) 
    • Charles X (1824-1830)
  • July Monarchy 1830 - 1848
    • Louis Philippe I
  • Second Republic 1848 - 1852 
    • President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte
  • Second French Empire 1852 - 1870 
    • Napoleon III
  • Third Republic 1870 - 1940 
  • Vichy Government 1940 - 1944 
    • Philippe Pétain
  • Provisional Government of the French Republic 1944 - 1946 
    • Charles de Gaulle
  • Fourth Republic 1946 - 1958
  • Fifth Republic 1958 - present
Plassans is now in the hands of the Rougon family as we saw in the first book. They are Bonapartists. The bloody nature of his succession, with all it's betrayals and double-dealing, left a bad taste in the mouth of the locals. As this story begins in 1858, the Legitimists (or Royalists) have political favour.

Abbé Faujas', the new man in town (and surely the epitome of literary stranger danger), has his own self-interests at heart. As does Félicité Rougon, the matriarch of the family and the unofficial ruler of Plassans. She may appear to be helping him, but Bonapartist or not, if he gets in her way, she will do everything in her power to come out on top. Félicité is clearly in it for the long game.

Faujas has been enlisted, by a shadowy group of Bonapartists in Paris, to bring Plassans to heel. Le Petit Napoleon was not popular in the countryside after the violent 1851 coup d état although every effort was made to turn this opinion around. The Catholic Church and it's priests are shown here, to be as political, ambitious and lusting for power as the next man. Zola shines a light on religious hypocrisy and power plays and reveals the toxic mix of small town gossip and self-serving intrigues.

It's a heady mix of dastardly deeds, hysteria and madness.

The cover illustration, The Orange Trees, or The Artists Brother in His Garden, 1878 by Gustave Caillebotte is a very appropriate choice given the amount of time our characters spend in the back garden. 

The story begins with Mouret enjoying his garden of Eden-style space, pottering around in his vegetable and herb garden, picking fruit. It's a safe haven for his children to play in. On either side are two opposing political families - on the right are the rich Rastoil's with a pretentious English-style garden and on the left, the family of the sub-prefect, Péqueur des Saulaies with a carpet of rolling grass and a pond. The Rastoil's are Legitimists and the sub-prefect and his friends are 'bigwigs of the Empire.' Mouret is probably a Republican (like Zola), but prefers not to get caught up in the politicking.

Abbé Faujas, our very own snake in the grass, is very interested in what's happening in both gardens.

The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil | Claude Monet | 1881

As Faujas' influence grows, he uses the intermediary garden to bring together the two different groups. As he spends more time in the garden, Mouret spends less and less, isolating himself in his room instead. The addition of Faujas' sister and brother-in-law, Trouche, hasten the disintegration of Mouret's family life...and his mind. Slugs not only attack his lettuces but his peace of mind. And when Trouche takes over the garden, pulling up all the vegetables and fruit trees to create a vulgar flower show, we see this as sign of Mouret's fall from grace.

It is symbolic, and rather satisfying, that Mouret uses remnants of this showy garden as a catalyst for his last dramatic and fiery act. The garden of Eden becomes an apocalyptic fire of Hell. A Zola-esque form of purification has occurred on this troubled site.

Faujas was deliberately created by Zola to be misogynistic. Early on he says to Marthe, Mouret's wife and cousin, (she is a descendant of the legitimate Rougon line, while Mouret is part of the less than salubrious Macquart branch of the family) "you are like all women, even the noblest causes are ruined when they get hold of them."

Yet Marthe succumbs to religious fanaticism anyway, although it's often hard to tell if her fervour is for God or for Faujas. As she becomes more caught up in her religiosity, her family life suffers. The house falls into disrepair, domestic duties are ignored and eventually all her children leave or are farmed out to others.

The Mouret's decaying marriage is also another example of Zola's fixation on genetic dysfunction. This is not a genetically healthy family and when two cousins from the two different branches come together, it is sure to be disastrous. The youngest Mouret daughter is feeble-minded, but that's not enough for Zola. He throws a rat into this seemingly happy existence, to see what these characters will do.

And what they do, is unravel, rather magnificently into madness and illness. Imperfection or flaws are not enough for Zola. Natural determinism is what he is really exploring, and whether or not an individual can rise above their genetic makeup. Zola clearly believes they can't. Even though, he draws the Mouret family sympathetically (the Simpsons of the Second Empire!) they are doomed to suffer the same fate as the rest of the extended family.

The Conquest of Plassans could have been a dry novel about politics and religion, instead Zola created a gripping, fascinating insight into a period of time long gone. That time may be long gone, but our world is still suffering from the same kinds of intrigues and machinations. Except now it is faith-based initiatives being used to drive government policy across the globe, supposedly in the name of God, but really just about power and money.

Zola wrote about his time in history, but his books are now considered classics because they can still have the power to speak to us, 150 years later.


  1. Zola captures your attention in first chapters by describing a very likeable, happy family. He wants the reader to connect with these characters. When this family is torn apart, Zola wants you to feel the pain. I loved this book! Congrats finishing another Zola!
    Today I hope to get back to my previous reading schedule. Corona crisis will continue for months...and I just have to turn off the news and open some classic books!

    1. I decided when we went into lockdown a month ago, to minimise my news updates. For a few weeks I was absorbed/obsessed by everything Covid related, but it was stopping me from doing anything else productive. And now I'm back at work, I once again don't have the time for anything but the nightly news!!
      I'm beginning to think that Sydney-siders have forgotten that the virus is still out there & just because we've had a relatively easy time of it, doesn't mean it won't go round again, as we relax restrictions. But I can't worry about that right now...I still have 4 reviews to write :-)

    2. My biggest problem is…I find myself getting swept into the news cycle rather than a book.
      It is the FOMO-syndrome…”fear of missing out’ …of something. The news will draw me in more than a book…and I can’t fight it. Now I am going to try: keeping a journal of the interesting articles I’ve read by excellent journalists (New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Yorker). My next project will try to start a book in French today. I spent the last 5 years reading French books (…completed the Zola Rogoun-Marquart series), so it shouldn’t be too hard to start again. The ‘interactive’ part of reading (…looking up words and expressions I don’t know)..should help me stay focused on the book. I’ll just have to give it the old college try! "...The virus is still out there"...sounds like a line from a SF book....but it is reality! Some people have a mild reaction to the virus but others are brought to death's door and even pass through it! Just awful times....

    3. I hope you find something immersive (other than news) soon Nancy!
      Restrictions are easing in NSW this weekend. We can do short distance trips again & plan to visit our house in the mountains to make sure it is okay, mow the lawns etc. It will be interesting to see how this works for all of us over the next month or so as we head into the winter months.

      A new site devised by one of the uni's allows us to search by suburb to see how we all fared. My suburb only had 9 recorded cases of Covid. The last one being 29 days ago. We certainly feel like we might be over the worst of it....even though, as you say, it is still out there. And until a vaccine is developed it will be something we have to carefully manage. I suspect international travellers to Australia will be a long time coming. Shutting our borders fairly early certainly seems to have protected us for now.

  2. I really enjoyed this one, though politics are not my favorite. I really know very little of the history of France and find it somewhat confusing -- so many Napoleons! So many kings named Louis! Multiple revolutions! I really should study it harder.

    I have seen the painting on the cover, it's at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. I love the paintings OUP have chosen for the Zola reprints, they're spot-on.

    1. Given how visual and descriptive Zola was in so many passages, getting the cover art right must be hard. Which scene to pick?


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