The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola.
The Conquest of Plassans (La Conquête de Plassans) is the fourth of Émile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart novels and was first published in 1874. The novel is based in the fictional Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence where Zola grew up), as was the first novel of the series, Fortune of the Rougons (1870).
Whenever I write a post on one of Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart I always hark back to a quote in the preface of Fortune of the Rougons, but it is an important one so here it is again in which Zola explains his intentions for his series:
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.
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
(I've quoted this so much I practically know this by heart now!)
When reading this series, there are generally two important strands of a Rougon-Macquart novel:
- Character: in which Zola writes of one or several of the members of the Rougons and / or the Macquarts and, among other things, explores the idea of inherited characteristics.
- Setting: in which Zola describes the environment of the character, and how it impacts on that character. All of his novels, even in a small way, are focused on the Second French Empire (1852 - 1870; I wrote about that in The Fortune of the Rougons).
The family, the Rougons and the Macquarts, are united by Adélaïde Rougon, the matriarch, who married Rougon but had an affair with Macquart. Children were produced by both unions. In The Conquest of Plassans the families unite again with the marriage between François Mouret, the son of Ursule Mouret née Macquart (daughter of Adélaïde) and François's half-cousin Marthe Mouret née Rougon, the daughter of Pierre (son of Adélaïde) and Félicité Rougon (their story is told in The Fortune of the Rougons). Adélaïde Rougon is described in The Fortune of the Rougons as "quite mad", suffering various nervous disorders. Macquart and Rougon have various undesirable traits, also explored in The Fortune of the Rougons, and in The Conquest of Plassans we see how these have manifested in the half-cousins François and Marthe.
|'Plan de Plassans': Zola's drawing of the map of Plassans.|
The setting, as I said, is Plassans as Zola thought it best to return to Plassans having written The Kill (1872) and The Belly of Paris (1873), both set in Paris (Zola would not return to Plassans however until the final novel of the series, Doctor Pascal, 1893). Here François and Marthe live a quiet life with their three children Désirée, Octave (featured in Pot-Luck, 1882, and The Ladies Paradise, 1883) and Serge (featured in The Sin of Abbé Mouret, 1875, the next novel). The couple have retired after some twenty years in the wine trade and have decided rent one of their rooms to a priest, Abbé Faujas, and his mother. This essentially shatters their quiet existence and their neuroses - Pierre's somewhat compulsive behaviour and Marthe's nervous illness - begin to show. Abbé Faujas's interests are more political than spiritual: Plassans had elected an opposition party to Napoleon III and the Second Empire (which relied on the priesthood's support) and Abbé Faujas was sent to subdue the people and ensure a more favourable (i.e. Royalist) future result. His attempt at his 'conquest of Plassans' is subtle - Machiavellian in fact. He quietly manipulates those around him, and eventually the Mouret family begin to unravel with dramatic and tragic consequences. Zola thus explores two ideas - the idea of inherited illness shown in the reaction of François and Marthe to Abbé Faujas' methods, and the idea of the Second Empire using the priesthood to gain support by any means necessary.
The Conquest of Plassans is a dark tale - the bleakest and most unnerving of the early Zola novels. He has explored the idea of unscrupulous priests in his short stories, for example in Priests and Sinners (published a little later in 1878), and madness in The Story of a Mad Man (1868), the latter of which was an early prototype for this novel, but his portrayal of the descent of François and Marthe into their already existing neuroses is intense and very unsettling and disturbing, and it is his finest out of the first four of the Rougon Macquart novels. I do think The Conquest of Plassans isn't appreciated as much as it ought to be.
To finish, the illustrations from the 1887 edition published by Vizetelly & co.