A Love Episode is Émile Zola's eighth novel of his 'Les Rougon Macquart' series in which he writes about the temperament and environment of the Rougon Macquart family during the Second French Empire (1852–1870). A Love Episode, or Une page d'amour (known too as A Page of Love and A Love Affair), was first published in 1878, following L'Assommoir (1877) and preceding Nana (1880).
It is the novel which Zola hoped would "make all Paris weep", and unlike most of the Rougon Macquart novels (with the exception of The Dream, 1888) there is a dose of sentimentality that reminded me a little (only a little) of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1841). The main character is Hélène Grandjean, the daughter of Ursule Mouret (née Macquart, who is the illegitimate child of Adélaïde Rougon) and sister of François Mouret (The Conquest of Plassans, 1874) and Silvère Mouret (The Fortune of the Rougons, 1871). Before the novel starts Hélène moved to Paris with her husband Charles Grandjean and daughter Jeanne, however as they arrived Charles fell ill and died a week later. Hélène and Jeanne live an isolated life, looking at Paris only from the window, having only visited the city a few times. She is a beautiful woman and a little like Emma Bovary in her imaginative life which is inspired by reading, particularly Walter Scott, and like Emma she romanticises Paris and the notion of 'love': the advert for A Love Episode in 'Le Bien Public' in which the novel was first serialised claimed that it would "address, above all, the sensibility of women readers".
From Adélaïde (known also as Aunt Dide, the matriarch as it were of the Rougons and the Macquarts) Jeanne has inherited her neuroses and seizures. She is insecure, obsessed with her mother (think along the lines of Marcel in Proust's Swann's Way), and is abnormally jealous of anyone who takes her mother's attention away from her. Some readers will find her a very sympathetic character, but I must admit I didn't, hard-hearted as that makes me sound! As the novel opens Jeanne has a seizure and Hélène runs out into the street to find a doctor. She finds Dr. Henri Deberle and he saves Jeanne's life. From here Hélène comes to be friends with Deberle, and his wife Juliette and her friends, but Hélène and the doctor begin to fall in love: the first time, in fact, that Hélène has truly been in love. Jeanne's jealousy, however, is a force to be reckoned with.
L'Assommoir was Zola's first great success, and for A Love Episode which immediately followed it he wanted to "astonish readers of L'Assommoir with a good natured book". Good natured? Perhaps - but only comparatively. A good natured Zola is, after all, a world apart from, say, a good natured Jane Austen. But Zola was never truly satisfied with A Love Episode. He told Marguerite Charpentier (the wife of his publisher Georges Charpentier),
There are days when I'm worried about this work, when it seems very flat and gray... On other days I find it good-natured and easy to read.... it must be said that we won't repeat L'Assommoir's success. Une Page d'amour ... is too sweet to excite the public. No sense deluding oneself there. Let's sell the thousand and count ourselves lucky.
Yet Flaubert, the creator of Emma Bovary, praised it, assuring Zola it didn't "mar the collection", and writing that he found it disturbing and exciting. Guy Maupassant, another of Zola's literary friends, expressed his admiration too. For me, it was an interesting read as Hélène is essentially the most 'normal' descendent of the Rougon Macquarts. Zola writes about the petit-bourgeoisie in his attention to Deberle, his wife, and their friends with Hélène as the outsider - a key feature of many of the Rougon Macquart novels, and as the title suggests he writes on love, passion, and jealousy, which makes this novel stand out somewhat - the primary focus is on a more universal subject. Because of that this novel did not require the level of research that went into the likes of Germinal, Money, or The Ladies Paradise; this has the effect of reading perhaps more like a traditional novel that the others, but also I felt it lacking in the Zola passion that I love so much. I think I have to agree with Zola - sometimes it falls a little flat, other times it's quite sweet. Though different, it's still a key part of the series with it's focus on heredity - the similarities between Hélène and her brother Silvère are apparent, as are the obvious comparisons with Jeanne, Adélaïde, and Hélène's brother François.
So, for those who are reading the Rougon Macquart novels - it's certainly not one to dread and not as disappointing as I'm perhaps making out, but if you're new to Zola this isn't a novel I'd especially recommend.
To finish - three illustrations from the 1905 edition by Dantan: