Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Fortune of the Rougons: The Origins of Les Rougon-Macquarts

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.

This extract is taken from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1851). It is perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century description of the implications of evolutionary theory — the interconnectedness of all living things and the inescapable importance of our genetic inheritance, yet still the potential for variation from what has come before and the relationship between death and extinction and survival.


Emile Zola suggested that an alternative title to The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first in a 20-novel cycle involving the Rougon-Macquart family, might be Origins. The novel deals with the emergence of this multi-branched family in the fictional town of Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence) at the nascence of the Second Empire, Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. In keeping with his Naturalist preoccupations, Zola traces the origins of the Rougon-Macquarts’ hereditary weaknesses — their cowardice, greed and susceptibility to nervous attacks or mental illness — that will form the basis of the nineteen later novels. In The Fortune of the Rougons, the Rougon portion of the family rises to pre-eminence in the chaos of social unrest, but only through spilling the blood of others — rivals, random strangers and, of course, relatives.

The family tree of the Rougon-Macquarts
The foil to the scheming of the novel’s long list of characters is an innocent pair of teenage sweethearts — Silvere and Miette — caught up by the idealism of the Republican insurgents. The novel opens with the lovers meeting at the Aire Saint-Mittre, a piece of land that bears a resemblance to Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’, a former graveyard now teeming with life:

The thick vegetation and the eerie stillness of the old cemetery can still be seen and felt in this lane, where the walls are covered in moss and the ground seems like a woollen carpet. On the hottest days you can feel the warm, voluptuous breath of the dead rising from the old graves. Around Plassans there is no spot so exciting, more alive with emotion, so heavy with warmth, solitude and love. It is a wonderful place for lovers. When the cemetery was being cleared the bones must have been piled up in this corner, for even today people feeling in the grass with their feet often kick up fragments of skull.

No spot is more promising for the fecundity of love than the resting place of former generations but Silvere and Miette are doomed to die before the consummation of their match. Why? Silvere simply lacks the requisite survival instincts of his crueller, more decisive, more fertile Rougon-Macquart relatives. Here’s how Miette’s death is described:

In the hour of her agony, in the terrible struggle between death and her sanguine nature, she regretted her virginity. Silvere, as he bent over her, understood the bitter tears of this passionate girl. He heard the distant cry of the old cemetery bones; he recalled their caresses and their burning kisses in the night, by the side of the road; he remembered how she had thrown her arms around him, yearning for his love, but he had not understood, and now he was letting her go forever, a virgin, grieving at the thought of never having tasted the deep pleasures of life.

Emile Zola (1840-1902)
It is back in the graveyard that Silvere meets his end, passive until just before the crucial moment, unlike his peasant companion who fights ‘like a pig being slaughtered’. Only the appearance of Miette’s cruel cousin Justin causes Silvere to long for survival:

[He] felt a surge of anger, a sudden desire to go on living. It was the last revolt of his blood, just for a second.

It is too little, too late. Silvere is not enough like his uncles to survive and second later he is shot, his ‘skull burst open like a ripe pomegranate’.

In the Rougons’ drawing room, the survivors feast, all marked out by the blood of those they have crushed in their desire for advancement. This is how the novel concludes:

But the strip of pink fastened to Pierre’s buttonhole was not the only splash of red that marked the triumph of the Rougons. A shoe with a bloodstained heel lay forgotten under the bed in the next room. The candle burning at Monsieur Peirotte’s bedside, on the opposite side of the street, shone in the darkness with the lurid redness of an open wound. And far away, in the depths of the Aire Saint-Mittre, a pool of blood was congealing on a tombstone.

What nineteenth-century novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Girl in the Afternoon, Serena Burdick (2016)

Dripping with sensuality, dancing with tragedy and ripe with secrets, Serena Burdick’s debut novel, Girl in the Afternoon (2016), brings to life Belle Epoque Paris through the eyes of Aimee, an aspiring painter from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. Aimee is a protégé of Edouard Manet and, at eighteen, has already suffered from losing the man she loves (her stepbrother Henri) and suffering the ultimate betrayal at the hands of her coquettish and unpredictable mother, Colette.


 Aimee’s tale is a deeply personal one, but one set against periods of tumultuous change in France, politically and in the world of art. Studios and exhibitions provide the canvas for our story, while painting and modelling come to stand for the subjects of love and loss. But the novel isn’t just about Aimee. Burdick deftly gives us access to a variety of viewpoints — most effectively, for me, that of the often ignored yet deeply perceptive grandmother, Madame Savaray. The ending is as happy as this web of conflicting desires and perspectives can allow — that is to say not straightforwardly happy at all.

Girl in the Afternoon is subtitled ‘A Novel of Paris’ and it is in capturing France — the city, the countryside and the people — that is most successful. The transition to England in the latter half of the novel is a little jarring and I was pleased when we returned the more vivid setting. The frame narrative, while brief, wasn’t as emotionally affecting as the core story, although I understood the impulse to bookend the messiness of human life, emotions and relationships.

Serena Burdick
What impressed me most about Girl in the Afternoon was its avoidance of cliché and ability to surprise, even though the reader may initially feel in a position to observe what the characters cannot. Burdick has written a love story that isn’t a romance, an homage to the Impressionists and a portrait of parenthood that encompasses the difficulties of nineteenth-century childbirth, the pain of uncertain paternity and the ability of men and women to parent children who aren’t theirs at all.


Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+, or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday, 8 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hotel de Dream, Edmund White (2007)

Edmund White sets himself a difficult challenge in his 2007 Hotel de Dream: A New York novel — can he dream up and recreate nineteenth-century American literary icon Stephen Crane’s debated lost novel, the tale of a male prostitute, a supposed companion piece to his Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)?

Evidence for the novel comes from a testimonial from James Gibbons Huneker (a literary critic and Crane’s friend). He describes witnessing a chance encounter between Crane and a ‘painted’ kid and how the author interviewed him for information, before beginning a novel including ‘the best passage of prose [he] ever wrote’.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
It’s a lofty claim to live up to. In White’s text the fabled novel is entitled ‘The Painted Boy’ and tells the story of Elliott, a syphilic newsboy who earns his living from providing special favours to his customers, and Theodore Koch, a married middle-aged banker, who destroys his life for his love of the boy.

It’s a master class in literary mimicry, taking on an admired forebear’s style, but White also interweaves the narrative with a frame story, a slow moving look at Crane’s final weeks and days with his ‘wife’ Cora in England and then Germany as he dies of tuberculosis aged only 28 and dictates this controversial novel to her.

Edmund White (1940 - )
While Crane and Cora are rendered well, with depth and originality, White seems more invested in Elliott’s story (the portion of the novel which is, after all, actually set in New York). Once ‘The Painted Boy’ picks up in pace, Hotel de Dream is a faster and more satisfying read, while our interest is held in early pages more by the cameos of other literary greats, like an (unflattering appearance) of Henry James.

Both stories revolve around love, death, poverty and public image but exploring the homosexual underworld of 1890s New York is especially fascinating. Elliott moves among fellow sex workers and transsexuals, is loved by middle class men and a mafia boss, is abused by his father, his brothers, his friends. In Theodore White is careful to create not a victim of repressed sexuality but a slave to the eclipsing power of an overwhelming love. It is the specificity of the tale and the recognisable humanity of its telling that makes it relatable.

Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Gilded Hour, Sara Donati (2015)

Part mystery, part family saga, part romance, Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour transports you to the streets of 1880s New York, as it traces the story of two female physicians, white surgeon Anna Savard and her mixed race cousin, Sophie Savard, a physician specialising in women’s medicine.

Donati’s late nineteenth-century New York is a melting pot of different immigrant communities, a city teeming with orphaned children, a place marked by extreme inequality. The novel is certainly not for the squeamish. At the centre of the story is a criminal case involving an ‘illegal operation’ (read: abortion) and the message about the importance of women’s reproductive rights (now or then) is clear, often voiced by our primary heroine Anna.


There are multiple plot lines beyond the case (two missing children, a crackdown on the distribution of contraceptive information, a nun who gives up her vocation to pursue medicine, the man Sophie loves dying of tuberculosis, Anna falling for a Jewish/Italian police detective), and at least four different point of views (although we return to Anna’s most frequently).

The conclusion certainly hints towards a sequel to wrap up the loose ends (don’t expect neat resolutions to many of the questions raised) and the feeling that this novel is setting up something larger than these 700+ pages is hard to escape. Initially I wondered what kind of novel I was reading and The Gilded Hour to some extent defies categorisation even upon completion.

Rosina Lippi ('Sara Donati') (1956-)
I loved the richness of the setting, the depth of the characters and the quality of the historical research, but found the romance elements clichéd and Anna a little too liberal to be believable as an (even progressive) woman from the nineteenth century. With her progressive views about race, gender, sexuality, rational dress, even keeping her surname post-marriage, Anna reads more as a product of twenty-first-century than nineteenth-century New York.

Donati is strongest in building a world—a world of human connections as well as sensual detail. The complex cast is always distinguishable, she hops from head to head without losing the reader and she makes us feel at home with a cast of characters who leap from the page. It’s a tour de force in the transportive power of historical fiction and I’d be up for taking a ride on Donati’s time machine again.

Do you know of any novels you think the Secret Victorianist should review next as part of her Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.