The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

Translated by Helen Constantine

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

conquest-of-plassans_oupIn issue 1 of SNB, I reviewed Zola’s Money, and Victoria wrote a fascinating article about his “racy, sordid books” for the BookBuzz section. Money was the eighteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and this is the fourth of the series. Essentially, the whole series focused on different members of the same family, and allowed Zola to air his theories about genetic inheritance and psychology. In Money, these were perceptible but not intrusive; but in The Conquest of Plassans, they are very much to the fore.

The Conquest of Plassans (published in 1874, but set about twenty years earlier) is about what at first appears to be a typical bourgeois couple, Francois and Marthe Mouret. The two are first cousins: their grandmother, known as Tante Dide, gave birth to Marthe’s father by her husband Rougan, and to Francois’ mother by her lover Macquart. With me so far? I was slightly confused at first, but this lovely new OUP edition has a useful family tree, which I was happy to be able to refer to several times. At the time when the novel is set, Tante Dide has been confined in an asylum for several years, and the spectre of her madness hangs over the whole family. However, when we first meet the Mourets, they are living a peaceful and pleasant life in the attractive provincial town that gives the novel its name. Francois potters around in his lovely garden, tending his flowers and vegetables, while Marthe sits quietly at home with her sewing and mending.

Everything changes, though, when the family has a lodger foisted on them by a local cleric. This is Abbe Faujas, who arrives with his old mother, and moves into a couple of empty rooms at the top of the house. He seems a modest, if rather strange man – he wears an old patched soutane, takes no care of his appearance, lives in a room with only a bed and a huge crucified Christ in dark wood hanging on the wall. But as time goes on, his true nature begins to appear. His plan in coming to Plassans is to win the town over for outside political forces, and he gradually comes to wield more and more power over its inhabitants. Not only that, but he also exerts a powerful spell over Marthe, who develops a sort of religious mania, in which Faujas himself plays an intimate part. She loses all interest in her family, takes a dislike to Francois and neglects her children, hardly even noticing when they disappear to colleges, seminaries, or in her daughter’s case to stay with her old nurse. Most of her time is spent in the church, or on her knees weeping in front of Faujas, who treats her with increasing cruelty. Her deterioration is painful to read about, and the consequent taking over the house by Faujas’ amoral sister and her hideously drunken and wicked husband almost unbearable. Strong stuff.

The novel ends in extreme melodrama, and it’s hard not to feel that Zola was trying a little too hard to prove his point that nobody can escape their genetic inheritance. In that respect, I’d say he’d developed his methods considerably by the time of writing Money some fifteen years later. But there’s so much more going on here, and the novel is so worth reading, for its wonderful view of French provincial life, its extraordinary characters both low-life and high-life, its satire and its tragedy. So, well done to OUP for commissioning these new translations – this one excellently done by Helen Constantine. Highly recommended.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Emile Zola, The Conquest of Plassans (Oxford World’s Classics: Oxford, 2014). 9780199664788, 307 pp., paperback.

One Comment

  1. Zola isn’t afraid to tackle the hard stuff is he? Some of his works are almost too painful to read. I’ve barely started on the R-M series – is it best to read in order of publication or doesn’t it matter too much?

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