“The Fortune of the Rougons” is the initial volume of the Rougon-Macquart series. Though it was by no means M. Zola’s first essay in fiction, it was undoubtedly his first great bid for genuine literary fame, and the foundation of what must necessarily be regarded as his life-work. The idea of writing the “natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire,” extending to a score of volumes, was doubtless suggested to M. Zola by Balzac’s immortal “Comedie Humaine.” He was twenty-eight years of age when this idea first occurred to him; he was fifty-three when he at last sent the manuscript of his concluding volume, “Dr. Pascal,” to the press. He had spent five-and-twenty years in working out his scheme, persevering with it doggedly and stubbornly, whatever rebuffs he might encounter, whatever jeers and whatever insults might be directed against him by the ignorant, the prejudiced, and the hypocritical. Truth was on the march and nothing could stay it; even as, at the present hour, its march, if slow, none the less continues athwart another and a different crisis of the illustrious novelist’s career.
It was in the early summer of 1869 that M. Zola first began the actual writing of “The Fortune of the Rougons.” It was only in the following year, however, that the serial publication of the work commenced in the columns of “Le Siecle,” the Republican journal of most influence in Paris in those days of the Second Empire. The Franco-German war interrupted this issue of the story, and publication in book form did not take place until the latter half of 1871, a time when both the war and the Commune had left Paris exhausted, supine, with little or no interest in anything. No more unfavourable moment for the issue of an ambitious work of fiction could have been found. Some two or three years went by, as I well remember, before anything like a revival of literature and of public interest in literature took place. Thus, M. Zola launched his gigantic scheme under auspices which would have made many another man recoil. “The Fortune of the Rougons,” and two or three subsequent volumes of his series, attracted but a moderate degree of attention, and it was only on the morrow of the publication of “L’Assommoir” that he awoke, like Byron, to find himself famous.
As previously mentioned, the Rougon-Macquart series forms twenty volumes. The last of these, “Dr. Pascal,” appeared in 1893. Since then M. Zola has written “Lourdes,” “Rome,” and “Paris.” Critics have repeated ad nauseam that these last works constitute a new departure on M. Zola’s part, and, so far as they formed a new series, this is true. But the suggestion that he has in any way repented of the Rougon-Macquart novels is ridiculous. As he has often told me of recent years, it is, as far as possible, his plan to subordinate his style and methods to his subject. To have written a book like “Rome,” so largely devoted to the ambitions of the Papal See, in the same way as he had written books dealing with the drunkenness or other vices of Paris, would have been the climax of absurdity.