In the morning of the second day of this itinerary, we leave Balzac and his epic to go in search of the author who aimed to write a second Comédie humaine (this time based on France of the Second Empire), the man who wished to be considered as Balzac's literary successor, Emile Zola (1840-1902).
Zola's house is at Médan in the Yvelines, and on first entering you get the impression of stepping into one of the pages of his extraordinary saga novel, Les Rougon-Macquart. This saga was the double product of Zola's respect for Balzac and his interest in physiology, and it is the study of a family with branches at all levels of society. Not simply a masterpiece of realistic observation, Les Rougon-Macquart, sub-titled Histoire naturelle et sociale d'une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire), aimed at being an exhaustive depiction of imperial society.
Despite the overall plan for twenty novels being complete already by 1868, the first novel was not to appear until after the fall of the Empire in 1871. Zola did not however abandon the project but continued meticulously preparing for each book compiling huge dossiers of information on the social milieux about which he wished to write. When the saga was finished in 1893 he had created a vast canvass of more than 2000 characters.
Les Rougon-Macquart remains the point of reference for the understanding of Second Empire society. Clearly Zola, a fervent republican, did not in the least share the government's ideas. Indeed he even went so far as to become a confirmed opponent of the Empire, reiterating his attacks in his fairy tales ("Les Aventures du grand Sidoine et du petit Médéric", Contes à Ninon, 1864) and in his articles for the opposition journals La Tribune, Le Rappel, and La Cloche.
Thus what we see of the Second Empire is therefore biased and incomplete: the political regime with its weaknesses and excesses is summarily condemmned, as is the immoral ammassing of riches and the proportional increase in poverty, and the dissolution of morals in a society under tension. That being said, his works give us a brilliant view of an entire epoch in flux, a fascinated vision of modernity on the move, notably: the great constructions and architecture of iron and glass, in La Curée and Le Ventre de Paris; the creation of department stores and of banks, in Au Bonheur des Dames and L'Argent; the railways, in La Bête humaine; conditions for the working classes and the beginnings of trade unions, in L'Assommoir and Germinal; the problems of the countryside and its peasants in La Terre; religion, in La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret; the triumphant middle classes, in Pot-Bouille; the education of girls, the role of women in society, particularly the party girls of the 'Naughty Nineties', in Une Page d'amour and Nana; art, in L'Oeuvre; etc.
Fictional and historical characters rub shoulders as the plot weaves its way through the Second Empire period. La Fortune des Rougon, the first novel in the saga, recounts in parallel the origins of the family, and the origins of the Empire, namely the coup d'état which Zola considered as blood on the hands of the perpetrators. The government, the ministers, and the life at court (notably the receptions at the Tuileries and the famous Compiègne "series") all figure in the different parts of the saga. Napoleon III (Genealogy) himself appears many times: notably in La Curée, Son Excellence Eugène Rougon and of course La Débâcle, the terrible story of the war of 1870 and the defeat at Sedan. The portrait that Zola presents of the Emperor is critical but not a caricature. Whilst Napoleon III appears a confused character, hesitant, hypocritical, poorly advised, a sentimental dreamer, a deluded waverer with humanist ideals, Zola also portrays him as a man of great courage when put to the test.
But the Les Rougon-Macquart saga is more than just a neurotic and pessimistic vision of the Second Empire, a mere collection of attacks launched against an authoritarian government and an inegalitarian society. It is also an immense historical document, a penetrating overview of industrialized civilisation in the second half of the 19th Century.
After this plunge into the realist universe of Zola, we continue our itinerary in the direction of Rouen and head for the house of one of the greatest historians of the 19th Century, Jules Michelet.
Although less well known to anglophone readers, Michelet (1798-1874) is not out of place in this walk dedicated to writers. Indeed, as aptly expressed in Taine's epigram "Michelet writes like Delacroix paints", Michelet's writing style was of epic proportions. As the protégé of Guisot, he was elected to the College of France as professor in 1838. But because of his unabashed liberalism and anticlericalism, his courses on morality and history were suspended in 1851. As the famous memorialist of the Second Empire, the ruthless Viel-Castel, wrote on 12th March, 1851: "The government has finally closed the door on Michelet's courses. During these courses, communism of the purest sort was openly taught; it was a real scandal."
In 1853, for having refused to swear allegiance to the Emperor, Michelet was again dismissed, this time from the post of head of the historical section of the National Archives, a post which he had occupied since 1831. Refusing susequently to launch himself into politics, the historian left Paris to dedicate himself to his research. Here he completed his monumental Histoire des Temps Modernes publishing it over the period 1855 to 1867, finished La Bible humaine in 1864, and in 1869 wrote the general preface to the collection of volumes encompassing the complete Histoire de France.
As for his non-historical works, the most noteworthy are L'Amour (1858) and La Femme (1859) both of which had a profound influence on the young Zola as he discovered the importance of physiology. Withdrawing into very discreet opposition, Michelet foresaw with great perspicacity the fall of the Second Empire one year before it took place.
Let us continue our stroll in the literary world of the Second Empire with an evocation of one of its most eminent figures, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). The Flaubert Pavilion at Croisset, a village very near to Rouen, is the only vestige left of the property where the writer wrote parts of his three masterpieces, Madame Bovary (1857), Salammbô (1862) and L'Education sentimentale (1869).
On the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857, Flaubert was taken to court in what was to become the first in a series of high profile literary court cases, and these trials give a very good idea of moral climate under the Second Empire. In fact in the same year, two other writers were to see their works attacked by the censor. The first, Eugène Sue, was prosecuted for the publication of his Mystères du Peuple, Histoire d'une famille de prolétaires à travers les âges. For what were considered "attacks against the authority" he received the exceedingly harsh sentence of one year in prison and a fine of 6000 francs. Sue died on August 3, 1857, and as a result of the trial which took place shortly after his death, the book was removed from the market and destroyed. The second author to come under fire was Charles Baudelaire, whose collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal was attacked by the newspapers almost as soon as it was published in June 1857. The poems were considered as being "in defiance of the laws protecting religion and morality". Baudelaire's sentence was a 300 franc fine and the removal of six poems from the edition. The poet appealed to the Empress Eugenie (Genealogy) herself for a reduction of the fine and this was eventually reduced to 50 francs on 20 January, 1858.
For all three trials Ernest Pinard, the Attorney General, was the prosecutor. Sue's work was attacked for its political provocation, whilst Flaubert's and Baudelaire's books were criticised on esthetic grounds. The realistic intensity of Madame Bovary - serialised in la Revue de Paris October to December 1856 - caused a scandal despite its many cuts and the bowdlerisation of sensitive words like as "adultery" and insults such as "piece of beef"! The famous scene of the carriage in Rouen also fell victim to this censorship. Flaubert warned his readers that they were reading only fragments of his work.
When Madame Bovary was finally published in book form in April 1857 by Michel Levy, Flaubert was charged with insulting the public morality and offending decent manners. Whilst recognizing the stylistic unity of the novel, the attorney Pinard criticised its lewd character. The author and publishers were reprimanded but acquitted.
From 1862 on - with his novel Salammbô a confirmed success - Flaubert began to limit his social life to strictly literary circles, first and foremost the "Magny dinners" where writers and artists such as Gavarni, the Goncourts, Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire or Théophile Gautier gathered, and the salon of Princess Mathilde (Genealogy) in the rue de Courcelles. Despite the whiff of scandal, Flaubert finally received official recognition from the Second Empire when he was invited to Compiègne at the time of the famous "series". There he received the Legion of honour on August 15, 1866, and in 1867 he was even invited to the Tuileries to a ball given in honour of the foreign sovereigns who came for the Exposition Universelle. It was in fact from Flaubert, with this first-hand experience of imperial circles, that Emile Zola in part took his descriptions in Les Rougon-Macquart.