I have just finished reading Emile Zola’s novel of life in the heart of the French government during the Second Empire of the 1850s Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. Inevitably this invites comparisons with Trollope’s political series and the standalone novel The Way We Live Now, which inhabits the same fictional English landscape, set in the same period of the third quarter of the 19th century.
A clear similarity between the works of the two novelists is that they focus primarily on the characters of their principals and the fictional account of their day to day life behind the scenes in political life. This is a world, in both cases, of salons and private gatherings. Eugene Rougon, the political heavyweight, entertains cronies and hangers on from his country roots as he conducts the business of a minister of the government of Emperor Napoleon III. These gatherings find parallels in the salons of Laura Kennedy in Phineas Finn and the discrete backroom meetings of the likes of Plantagenet Palliser, Mr Gresham and the Duke of St Bungay in The Prime Minister where government policy and political strategy is worked out away from the glare of public scrutiny in parliament itself.
It is also possible to see how both novelists modelled their characters on real life political figures. Trollope notoriously based his somewhat unflattering portrayal of the leader of the rival Conservative party leader Daubeny on the famous British Prime Minister (and part-time novelist – though I hesitate to attribute any motive of professional jealousy on the part of Trollope – the more successful writer – for this portrait) Benjamin Disreali; and Mr Gresham is alleged to be based, at least in part, on the Liberal leader William Gladstone. It is also possible to see Eugene Rougon as a fictionalised version of the French minister, Rouher, in his ruthless support of the absolute power of the Emperor.
However, beyond these similarities in the identification of fictional characters with real life equivalents, Trollope tended, in his series, to steer clear of the actual business of politics, whereas Zola’s novel follows closely the actual events of political life and makes references to them. Thus Rougon is called upon to make the first “Address” to the Emperor in 1861 in response to the Emperor’s speech setting out the proposed laws to be enacted over the next session of the Corps Legislatifs – a new innovation in French political life that was introduced as described in the novel. The novel also mentions the five opposition members who remained in that body at the time, accurately reflecting the state of affairs in the real world. Even the attempted assassination of the Emperor by the Italian plotters led by Orsini is included within the novel’s structure with Rougon making political capital out of the event.
One aspect which Zola’s novel shares with Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is the depth of corruption and the way that it permeates all aspects of public life. As Rougon feathers the nests of his favourites, and finds himself beset by their ever increasing demands for more favours, so too does Trollope expose the moral bankruptcy of business, society and politics as his central character, the swindler Melmotte, rises to public acclaim in business and achieves what Trollope regarded as the pinnacle of any Englishman’s ambitions, gaining a seat in parliament before his inevitable downfall.
Zola’s naturalism – his belief that hereditary factors would influence the character as much or perhaps more than the circumstances of his characters’ upbringing (nature trumping nurture, so to speak) – led him to create in Rougon, with his origins in rural parentage, a ruthless individual with what Nietzsche aptly described as the “will to power”. This provides a direct contrast to Trollope’s creation, Plantagenet Palliser, the aristocratic Liberal, with his self-effacing manner, whose raison d’etre is to serve his country as best he can in whatever capacity he is called upon to fill. It is possible, perhaps, to identify in Trollope’s Phineas Finn, the ambitious Irish outsider who seeks public office as much for its own sake as for what good he might do in the earlier part of his career, some parallels with Rougon’s ambition but these are dispelled by the end of Trollope’s series when Finn has emerged from his trial by ordeal an older and wiser man.
It will be interesting to see, as I read later novels in Zola’s great Rougon Macquart series whether these parallels between the portrayals of French and British political life and social structures in the two novelists work continue to mirror each other and to what extent they diverge in the pictures they create of their contemporary worlds.