This study performs the useful service of bringing the spotlight to bear on some of the more rarely visited female protagonists of Zola's great novel cycle, implying that the harmonious, fulfilled mother figure, comrade and companion rather than patronised subaltern, is rather the stuff of his later, Utopian novels than a product of literary realism.
Elizabeth Emery's perceptive preface meshes admirably, particularly in making reference to an indispensable paratext, Zola's 1865 review of Eugène Pelletan's La Mère. Here, he began to distance himself from uncritical admiration of Michelet's hero worship of woman, and the reader is made able to understand the tension that existed between his strong personal convictions and the strained, judgmental Gothic mode of his novels of the 1860s, then to be followed by the carefully crafted authorial neutrality and viewpoint simulations of Les Rougon-Macquart.
It is significant, though, that in spite of the title of the book he reviews, Zola appears loath to turn away from woman and what she has historically been, yet deserves to be, and consider the mother, and how she should act. And when we turn to Les Rougon-Macquart, we find a dearth of portrayals of mothers actually mothering. This does not go unobserved by Susie Hennessy, who in her introduction, "The Case for reading Zola's Mothers," comments on an overall lack of centrality of mothers as characters compared to their "omnipresen[ce] on a symbolic level" (2). As a result, to arrive at a representative selection of mothers, the cohort is beefed up by Françoise Fouan (La Terre) and Albine (La Faute de l'abbé Mouret), who in a pregnancy curtailed by death can do no more than represent motherhood in potential, though the technical feasibility existing in Catherine Maheu following coitus with Étienne after menarche is rightly disregarded.
Chapters are then devoted to "Fertility and Heredity," "Motherhood as Alienation," "Mothers and Industrial Society" and "Motherhood and Sacrifice." In the first of these, the deliberately accelerated pregnancies that help accumulate capital and found a dynasty (Félicité Rougon) are insightfully compared with the lack of foresight of la Maheude, whose apparent responsibility in having her children at three-yearly intervals has the paradoxical effect of siblings' earnings always being depleted by the hungry [End Page 371] mouths still at home. "Motherhood as Alienation" contrasts the more truly maternal, but virginal, Pauline Quenu with a Louise Chanteau who all but abdicates her moral responsibilities after a protracted and harrowing childbirth. Then, with a sense of culpable fascination (the sub-category is "Monstrous Mothers," those who have raised children but display no motherly traits), we consider the appalling Éléonore Josserand of Pot-Bouille. However misguided she may be in imposing unnaturally submissive behavioural norms on her daughter Berthe, with the predictable result that they warp the girl morally, at least nobody can complain that she is failing to do her duty as a mother [. . .] as she sees it.
"Mothers and Industrial Society" considers how bringing children into the world can be likened to mechanical process, returning to the protracted birthing of Louise, which might have been eased by a timely episiotomy, compared to the terminal exit velocity achieved by a healthier specimen of womanhood, Lise Fouan ("a female canon" [sic], 106). The final chapter deals with the incompatibility appearing to exist between motherhood and sexuality, with the unfulfilled longings of Caroline Hamelin (L'Argent), and barrenness of Hubertine until a curse is lifted (Le Rêve) exalted above a selfish preoccupation with sexual gratification leading to a child's death of which Hélène Grandjean (Une Page d'amour) and Christine Lantier (L'Œuvre) stand, if anything, more guilty than Nana. A brief conclusion, wittily entitled "Keeping Mum," returns to the point that Zola's traditionalist views require mothers to be seen and not heard, and sets up Clotilde Rougon as ideal in the potential she demonstrates to nurture her as yet unnamed...