“In this way the old friendship grew closer than ever, and a charming life began afresh. To Helene it seemed as if Henri had never yielded to that moment of folly; it was but a dream of hers; each loved the other, but they would never breathe a word of their love. They were content with knowing its existence. They spent delicious hours, in which, without their tongues giving evidence of their passion, they displayed it constantly; a gesture, an inflexion of the voice sufficed, ay even a silence. Everything insensibly tended towards their love, plunged them more and more deeply into a passion which they bore away with them whenever they parted, which was ever with them, which formed, as it were the only atmosphere they could breathe. And their excuse was their honesty; with eyes wide open they played this comedy of affection; not even a handclasp did they allow each other and their restraint infused unalloyed delight into the simple greetings with which they met.”
A Love Episode (A Page of Love) is the eighth novel in Emile Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series. Set in the Second Empire, the story concerns a small group of petite bourgeoisie in Paris. The heroine of the novel is Helene Grandjean, the sister of Francois and Silvere Macquart. To place Helene in the family tree and in the Rougon-Macquart series, she is the granddaughter of Adelaide Fouque. Helene’s brother Francois and his wife Marthe were the subjects of the fourth novel, The Conquest of Plassans.
When the novel begins, Helene, a beautiful young widow lives in Paris with her daughter, Jeanne. Helene moved to Paris with her husband, Charles and their child, but Charles died shortly after their arrival. It’s now eighteen months after his death, and Jeanne, an 11-year-old who endures frail health appears to be dying. Helene goes out into the night to summon the doctor, but her regular physician Doctor Bodin is not home. Desperate, Helene rousts another doctor from bed, and this how doctor Henri Deberle enters the lives of Helene and Jeanne.
Deberle manages to save Jeanne’s life–or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he pulls her back from death, and thus Deberle enjoys a heroic role with both Helene and her mother. Perhaps this explains, at least initially, why Deberle extends his relationship with Helene and invites her to use his garden for the child’s health. Helene accepts his invitation and in time becomes friends with the doctor’s fickle, shallow wife, Juliette. Helene is drawn to Deberle, and she’s so innocent that it takes her some time to realize that she’s in love with the doctor. Some of the novel’s wonderful scenes occur in the beauty and freshness of the Deberle garden one spring. Helene struggles with the conflicting feelings of guilt over her feelings for Deberle and a desire to be in the warmth of the Deberle family circle. While Helene at first basks in the Deberles’ domestic situation, and it is enough just to be near her idol, she soon realizes that Juliette has a relationship with the foppish Malignon. This knowledge complicates the situation and draws Helene into an affair with Deberle.
Up to this point, Helene’s life has been fairly cloistered. Married in her teens to Charles Grandjean against the wishes of his family, Helene’s marriage was mostly spent in poverty until her husband became his uncle’s beneficiary. But Charles fell ill and subsequently died; for some of their married life, Helene was Charles’s nursemaid, and now that role continues with Jeanne. She realises that she’s never experienced passion, and this makes her vulnerable to a relationship with Deberle. It doesn’t help the situation that Helene isn’t familiar with Paris, knows very few neighbours, and has no social life. Two regular visitors to her home are the Abbe Jouve and his stepbrother, affluent businessman Monsieur Rambaud. These men knew Helene’s husband, and she accepts their regular visits in the spirit of friendship, blissfully unaware that Rambaud is waiting for the appropriate moment to ask for her hand.
As the book continues, Helene and Deberle embark on an affair promoted by the grotesque Mother Fetu–a crafty impoverished woman who sniffs a financial opportunity in the illicit relationship. Sensing a new rival, Jeanne’s jealousy and hatred of Rambaud shifts to Doctor Deberle. Jeanne plays an interesting role in her mother’s life, and violently jealous of her mother’s love and attention, she becomes essentially a tyrannical gaoler, and a living conscience. Emotionally unstable, and extremely volatile, if Jeanne suspects her mother’s thoughts are elsewhere, she falls into a nervous state and has convulsions. Jeanne’s ill health (she is eventually diagnosed with galloping consumption) is exacerbated by her mental anxiety. As the book develops, Jeanne’s obsessive love for her mother becomes increasingly unhealthier, and echoes her great-grandmother’s (Adelaide Fouque) descent into madness and eventual incarceration in an asylum. And so this hereditary taint rears once again in this volume. Jeanne’s grandmother, Ursule Mouret also died of galloping consumption.
All the books in the Rougon-Macquart series contain exquisitely created scenes that sear the memory of the reader. In A Love Episode, one of the great scenes is the children’s fancy dress party organized by Juliette Deberle, and it’s during this scene that Helene’s relationship with Deberle is acknowledged. A Love Episode is not Zola’s greatest novel, and in the Rougon-Macquart series it is dwarfed by Zola’s masterpieces. The novel includes passages of Helene’s soul-searching, guilt and anguish, and some of the scenes with Jeanne are painful to read. Nonetheless A Love Episode is still an excellent novel for Zola fans.