It is perfectly possible to read these novels with no historical knowledge, it’s what I did, but if it’s helpful, this page is all about the historical time period that Zola fictionalises so wonderfully.
1851 – Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, elected president of the 2nd Republic of France, staged a coup d’état. He became the sole leader of France, but don’t worry, a referendum later that month showed a whopping 92% of Frenchmen wanted this, which just goes to prove the incorruptibility of vote counters in 2nd Empire France. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, by the way, was the nephew of Napoleon I; he comes after Napoleon II. The thing is, Napoléan II never actually ruled the French, but I guess Napoleon III wanted to make himself sound more dynastic and he certainly fooled me until I reverted to Wikipedia in complete confusion. Basically, a very simplified history of France goes Monarchy – Revolution – 1st Republic – Napoleon I (First French Empire) – Bourbon Restoration + July Monarchy – 2nd Republic – 2nd Empire – 3rd Republic. From the French Revolution to the 3rd Republic took under a century; when the people in the early R-M novels take the coup d’état in their stride it’s because complete government overhauls were nothing new.
Something else to be aware of, Napoleon III was a constitutional monarch and, as is shown in several of the novels, there were lots of different political parties in the time period. To help with a few of them:
Ultramontans – support the Pope and the Catholic Church
Legitimists – support the restitution of the Bourbon Dynasty (this was the ruling family before the Revolution)
Orléanists – support a constitutional monarchy, they took their name from the liberal relation of the Bourbon King Louis XVI whose son, Louis Philippe I, ruled France during the July Monarchy
Zola assumes you know all this, but the really important thing to know is that all politics are factional and most people involved are stubborn idiots (except for the stubborn opportunists, just think of Félicité Rougon).
Napoleon was an active and ambitious monarch. Below are a few of his modernising initiatives:
1852 – Bon Marché, the world’s first department store opened in Paris. It was a symptom of the growing disposable wealth of the population and even Zola doesn’t seem to be entirely unhappy with the idea (Au Bonheur des Dames is one of his least depressing novels).
1852-1866/7 – Crédit Mobilier was created, succeeded and crashed. It was one of the new banks which were encouraged to fund private industry as well as the government. Zola did not approve.
1853 – the new state of the art covered market Les Halles was opened. It was a modern triumph and La Ventre de Paris describes it in all it’s glory
1854-1870 – The rebuilding of Paris by Houssmann. Today, this is one reason why Paris is such a beautiful city, for Napoleon it was the outcome of enormous public works projects, for Zola it was entirely corrupt (see L’Argent)
1864 – I’m not sure if this counts as modernisation or not, but in 1864 the right to strike was legalised. As shown in Germinal, this does not mean that striking was ever pleasant or easy – but thanks to Napoleon III it was at least lawful.
Throughout this period – expansion of the railways. By the end of 1870 France had twenty thousand kilometers of railroads. That’s a lot of space for anonymous murders, as is made eminently clear in La Bête Humaine
Also, though it really deserves it’s own page (and may even get one, in time) this is the age of Impressionism. In 1863 Napoleon III saw a load of the painting that had been rejected by the Salon (including Le déjeuner sur l’herbe – shown above) and said the public should be able to make up their own mind as to what should and what shouldn’t be shown. That year there was a Salon de Refusés in which all kinds of shocking Impressionist works were displayed. Zola was a part of this art movement and captures it wonderfully in L’’Oeuvre.
The end of an era
The Franco-Prussian war which ends the Rougon Macquart cycle took place 19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871. It was a disaster for the 2nd Empire, in fact, Napoleon III died in September 1870 and the battle continued between the 3rd Republic and the Prussians. During this confusing time period, Paris was ruled by The Commune, a revolutionary socialist government. For more details see Le Débâcle, the name says it all.