The brothers Edmond de (1822-1896) and Jules de (1830-1870) Goncourt collaborated on novels which originated the Naturalist school in France. Their "Journals" provide a fascinating picture of Parisian literary life in the 19th century.
Edmond de Goncourt was born at Nancy on May 26, 1822, and his younger brother, Jules, in Paris on Dec. 17, 1830. Their father, a member of a recently ennobled family, who had fought with distinction under Napoleon, died in 1834 and their mother in 1848, leaving the brothers a comfortable private income. Neither married, and the two were virtually never separated until Jules's premature death on June 20, 1870.
Initially the Goncourts intended to become painters, but during a trip to Algeria in 1849 they began to make travel notes and decided to make their career in literature. Their early attempts at plays and a novel were unsuccessful, and they turned to art criticism and works of history dealing with the 18th century and Revolutionary age. Their first success in fiction was Charles Demailly (1860), a novel describing the unscrupulous literary world of Paris and the intrigues which finally drive the hero insane. The careful documentation of a pathological case, intended to give an impression of extreme realism, marks all the Goncourts' novels. In 1861 there followed Soeur Philomène (Sister Philomène), a somewhat morbid study of hospital life built round the career of a nun; and in 1864 Renée Mauperin, a vigorous portrait of a middle-class family, ending once again somewhat melodramatically with the deaths of the son in a duel and of the daughter by heart disease brought on by remorse.
The novel which is often considered the Goncourts' masterpiece and which had most influence on the young Émile Zola and the Naturalist school is Germinie Lacerteux (1865). Here, the plot is based very closely on the life of the brothers' own housekeeper who had died in 1862. Regarded by them as an ideal servant, she had in fact been leading a double life for years, robbing them and indulging in drink and promiscuous sexual relationships which had brought her two illegitimate children and finally caused her early death. With the transposition of the brothers themselves into the single character of an old lady, the novel follows fact very closely and furnishes a convincing and horrifying picture of degradation.
In 1867 the Goncourts published Manette Salomon, often considered the finest novel dealing with the life of the artist in France. The main theme, reflecting a certain misogyny apparent in both brothers, is the destructive effect of a woman on the creative genius of an artist. The last novel the Goncourts wrote together was Madame Gervaisais (1869), the story of a religious conversion, treated again pathologically as a form of insanity and described with documentary realism.
After Jules's death Edmond, deeply affected both by this and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, gave up writing for some time but later took up again the novel already planned by the brothers, La Fille Élisa, which appeared in 1877. This is another story of degradation, this time of a poor girl who becomes a prostitute, commits a murder, and is condemned to death but is reprieved only to die in the prison hospital. Other novels followed, notably La Faustin (1882), the psychological study of a successful actress.
Throughout Edmond's lifetime he also continued to bring out works on art, especially on that of the 18th century and of Japan, while selections of the Journal appeared from 1887 to 1896. The full version of the diaries, which contain a remarkably frank and colorful account of the life of the brothers and later of Edmond, running from 1851 to 1896, was published only in the late 1950s. Edmond died on July 16, 1896, and by the terms of his will endowed in 1900 the Goncourt Academy, a group of 10 writers who enjoy great prestige in France and who annually award the Goncourt Prize, the most famous French literary award, to the prose work which they consider to be the best to have appeared during the year.
An edition of the 1851-1870 diaries was published as The Goncourt Journals, 1851-1870, edited by Lewis Galantière (trans. 1937); selections from the full version running from 1851 to 1896 are contained in Pages from the Goncourt Journal, edited by Robert Baldick (trans. 1962). There are two studies in English of the Goncourt brothers: a short book by Robert Baldick, The Goncourts (1960), and a translation from the French, André Billy, The Goncourt Brothers (1960).