Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (gohn-koor) were the sons of a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s Imperial Army and the grandsons of Antoine Huot de Goncourt, deputy of the National Assembly of 1789. They were, respectively, the eldest and the youngest child of Annette-Cécile Guérin and Marc-Pierre Huot de Goncourt. Shortly after Edmond was born in 1822, the family moved to Paris, where Jules was born in 1830. Their father died four years later, leaving the boys and their mother in modest financial circumstances that nevertheless permitted the boys to attend school—due to his delicate health, however, Jules received much of his schooling at home—until both had passed the baccalauréat examination. Edmond began to study law in 1841 but, for financial reasons, left his studies in 1847 to take a minor position in the Treasury.
When their mother died in 1848, they inherited a limited income that spared them the necessity of working for a living and allowed them to devote themselves to art. Jules had recently finished his studies, and, once their financial affairs were in order, the brothers decided to hike to southern France while considering what direction their lives should take. They both sketched and kept a diary of their travels, in which they tried to capture the landscape in words as it would appear in a painting. Later they viewed this trip as the turning point at which they became men of letters instead of artists, but on their return to Paris they both continued to paint while collaborating on several inconsequential one-act plays and contributing essays on art criticism to contemporary reviews.
During this period they also wrote their first novel, En 18 . . . , which suffered the misfortune of appearing on December 2, 1851, the very day of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. (Fate was not kind to the Goncourts with their publication dates: La Faustin was issued on the morning of Léon Gambetta’s downfall, and the seventh volume of the Journal on the day of Sadi Carnot’s assassination.) The publisher of En 18 . . . refused to advertise it, for fear that the new regime would see in the title an allusion to Napoleon I’s eighteenth of Brumaire (the French Republican Calendar’s equivalent of November 9, 1799).
In 1851 their cousin, the comte de Villedeuil, decided to found a weekly review of literature and the arts and offered editorial positions to Edmond and Jules. The first issue of L’Éclair appeared in January, 1852, but soon gave way to Le Paris, a review intended for a broader audience and to which the brothers continued to make literary contributions. Through these periodicals, the Goncourts met many personalities in literary and artistic circles. The brothers were arrested on one occasion for having quoted a slightly erotic verse in an article. They were eventually acquitted of the charge of committing “an outrage against public morality,” but the experience hastened their decision to leave the world of journalism.
Between 1859 and 1875 the Goncourts published monographs on eighteenth century painters, which were later collected in a single volume, French Eighteenth Century Painters. They also wrote on the social history of the eighteenth century, publishing works of a more intimate nature than the official political histories. At the same time they kept their Journal faithfully, recording the lives of their circle of literary and artistic friends. The salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte figures prominently, for example, as well as their friendships with Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet.
The two decades between 1850 and 1870 were marked by regular publications of novels and historical works and by a brief return to the theater in 1865, when their first major play, Henriette Maréchal, was produced by the Comédie-Française. The opening night provoked a hostile demonstration by students from the Latin Quarter, not because of the play itself, which was rather conventional, but because of the Goncourts’ anti-Republican sympathies and their friendship with Princess Mathilde. After several performances the audiences became calmer, but then the imperial censors decided to ban the play. It was Jules’s theory that the empress Eugénie had acted out of dislike for Princess Mathilde. In any case, the play, caught between the Republican opposition and the Imperial regime, was withdrawn by the end of its first month.
In 1868 the brothers moved to the Paris suburb of Auteuil because of Jules’s declining health. They managed to continue work on Madame Gervaisais, for which they had prepared during trips to Italy in 1856 and 1867. The novel was published in 1869, but the brothers were not pleased with it. Their melancholy deepened when their friend Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the influential critic, did not review the novel. During that summer they traveled gloomily until deciding in September to focus all their energy on writing a biography of Paul Gavarni, who had died in 1866.
On January 19, 1870, Jules made his last entry in the Journal. He began to lose his ability to spell, to recognize objects, and finally, to speak. He died on June 20, 1870, at the age of thirty-nine. Thus ended the remarkably close professional and emotional partnership between Jules and Edmond de Goncourt.
In the summer of 1870, however, the Franco-Prussian War overwhelmed Edmond’s private sorrow. He had continued making entries in the Journal in a desultory way, but the man of letters was now revitalized by a desire to chronicle first the illusion of victory and then the disintegration of defeat. By the time the Germans had laid siege to Paris, Edmond had taken on the responsibility of reporting the afflictions of war, the nightmarish reality beneath the collective self-deception of his compatriots. During the turmoil of the Commune, Edmond’s house in Auteuil was bombarded, and he witnessed the death of communards at the barricades. These events resulted in some of the best-written and most vivid accounts in the Journal.
The last decades of Edmond’s life were entirely devoted to literature. He wrote new novels, saw early ones adapted to the stage, and cultivated literary friendships during regular evenings in his grenier (attic). The perpetuation of the Goncourts’ name was ensured through the establishment of the Académie Goncourt. Edmond’s will of 1874 set up a board of directors entrusted with awarding an annual prize for a promising new literary talent. The first directors were chosen by Edmond himself from among the best writers of the day who represented new directions in literature—and who were unlikely to become members of the Académie Française. The directors began their work upon Edmond’s death in 1896 and awarded their first prize in 1903.