Roman documentaire is a form of fiction that was invented by the Goncourt brothers, Edmond (1822-96) and Jules (1830-70), in the 1860s. The brothers, in collaboration, set out to write history ‘which might have happened’. It was a form of realism and naturalism, and the Goncourts are often cited in connection with those two -isms. Using the research methods of the historian and also of the anthropologist working in the field, they aimed for the highest possible degree of fidelity to life, to fact. They describe their approach in their famous Journal, which was begun in 1851 and continued by Edmond after Jules died. For the most part, the novels were not well received, but they are important in the development of fictional techniques.
The brothers developed a particular style which they called écriture artiste. The main novels are Les Hommes de lettres (1860), Sœur Philomène (1861), Renée Mauperin (1864), Germinie Lacerteux (1864), Manette Salomon (1867) and Madame Gervaisais (1869). In 1879 Edmond published Les Frères Zemganno, a study of circus life. Germinie Lacerteux remains one of the best known; it is a detailed history of their faithful servant who led a double life: off-duty she devoted her time to debauchery and corruption. Soeur Philomène is a remarkable account of hospital life. Later, Emile Zola was to apply comparable methods of documentary ‘fieldwork’ to achieve maximum realism and accuracy.
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