Zola in Britain by Michael Rosen

Zola in Britain by Michael Rosen

In the nineteenth century the British attitude to French writers was full of contrasts. The great triumvirate of Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert presented to Victorian readers a range of characters, scenes and passions that British writers couldn’t explore. By the mid-1880s, several organisations such as the Social Purity Alliance, the National Vigilance Association, and the National Home Reading Union took on the job of safeguarding the decency of the nation. In the eyes of such people, publishers of these French authors were out to ‘poison the minds of the young’ and to help them do this was the deadly combination of the 1870 Education Act – which extended literacy to the working classes – and the cheap lending libraries.

Between 1884 and 1888, Vizetelly and Company published 18 translations of Zola’s works, some of them in cheap illustrated editions. In response, Henry Vizetelly was put on trial for issuing translations of Zola’s La Terre, Nana and Pot-Bouille. Vizetelly pleaded guilty, and was fined £100.00 but in 1889 he was back in court for his editions of Maupassant, Flaubert and insufficiently expurgated edition of La Terre. This time Vizetelly was sentenced to three months jail with hard labour.

Needless to say this is by no means the whole picture. In the literary journals and private publishing and theatre clubs,  ‘Zolaism’ as it was known, was catching on in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Figures like George Moore, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, Havelock Ellis, Edmund Gosse and many other less well-known literary figures started to champion Zola’s writing. No greater symbol of this came during Zola’s visit to London in 1893, as a guest of the British Institute of Journalists when Zola was the guest of honour at a series of banquets and official events including one at the Crystal Palace where he addressed 4000 guests and a firework display above the Palace culminated in an illuminated representation of Zola himself.


Michael Rosen

More ambiguously, Britain’s greatest living novelist, Thomas Hardy didn’t ever publicly champion Zola, but in secret he carefully translated and annotated his copies of Zola’s novels. The effect of this ‘research’ didn’t go unnoticed: when Tess of the D’Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure first appeared, Hardy was immediately accused by some critics of the dreaded crime of ‘Zolaism’. This was a shorthand term referring to anything deemed by a critic to be sordid, immoral, or unsuitable for decent people’s eyes or ears. Zola himself was of course happy to be seen as the leading light in the school of Naturalism – a theory of writing which asked that writers base their observations on empirical studies of human behaviour without the kind of moralising so loved by high Victorians. Outside of the private membership of the Independent Theatre Club in London and the private readership of a group of translators known as ‘The Lutetians’, the full Zola experience was not available in English at this time. It could be said that until the ‘Lady Chatterley Trial’ of 1960, this was how official cultural opinion liked it. If you wanted ‘that kind of stuff’, you had to either learn French or have enough money to go private.

Zola came a second time to England in July 1898, this time on the run from a prison sentence. He had been found guilty of libelling the court martial, accusing it of trial rigging in one of the cases related to the Dreyfus Case. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who had been found guilty of espionage, selling secrets about a gun to the Prussians and sent to Devil’s Island. Zola had joined the campaign to prove Dreyfus’s innocence and he had written what is now the world famous letter of denunciation, ‘J’Accuse’, an open letter to the President of France, accusing the ruling order of conspiracy and trial-rigging.

As a result, Zola was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and 3000 francs fine but instead of serving his sentence, he fled to England and ended up camping out for 11 months in a variety of hotels and houses in Weybridge, Walton-on-Thames and Upper Norwood. He was at times miserable, in despair or lyrically happy with his children and their mother. At other times he contented himself taking hundreds of photos of the London suburbs – including Crystal Palace where he had been the guest of honour! – and cycling around the streets wondering about the habits and customs of the English.

While he was in England, he wrote a ghost story, a novel and countless letters to his wife, Alexandrine, and to Jeanne the mother of their two children. In complex ways, Zola, Alexandrine and Jeanne handled a ménage à trois by first Jeanne, then Alexandrine and then Jeanne again going to London to stay with Zola.

Though at first, Zola and his friends were extremely worried that the French authorities might extradite him, it turned out that that the extradition treaty did not include libel. Zola’s presence England didn’t seem to bother anyone too much. In fact, I discovered that while Zola was in England, there was a waxworks of him sitting in Madame Tussaud’s and there doesn’t appear to be any request for Zola to put in a celebrity appearance alongside the ‘portrait model’ as it was called in the newspaper ads.

When Zola was informed that Dreyfus as on his way back from Devil’s Island, Zola’s friends thought it made sense for Zola to return to France too. The strange interlude in Zola’s life was over. Two blue plaques mark his stay, one on a house he stayed in, and the other on the Queen’s Hotel in Upper Norwood.

The Disappearance of Émile Zola

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ÉMILE ZOLA: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen is published by Faber & Faber (£16.99) and is available on our website.

About Adam

Adam Biles is the Events Manager at Shakespeare and Company and the author of FEEDING TIME, published by Galley Beggar Press.