Two years ago, Michael Rosen presented a beguiling Radio 3 Sunday Feature about Émile Zola’s escape to London in July 1898 and the months he spent holed up incognito in Norwood to avoid persecution and prison in the wake of “J’accuse”. Zola’s open letter, a turning point in the Dreyfus Affair—all the more powerful because he was not a Jew himself— charged the French government with colluding in an outrageous miscarriage of justice, and the highest military authorities of a calculated cover-up, motivated by antisemitism. Arriving off the boat train at Victoria station, only a nightshirt under his arm, Zola baffled a cabman with his insistence on being taken to a hotel just yards away. Grosvenor was the only name he knew.
Le Debâcle, which exposed the disastrous judgments of the generals who led France into the Franco-Prussian war and national catastrophe, had already established Zola as a bête noire of the army and a towering cultural figure with a powerful public voice. Zola and Clemenceau— who published “J’Accuse” on the front page of L’Aurore—had deliberately provoked the libel prosecution that followed, hoping for a retrial and justice for Dreyfus. They did not anticipate how slow and messy the process would be, nor how stressful it would be to Zola. While liberal intellectual France applauded Zola’s bravery, the anti-Dreyfusard mob was baying for blood.
As readers work through the monotony of Zola’s long, lonely days in the south London suburbs, some may feel a touch of the ennui experienced by the writer himself. In letters home to France, he worries about his health and frets over suspicious hotel staff, complains about the cooking, checks the calendar for auspicious dates, and urges his offspring, again and again, to perform better at school. Beached by his lack of English, Zola distracts himself with photography and cycling.
The strain he was under was intensified by a peculiarly complicated family life. Zola’s beloved children were born to his lover, Jeanne Rozerot, his wife’s former chambermaid. Alexandrine— Madame Zola—had given up an illegitimate baby as a foundling five years before she married, and never conceived again. Zola’s sudden disappearance upset the fragile equilibrium all three had finally reached by 1898. No longer could he spend mornings and nights with Alexandrine, and afternoons with Jeanne and their children, Denise and Jacques. Alone in Paris, and, like Zola, close to breaking point, Alexandrine made an extraordinary sacrifice. She sent Jeanne and the children to cheer up her husband for two sunlit weeks in Surrey.
Ernest Vizetelly, Zola’s ever-loyal friend, fixer and English translator, is a slightly shadowy figure in the narrative, despite his central role. Already shielding Zola from the press, he had to keep Jeanne secret too, all the while trying to calm the novelist’s nerves and keeping him supplied with stamps, newspapers and pen nibs. Ten years earlier, Ernest’s father had been imprisoned after an obscenity trial challenging his publication of La Terre. Ernest took over the reins, bringing out Zola’s later works in English as fast as they were written, editing them heavily for his own safety as he did so. Eventually he would translate—and bowdlerise—the novel Zola wrote that year in London, Fécondité. Its graphic portrayals of abortion appear here in English for the first time.
Rosen sets the mundanity and claustrophobia of Zola’s surroundings and the agony of his separation from family against the storm of opinion in the outside world. George Moore and Thomas Hardy responded to the influence of the naturalism he pioneered with Zolaisms of their own, and debates over the Dreyfus Affair raged in the Yiddish and socialist press. Though his English admirers came in droves to visit the waxwork of the novelist that appeared at Madame Tussauds opposite an image of Dreyfus, Zola met none of them.
This is an affectionate and timely homage to a much-loved hero. What are the personal costs of speaking out against lies, prejudice and injustice? What is the cost to liberty when a state sets expedience above truth? For Rosen, the lasting significance of Zola’s principled intervention lies in the internationalist politics it helped to shape, and the new focus that emerged: confronting racial and religious discrimination.
The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen
Faber and Faber, 2017
Lydia Syson, a former BBC World Service producer, writes historical fiction and non-fiction for all ages. Her most recent novel, Liberty’s Fire, is set during the 1871 Paris Commune. Mr Peacock’s Possessions will be published in spring 2018.
Featured Photo: Emile Zola in 1893.