Lucy and Todd

Michael Rosen–The Disappearance of Émile Zola

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:24 am

In July 1898, embroiled in the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ (the persecution of a Jewish army officer) and facing serious charges of libelling the French government in his article ‘J’Accuse’, the novelist Émile Zola vanished. Almost immediately there were wild speculations in the press: was he hiding in a suburb? Or worse, gone to Norway?

What Zola had done was to stop by his house, confer with his wife, and wrap up a nightshirt in some brown paper. As you do. He then took the train to Calais and a boat to England. Arriving at Victoria, he demanded to be taken to the Grosvenor Hotel (‘Grosvenor’ being one of a couple of English words he had managed to commit to memory). The nonplussed taximan drove him there. It was around the corner.

So began a weird year of self-imposed exile for one of Europe’s greatest writers, in a series of bafflingly mundane suburban villas and commercial travellers’ hotels. Five years before, Zola had been feted in London. Now he hardly dared to go out, afraid of papers being served on him if he was identified in public. Although, rather comically, he was spotted by a French lady on his second day in London: ‘Why! There’s M. Zola!’

Michael Rosen’s account of this adventure is a little shallow at times (it’s the re-hash of a radio programme). But it is interesting both politically and culturally in terms of today’s shrinking civil liberties, especially in the U.S., where not a finger is going to be lifted to protect individual freedoms, and when England has cut its ties with Europe in order to repudiate a whole lot of important, cherished, hard-won political ideals.

Though distressed at times, Zola seems to have been content with his suburban milieu. He took to cycling around places like Norwood and Weybridge. A serious amateur photographer, not surprising in a writer celebrated for his ‘scientific’ attention to detail, he began taking pictures of everyday English things. He particularly liked shop fronts and pubs, and was quite taken with the scores of young English ladies on bicycles he encountered.

He didn’t, however, adapt so well that he could tolerate turn-of-the-century English fare. He wrote to his wife: ‘The food continues to be revolting, their vegetables are always cooked without salt, and they wash their meat after they’ve cooked it. I am so sick of it, I would give you a hundred francs for a steak cooked by Mathilde.’ He wondered why English houses were all so small, he didn’t like Hyde Park and he thought the National Gallery ‘wretched’.

Zola’s domestic life was already complex. He and his wife Alexandrine did not have children, but he had fathered two with Jeanne Rozerot, originally hired by Alexandrine as a maid. The arrangement that developed over time, possibly without being expressly discussed with Alexandrine, was that wherever the Zolas went, at home in Paris or in their country house at Médan, Jeanne and the children were always installed nearby. Zola would see them regularly, always without Alexandrine. But Madame Zola developed a fondness for them and visited them with some regularity; later she developed a closeness with Jeanne too.

Many anguished letters detail the uncertainty between Zola and Alexandrine—Jeanne’s to Zola have disappeared. Rosen seems to have Alexandrine figured for some kind of emotional incompetent, but this doesn’t seem right, from what she wrote. Zola had inflicted a real emotional wound on her. She was in pain.

The Zolas began their married life as poor bohemians, but his hard work and success brought them into a certain amount of money. Now, though, Émile’s involvement with the Dreyfus Case had cost them almost everything they had. During his stay in England they had to have a sale of their effects, partly to pay for many clandestine trips back and forth across the Channel by Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children to visit Zola in his various Wimbledonish establishments. Most charges against him were eventually dropped and in 1899 he returned to the land of delicious vegetables and steak.

The awful epilogue to all this is well known: a little over two years later, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning (Mme Zola survived this horror). An anti-Dreyfusard builder later claimed to have stopped up the chimney, another point not pursued by Rosen. In 1908, in a show of remorse, Zola’s remains were taken to the Panthéon. As his body was placed in the crypt, alongside Hugo and Dumas, bigots fired shots. It never ends.

 

TMcE

 

This review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017

Samantha Ellis–Take Courage

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:13 am

“A lone cur howled across the sleet-drenched moors as I, in semi-transparent skeletal form, struggled to the door of Miss Samantha Ellis’s temporary dwelling in Haworth. Having discovered she was writing a book about me, I had come to plead with her to stop forthwith, for I did not wish my life to be arbitrarily exploited, however fast the bicentenary of my birth might be approaching.

“It was not my aim to argue with Miss Ellis’s inaccuracies, inelegancies, or irrelevancies when we met, nor rebuke her curious attempt to prove that my treasured pebbles were the droppings of dinosaurs. Nor would I deign to refer to those dreams she related, in which she had supposedly found me sitting at the end of her bed, begging to be written about. Everyone must deal with their unfortunate proclivities according to their own moral fibre, however malnourished it may be.

“I did intend though to question her having the audacity to wonder at my taking nine days to write my sprightly preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall – a very long time, Miss Ellis propounds, to write a mere thousand words. Are we athletes? Is writing a race? Does she approach every wayward paragraph of her own, armed with an egg-timer?

“But what I objected to most strongly was Miss Ellis’s incessant projection of her own subjectivity on to mine. O how passionately did I wish she would stop entwining my life story so cloyingly with her own! I did not want my Irish-Cornish-Yorkshire parentage hollowly compared to her Iraqi-British roots, nor my hair colour deemed lighter than hers, and therefore ‘depressing’. Nor need she eat porridge on my account! I felt no desire, either, for empty blandishments on my badly flawed novels. I had by this time recognized that (rather like Miss Ellis herself) I needed better editors than I ever got – despite all of our prancing round and round the drop-leaf dining table, my vexed sisters and I, reading our manuscripts aloud to each other after poor Papa and his outlandish cravat had retired to bed.

“Moreover, I wished that Miss Ellis would not subtly taunt and triumph over me with references to her love life, evidently in contrast to my own lack of one. For, indeed, though I am not ashamed of having died in ‘single blessedness’ (a putrid phrase I myself overused), it is aggravating when Miss Ellis sports her acquaintance with a ‘man’ on page 77, who becomes a ‘boyfriend’ by page 106, and later a ‘partner’, notwithstanding her unbecoming complaint that he is only ‘five foot ten on a good day’. By the end, reader, she marries him.

“Would that I could avenge these subtle slights! But I knew full well by now Miss Ellis’s unshakeable determination to turn biography into an impertinent form of autobiography. She litters her Brontëiana throughout with solipsistic soliloquies vaguely arising from whatever titbit of information seems to come to mind. On this basis, she announces that Emily favoured mutton sleeves, Branwell had a large forehead, there are fifty locks of Brontë hair scattered across the world, the poet Southey forced his daughters to bind 1400 books, Muriel Spark is ‘ungenerous’ to fellow novelists, and Thomas Bewick’s engravings were cruel (quite wrong). More bafflingly, she wishes Dorothy Wordsworth and I had met and that I got cream on my bilberry pie, and reports that she has seen Kate Bush live. Whoever that may be.

“In her earlier book, How to Be a Heroine, Miss Ellis debated which was the best Brontë: Charlotte or Emily. Now, perhaps in contrition for leaving me out, she wants to make a fetish of me. Yet she confesses to a growing impatience with our diaeresis! If I were to gain admittance tonight, my first duty would be to suggest she redirect her energies in future to author-victims with unaccented surnames.

“Finding my desperate knocking all in vain, I began instead a spooky scraping at the window, inspired by the histrionics of Wuthering Heights – I had always a great rapport with my sister Emily, alias Ellis Bell. But this Ellis was deaf to me. Hence, in muddy flight past the old Black Bull (ah, my hapless brother Branwell!), the Jane Eyre Lino Company, and Heathcliff’s Afternoon Dainties (both new to me), and briefly slipping into what is now dubbed the ‘Brontë waterfall’ (though I myself have no remembrance of it), I returned in defeat to the silence of my Scarborough grave, which Miss Ellis had already wept over in appreciation of the endearing drama of my premature demise…”

*

In her new book, Take Courage, playwright Samantha Ellis pinpoints the Brontës as ‘one of the most famous families in history’. We’re all taught to admire their pen names, pertinacity, potato peelings and pathos – and the way the three sisters achieved more than Branwell. Anne was possibly the most fiercely feminist of them all and, despite asthma and TB, had the stamina and chutzpah to write one excessively long and complex novel and one surprisingly short one, and get them published. The trouble is, they aren’t terribly good. She’s a true wheel-spinner.

The Brontës are all melodrama queens, but Charlotte and Emily added silly supernatural elements to the mix. Anne, who considered herself more down-to-earth, tried to stick to reality, her own version of it anyway. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Agnes Grey, the disadvantaged heroine Agnes slaves away as a governess, running after sadistic charges who kick her, spit in her workbag, and torture animals. One of them later even tries to steal her man. But as a protest against general inhumanity and in particular the mistreatment of governesses, the novel is marred by fairy-tale elements – the poor but happy family, an improbable shipwreck, and the magical reappearance of Agnes’s beloved in Scarborough, marriage-ripe. (Anne had a thing about Scarborough.)

The first two hundred and fifty pages of her other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are creakingly slow. Once revealed, Helen’s big fat enormous secret (her escape from her no-goodnik husband) is exhaustively unravelled. Huntingdon seemed okay at first, a dashing suitor, but as a husband he goes awry, with the drinking, with the cha-cha, “live now, pay later, Diners’ Club” (as Dr Dreyfus puts it in The Apartment). He calls their baby a ‘little senseless, thankless oyster’ (a rather good description of a newborn baby!), and mistreats the dog. His pals are even worse, outrageous, dissipated and violent. The Brontës all have a scary side.

Anne’s concerns may well be seen as fairly modern and even political. But her characters are inscrutable posturers, always edging oddly toward windows to hide their emotions. Charlotte made Jane Eyre a defiant little girl and a passionate, no-nonsense woman: you root for her throughout. Anne’s books are more artificial, they’re novels of ideas, rinsed in a goodly amount of Victorian soap suds. The religiosity of Wildfell Hall is intolerable: dreary Helen’s a self-declared expert on how to secure a comfy hammock for yourself in heaven – a rather selfish idea, I’ve always thought.

Making big claims for both of Anne’s novels, Ellis says their political engagement, class critique, pleas for education, exposé of governessing, and the suggestion that mad bad Byronic men may be dangerous to know, ‘still feel revolutionary’. Her own literary aims here are somewhat less ambitious: apart from some insightful, whimsical or frivolous asides, the book just becomes a walk in Anne’s boots, which were probably as muddied as her prose. Big walker, Anne.

In a form of delayed literary stalking (and not a little padding), Ellis stalks the moors. She reads Brontë biographies, even that wacko Angria and Gondal juvenilia. She Googles and Pinterests. She dons latex gloves to examine Anne’s last letter or a hideous hair brooch of Charlotte’s. She asks if Anne Brontë invented the romcom (no). And she takes everything, but everything, personally: ‘wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, over-worked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horror of a first job.’ It’s Ellis who’s scraping at the window.

“Samantha, Samantha, let me go!”

 

LE

 

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017.