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.
This review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017