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18 January 2017updated 25 Mar 2017 8:53pm

The idol and the bogeyman: Emile Zola in England

Michael Rosen's account of Zola's year of exile sheds light on the great author's public heroism and personal failings.

By Adam Kirsch

No one thinks of themselves as being against truth and justice, yet when truth and justice are endangered, people find all kinds of plausible reasons not to defend them. The Dreyfus affair, which took place more than a century ago, continues to matter because it provides such a clear case in point. When the novelist Émile Zola published his article “J’accuse” in the newspaper L’Aurore on 13 January 1898, he was attempting to force the hand of the French military and justice systems, which had condemned Captain Alfred Dreyfus as a traitor based on forged evidence and anti-Semitic prejudice. “My duty is to speak out,” Zola wrote. “I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty.” His goal was to provoke the individuals and institutions he accused into suing him for libel, which would allow him to re-litigate the Dreyfus case in the courtroom.

Yet this approach rested on a faith in the objectivity of the courts and in the willingness of French public opinion to yield to facts, which turned out to be unjustified. Rather than permitting Zola to defend himself by proving the truth of his statements, his trial hinged on a technicality and ended with his being sentenced to a year in jail. Worse, neither Zola’s philippic nor the steady drip of evidence that Dreyfus had been framed could budge the anti-Dreyfusards, who had come to regard belief in his guilt as synonymous with patriotism and piety. For them, politics had already become, in the 21st-century term, “post-truth”. What mattered was not Dreyfus’s guilt but the set of values – Catholic, monarchist, populist, anti-Semitic – that the belief in his guilt advertised. There are always plenty of good reasons to deny the truth when it seems to conflict with other values: national security, class solidarity, political effectiveness. To defend it requires a single-mindedness that can easily appear naive.

In The Disappearance of Émile Zola – based on his BBC Radio 3 programme broadcast in 2015 – Michael Rosen does not go too deeply into the forensic details or the political and moral significance of the Dreyfus affair, about which so much has already been written. Instead, he focuses on the consequences of “J’accuse” for Zola.

At the time he wrote the article, Zola was 57 years old and one of the most famous and notorious writers in the world. As the leading exponent of naturalism in fiction, Zola believed in the clinically accurate depiction of all aspects of human life. His novels rested on extensive research and observation and attempted to import scientific virtues such as objectivity and impartiality into fiction. This did not prevent his work from being intensely poetic and moral, but it involved him in the depiction of things such as prostitution, childbirth, disease and death, which polite opinion held to be impermissible in literature.

In England, Rosen shows, admiration and condemnation of Zola fed on each other, making him an idol to the young and progressive – including writers of all stripes, from Oscar Wilde to Thomas Hardy – and a bogeyman to the respectable. In 1893, on his first visit to London, Zola was feted at the Guildhall before an audience of 4,000.

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Yet just a few years earlier, his English publisher, Henry Vizetelly, had been imprisoned – at the age of 70 – for bringing out an insufficiently expurgated edition of La Terre. Zola’s decision to insert himself into the Dreyfus affair could thus be seen either as an extension of his literary commitment to fearless honesty, or a further demonstration of his moral corruption.

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The guilty verdict in Zola’s libel trial came on 18 July 1898. Georges Clemenceau, later the prime minister of France, was on hand as a supporter of Zola and recorded the ugly mood of the crowd outside the Versailles courtroom: “. . . hurling stones, hissing, booing, shrieking for his death. If Zola had been acquitted that day, not one of us would have left the courtroom alive.”

Zola and his lawyer and friends immediately began to discuss whether it would be better for him to submit to imprisonment or to flee the country. Within hours, he decided to leave France – this would be better, Zola believed, both for himself and for Dreyfus’s cause. He headed straight for the Gare du Nord with no luggage except a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper. That night, in London, he checked into the Grosvenor Hotel, little suspecting that he would not return to France for almost a year.

Zola’s situation, Rosen shows, was paradoxical. He believed that his whereabouts had to remain secret, lest he be served with extradition papers by the French government. Aided by a few friends, Zola tried to go underground in London, staying in out-of-the-way hotels and suburban houses, sending and receiving letters through intermediaries.

However, his disappearance created a journalistic sensation and his picture was in almost all of the English newspapers; there was even a wax figure of him on display at Madame Tussauds. It seems unlikely that a determined reporter or government agent could not have tracked him down.

The real drama of Zola’s English exile lay not in its cloak-and-dagger antics but in his family relationships, which are the main focus of Rosen’s attention. Zola had been married for more than 30 years to Alexandrine, a former seamstress; she took charge of his legal and financial affairs while he was abroad. But for the previous ten years, he had, in effect, been in a second marriage with Jeanne Rozerot, whom he met when she was hired to be Alexandrine’s chambermaid. The marriage with Alexandrine was childless but Zola had two children, Denise and Jacques, with Jeanne.

Each woman recognised, if reluctantly, the other’s place in his life and Zola invited each of them to spend time with him in England. Rosen shows that he had his hands full trying to assuage Alexandrine’s jealousy and Jeanne’s feelings of abandonment – even as he devoted himself to writing a new novel, Fécondité, a polemic against birth control and abortion.

Rosen’s account of Zola’s time in England is seldom dramatic and can be dragged down by excessive detail. More interesting is his portrait of the political and literary worlds of the 1890s in England and France; and at the centre of it all is the Dreyfus affair, that titanic parable. Zola’s heroism is only accentuated by this account of the all-too-human complications of his private life.

“The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case” by Michael Rosen is published by Faber and Faber

This article appears in the 18 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era