Émile Zola – on the run in Upper Norwood

On Christmas Day 1898, France’s most famous writer, if not the most famous writer in the world at the time, was living in a hotel in Upper Norwood, south London. Émile Zola was the author of a clutch of international bestsellers – Thérèse Raquin, Germinal, La Terre, Nana – but this Christmas he was holed up in a room he hated, unable to speak English, longing to get back to France.

How had it come to this? It was only two or three years ago that I pieced together what Zola enthusiasts have known all along: that he was on the run.

Early on the morning of 19 July 1898, Zola had stepped off the boat train from Calais, carrying nothing more than a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper and the name of the Grosvenor Hotel on a bit of paper. The writer who, for me, had been forever fixed in Paris – I imagined him to be a little like Toulouse-Lautrec but more anonymous, creeping around brothels and sewers, interviewing low-lifes and writing their answers in a black leather notebook – had actually spent months in the UK, in hiding from the French authorities. And there was one word that explained everything: Dreyfus.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an army officer who had been found guilty of espionage on the basis of one document – in French, the bordereau – which supposedly proved that he had leaked information about a gun to the Prussians. He was sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Was Dreyfus guilty? One view of this was that of course Dreyfus was guilty: he was Jewish. Another was that Dreyfus was innocent because the bordereau was not written in Dreyfus’s handwriting but in the handwriting of someone else, Major Esterhazy.

By this time, the affair was dividing France down the middle: on one side a monarchist, nationalist, Catholic and antisemitic bloc, and on the other, an alliance of Republicans, Protestants, secularists and socialists.

There were probably several reasons why Zola got involved, but the reason Dreyfus’s supporters approached him was that Zola had, in May 1896, written a ground-breaking article “Pour les juifs” (“On behalf of the Jews”). This was an article written against the folly of antisemitism at the height of nation-wide hysteria against Jews. What’s more it was in a sense written against his former self, the author of L’Argent (Money) a novel which had reproduced many antisemitic stereotypes.

Zola’s intervention on the pro-Dreyfus side was sensational, if not decisive. He and the editor of the newspaper L’Aurore, Georges Clemençeau, wrote a long article which was headlined “J’Accuse …!” – in truth an open letter to the president of France, Félix Faure, which accused the army top brass of conspiracy and trial-fixing. Zola’s libel was made in the full knowledge that it would be likely to bring down the power of the state on his head, because that was all part of the plan. Finally, the pro-Dreyfus camp thought, all the most recent discoveries proving Dreyfus’s innocence would be heard in court.

It was not to be so: the state restricted the evidence to nothing more than Zola’s words, par ordre (“by order of”) – an order that Esterhazy was found innocent only because the court martial had ordered it. Zola was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3000 francs. Instead of serving time, he had fled and by Christmas had been in England for five months.

Exile had made Zola’s web of relationships even more complicated. In all but name, Zola had two wives: Alexandrine and Jeanne. Alexandrine was Madame Zola; she and Zola, now 58, had been together for 28 years but had no children. Zola and Jeanne Rozerot had been together for 10 years. She was 27 years younger than Zola and they had two children, Denise and Jacques. In the sudden and dramatic turn of events that had led to Zola living in the Queen’s Hotel, Upper Norwood, he would find himself one moment frantically scanning the papers for news of the Dreyfus case, the next juggling Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children, the next trying to get on with what he hoped would be the first of a new kind of novel, one that offered solutions to the plight of France, rather than simply “dissected” it, as he put it.

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