A chronicle of Émile Zola’s exile in England after the novelist’s involvement in the Dreyfus affair.
In 1894, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of passing military secrets to Germany, stripped of his rank, and sentenced to prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Four years later, Zola argued for Dreyfus’ innocence in “J’Accuse,” an open letter to France’s prime minister that was published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore. Zola not only claimed that Dreyfus, who was Jewish, couldn’t have passed along the secrets, but he also accused the French army and government of corruption and anti-Semitism. When Zola was convicted of libel, fined 3,000 francs, and sentenced to a year in prison, he fled to a series of locations in London and the English countryside. In this well-researched history, Rosen (Children’s Literature/Goldsmiths, Univ. of London; What is Poetry?: The Essential Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, 2016, etc.), a British poet, broadcaster, and former Children’s Laureate, documents Zola’s activities while in England, which included working on the novel Fécondité, indulging his passion for photography, and, most painfully, writing home. Zola left behind his wife, Alexandrine, and his mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, the mother of his two young children, Jacques and Denise. Rosen draws from many sources, including the adult Denise’s memoirs and Zola’s many letters home, in which he expresses concerns over Jacques’ osseous tuberculosis and laments that he and Jeanne won’t be together for their 10th anniversary. Rosen digresses too often with unnecessary details about Zola’s family life, but the book is still a thoughtful examination of anti-Semitism and French jurisprudence in the late 19th-century. The author also tells his story with great wit, as when he writes that Zola cycled through villages so perfectly neat that he “wondered where the English hid their poor people.”
Zola had a knack for turbulence, both in his fiction and in his personal life. This lively account documents one of the most turbulent and consequential episodes of all.