Zola and the Victorians Eileen Horne Review

bookblast zola eileen horne cover maclehose press

Borne out of a personal fascination with the most prominent French novelist of the late 19th century, Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne is a work of imaginative narrative non fiction which is a lively perceptive read.

Morality is not offended by human truth. It needs to know the real world and to make vic itself a source of wisdom. A novel by Sir Walter Scott may well push a highly strung young girl into the arms of a lover; a sincere study of the passions will no doubt horrify a young girl, but at the same time it will teach her about life and give her moral strength.” So wrote Emile Zola in La Tribune on 9 August, 1868.

Emile Zola the Publisher

When Zola was a young employee at the Parisian publisher Hachette, he came across La Cause du Beau Guillaume (1862) by the novelist and art critic Louis Edmond Duranty, an advocate of the Realist, subsequently renamed Naturalist, cause. In the preface to the 1900 edition, Jean Vaudal  writes: “In the gallery of ancestors which Zola gave to Naturalism, he placed the bust of Duranty on the second shelf, just beneath those of Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert. If but one of them were to be granted the Naturalist label, it would be the author of La Cause du Beau Guillaume.”

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt formulated the doctrine of Naturalism, in 1864: “The novel of today is composed from documents, received by word of mouth or taken direct from nature, just as history is composed from written documents. Historians write narratives of the past, novelists narratives of the present.”

bookblast zola alfred le petit 1881
Zola by Alfred le Petit, 1881

L’Assommoir, published in 1877, was the first major success of the twenty volumes of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. It placed him at the head of the Naturalists. His name and influence loomed larger in England and America than those of his predecessors and contemporaries in the movement. His true-to-life depictions of striking miners, society courtesans and highly-sexed, feuding farmers scandalized prudish British Victorian society where the piano legs were covered for fear of their erotic evocations. Samuel Smith, MP for Flintshire, declared in his speech made in the House of Commons on 8 May, 1888, that Zola’s novels were “only fit for swine”. Never mind Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of Whitechapel; national strikes and social unrest threatening the status quo; and an economic crisis spreading across the Atlantic . . . it was new translations of Zola’s Nana, The Soil and Piping Hot! which caught the attention of the Right Honourable Members.

Vizetelly & Company prosecuted for ‘obscene libel’

Eileen Horne brings to life the author, his publisher, and their pursuers by using the techniques of a novelist to tell a damn good story. She opens with a description of the literary giant at home in Médan outside Paris; his habits and painstaking methods of research before writing. His raison d’être is “to live out loud”.  We meet his publisher, Henry Vizetelly, in Covent Garden. “He has worked in the press and publishing world all his life; his father and grandfather before him were printers; he has ink in his blood.” Vizetelly & Company is still a family affair – Henry’s sons and daughters are all involved one way or another. W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, leads the crusade against the publication of “pernicious literature,” believing that, “Zola’s books are characterised by a dangerous lubricity that saps the foundations of manhood and womanhood.”

Zola’s Naturalism cost his forward-looking and courageous London publisher dear – not only in terms of financial ruin, but of a prison sentence; and its deleterious effect on his health. Henry Richard Vizetelly was prosecuted in 1888 for obscene libel for his translation of La Terre (The Soil), and was fined £100. When Zola’s works were reissued in 1889 Vizetelly was prosecuted, fined £200, and imprisoned for three months. His prosecution was a consequence of pressure from the National Vigilance Association, of which Stead was a founder. The 1870 Education Act had opened up a division between mass and elite readerships. The debate about the Vizetelly translations led to the establishment of principles of literary regulation – in force until the public prosecution at the Old Bailey of Penguin Books for the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. Zola emerged as a symbol of mass vs. elite culture – so much for his life imitating his art . . .

Zola seemed unconcerned that to Christian crusaders across the Channel he was a literary Antichrist. He was too busy establishing his reputation as a literary legend, falling in love with a girl half his age and fathering two children. Horne’s description of his wife’s discovery of the illicit family is high-octane drama. Her lively voice resonates with the tone of the period, and is enhanced by contemporary photos and caricatures.

Censorship on the grounds of a book judged to be obscene, blasphemous, unpatriotic, seditious, or immoral is nothing new. The point of interest is, of course, what it says about the period; the arguments and justifications underpinning the hypocrisy and humbug.

Banned books

The end material includes a brief round-up of subsequently banned books – from Joyce’s Dubliners, to Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Nabokov’s Lolita released by Girodias at Olympia Press in Paris (the subject of a BookBlast Diary post) when that favourite term of opprobrium “pornography” was coined once more, by no other than Gore Vidal.

Kate Summerscale, Kate Colquhoun – and now Eileen Horne. She is one to watch for sure. What will she come up with next?

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About Georgia de Chamberet 381 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.