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Obscene and vile: why Zola’s novels ruined a publisher

Zola and the VictoriansIf you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?

No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.

His crime: publishing English language editions of some of the  most provocative and “vile” novels written by Emile Zola. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne  is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.

According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.

Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality. 

Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.

Emile Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury.  “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.” 

He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.

Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.

Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts.  Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.

By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.

He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.

Emile Zola in 1902. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower”  and reveal much about his process of writing. 

Apparently after a daily walk, Emile Zola would change into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they didn’t cause itches and thus distract him. He knew exactly the trajectory of the book he was currently working upon. He had done a preliminary plan and research (often that took him longer to complete that did the actual writing). His pace was so measured that he could predict how long each book will take him to write.

Emile Zola didn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lent  any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…

Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history.  It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. 

Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Emile Zola novels for myself. 


Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015.  American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company.  She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.

Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve  heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Obscene and vile: why Zola’s novels ruined a publisher

  • Pingback: Authors At Home: Emilé Zola's Grand Mansion : BookerTalk

  • I hadn’t heard about this tangential Zola story before, but wasn’t surprised to hear how little support and sympathy Zola displayed. The bio’s I’ve read about him so far do not make him sound like a very nice man. The Rosen book (mentioned by Fanda above) almost did my head in – wondering how I can enjoy a man’s writing and stories so much but find so little in the actual man to admire!

    • He doesn’t seem a very pleasant man at all. The way he treated his wife was deplorable. I knew he had a long term mistress but I never realised he had set her up in a house or had children with her.

  • Judy Krueger

    Ah the Victorians. A template of sorts. I fear we will always have such people with us. How lovely of people to mansplian to us what obscenity is. OK, I am done now.

    • You got that out of your system and now feel better having done so I take it 🙂

  • I’ve only scanned your review, Karen because I’ve got this book too, and have been meaning to read it for a while. Censorship is something that has fascinated me ever since I read a history of it in Australia…

    • It will be interesting to see what you make of the style she used to write the book Lisa and whether your reaction differed from mine

      • Unfortunately it’s on my Kindle, which is what has deterred me from reading it up to now…

        • My Kindle is feeling sadly neglected too 🙂

  • How have I read two posts talking the Dreyfuss affair today? Crazy! This sounds fascinating. Im hurt by Zola’s comment, as someone who loves French lit in translation, including his work!

    • I’m a fan of his too. If he had addressed his comments to the American publishers I could have sympathised more (apparently those early translations were awful) but the Vizetelly family took a lot of care with their versions

  • Very interesting book, and a great review! From the three books, La Terre (The Earth) is definitely the “worst”. I have been familiar with Zola’s “obscenity” while reading it, but nonetheless, was quite shocked by the brutality of the rape and murder scenes.

    The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen is very good, you should read it! And perhaps you should read Zola’s J’Accuse! too! I am interested too in one Vizetelly’s book on Zola (forget the title though). Oh… there are so many interesting facets on Zola, and it brings so many books to read to make me happy! 😅

    • There is a bibliography at the end of the book which could make you even more happy

  • Fascinating! And I bet the people judging the effect of Zola’s works on women were men who had a vested interest in keeping British women in ignorance of such matters….

  • Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair forms part of the narrative in Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, which I’ve just finished reading. It’s hard to tell how accurate Harris’ portrayal of Zola and his actions is, but I did get the impression that he might have been enjoying the notoriety just a little bit too much – until he gets sentenced to a year in jail, that is.

    • I read your comments on the Robert Harris book – it does seem rather interesting. I know very little about the Dreyfus affair ..

  • What’s interesting is that we have a definition in the U.S. of what “obscenity” means:

    From Miller vs. California, the court ruled on this definition of obscenity:

    1) whether the average person, applying contemporary “community standards”, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;

    2) whether the work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, as specifically defined by applicable state law (the syllabus of the case mentions only sexual conduct, but excretory functions are explicitly mentioned on page 25 of the majority opinion); and

    3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

    I’m not sure if publishers use this definition to decide what to publish, but I know that my husband studied this court case when he was in school for Broadcasting (radio, TV, film), so I would think the case would come up when discussing books, too? The part that stands out to me in the Miller definition of obscenity is that the work must be “taken as a whole,” meaning people can’t object to one part of the work as obscene and throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • It might not be referred to that much in a British court – they have to rely on British precedents I think

      • I learned about British precedents when I read Bleak House. Holy wow, did that blow my hair back!

        • Oh yes, that court case is horrendous isn’t it….

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