Authors At Home: Emilé Zola’s Grand Mansion

It’s time for another episode of “Authors at Home” in which I share some insights into the domestic arrangements of some of our famous writers.

Emile Zola's home

The last episode featured Dove Cottage, a modest house in England’s Lake District that was once home to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. By way of contrast, let’s go across the English Channel to visit a substantially larger house occupied by one of my favourite authors.

I first heard about Emilé’s house at Médan while reading Zola And The Victorians by Eileen Horne.

Horne’s book included a sketch showing a sizeable property with two towers, each named after his most successful books. The 1895 photograph below shows Nana Tower which housed his study. To the left, and barely visible at the edge of the building was a shorter structure known as Germinal Tower.

The villa in which Emile Zola lived for 20 years

My curiosity aroused, I set out to discover more about this property on the banks of the Seine about 90 minutes from Paris..

Zola bought Médan in 1878, using the royalties gained from his novel L’Assommoir. He described it to his friend Gustav Flaubert as “a rabbit hut in a charming hole.” What particularly appealed to him (apart from the bargain price of nine thousand francs), was the peace and tranquility of the location. It was, he said, “far from any resort … not having a single bourgeois in my neighbourhood. “

He soon got builders to work on transforming what was then a modest sized villa into a vast domain surrounded by gardens, a farm and greenhouses. An avenue of lime trees was planted to help screen the house from view.

So at peace am I in my little desert that I sometimes feel I never want to return to Paris.

Letter to Flaubert, 1878

Though Médan was intended as a refuge from the busy social whirl of Paris, it was also a place where leading figures in the worlds of art and literature were entertained. Cézanne, Manet, Pissaro and Zola’s fellow writers in the Naturalist movement, were regular guests at the summer parties hosted by Madame Alexandrine Zola.. The couple even had a pavilion built as an annexe to accommodate their numerous guests and his publisher.

Emile Zola's house
Médan complete with Germinal Tower (left) and Nana Tower (right)

Most of the house was furnished according to his wife’s direction but Zola took personal control of his study.

Oriental carpets cover the study floor and tapestries adorn the walls. An enormous divan sits in an alcove near the windows and there he will generally nap and read in the afternoons. Curios, pottery and images line shelves and side tables all around the room. …

A substantial library of books is accessed by a spiral staircase which leads to a gallery space and a roof terrace beyond. His desk sits in the centre of the room facing the windows with their view of the river.

Zola And The Victorians by Eileen Horne, p41

Each morning Zola took a stroll from the house, following the path of the river, his dogs at his heels. Later he changes into loose flannel shirt, wide trousers and padded worker’s jacket to begin wok on his latest novel.

Emile Zola

The Zolas lived at Médan for more than 20 years. On 28 September 1902, they left for their home in Paris. Emilé Zola never saw Médan again. He died in the early hours of the following morning in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.

Three years later Madame Zola handed the house over for the benefit of people who needed convalescence. The property was officially added to the list of France’s historic monuments on 21 March 1983.

On March 21st 1983, Émile Zola’s former property was officially added to the list of France’s historic monuments and became a museum. In 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the building would become the home of a state museum devoted to the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus was the subject of an infamous miscarriage of justice in the 1890s. After a campaign led by Emilé Zola, his conviction for treason was overturned and he was pardoned by the President.

It doesn’t appear that this project has been completed. The museum’s website simply says the museum will re-open in 2018. Such a shame– I was thinking it’s re-opening would be a great excuse for a little weekend trip to Paris.

BookerTalk

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

18 thoughts on “Authors At Home: Emilé Zola’s Grand Mansion

  • March 13, 2020 at 9:18 pm
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    Quite a building and house. No wonder he wrote such good books. I’d like to visit it once it re-opens and we can travel again. How many of his novels have you read? I think I’ve read just 1 but loved it.

    Reply
    • March 14, 2020 at 2:59 pm
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      I’ve read six of his Rougon Macquet cycle but there are 20 in that series so I still have a way to go. All have them have been very rewarding reads. I’ve also read Therese Racquin – oh my gosh what a book!

      Reply
  • March 13, 2020 at 9:16 pm
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    Quite a building and a house. No wonder he wrote such good books. I’d like to visit it once it re-opens and we can travel again.

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    • March 14, 2020 at 2:59 pm
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      The way Europe is shutting down I think that’s going to be quite some time into the future Jill

      Reply
      • March 14, 2020 at 5:40 pm
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        Sadly it looks that way. Should have been in Italy next week, but relieved that it was cancelled. By way of compensation have booked my June and September break in our usual cottage in Powys. No trains, planes or boats req’d so all being well, no problems with that.

        Reply
        • March 15, 2020 at 6:19 pm
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          My brother in law is stuck in Spain so yes I think you had a narrow escape…

        • March 17, 2020 at 5:57 pm
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          Just waiting for confirmation that he got a flight today – now he has to go into quarantine for 2 weeks (his employer is insisting on this)…

        • March 17, 2020 at 7:33 pm
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          Quarantine at home assuming he feels OK is doable. It’ll be a relief just to get home. Tell him to avoid the news & social media it’ll drive him mad!

    • March 13, 2020 at 4:41 pm
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      They’re way behind schedule so no need to book those tickets just yet.

      Reply
    • March 13, 2020 at 4:43 pm
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      Virtual trips is about all I think we’ll manage in the next few months unfortunately

      Reply
      • March 14, 2020 at 4:58 am
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        Yes, but it won’t last forever. And meantime, we’ve got reading.
        I feel sorry for other people who don’t have the inner resources to take pleasure in leading a quiet life for a little while.

        Reply
        • March 14, 2020 at 2:56 pm
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          There is a mental health aspect to this pandemic that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Elderly people who live alone are very scared. My parents feel isolated at times so are feeling down already because groups they go to regularly are cancelling their meet ups

    • March 13, 2020 at 4:43 pm
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      The interior sounds well worth seeing as much as the exterior

      Reply

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