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At Home In 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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