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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 Emile Zola’s most provocative and “vile” novels.  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.

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

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 he changed into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they do not cause itches and thus distract him. He knows exactly the trajectory of the book he is currently working upon , having done a preliminary plan and then his research (often that research takes him longer to complete that does the actual writing). His pace is so measured that he can predict how long each book will take him to write.

He doesn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lends 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 Zola novels for myself. 


Footnote

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.

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