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Revealed: My 8 Most Frequently Read Authors

I’m not a big reader of series so it’s been a challenge to reach the magical 10 for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic: Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By.

Maybe I made it too difficult by setting a threshold where in order to make the list, I decided I would limit myself to authors I read as an adult. Plus I had to have read at least five of the author’s works. I ended up with just eight names.

They are a mix of contemporary authors and those from the literary canon of past centuries. Some are authors whose full body of work I would love to read. Others are favourites from past years that have not lasted the course because my reading tastes have changed. I wonder whether this list will change again in the future. Maybe I should repeat the exercise five or ten years from now .

One important thing to mention however. This list is simply a record of authors I’ve read most often, not the authors I consider my favourites. There’s no George Eliot for example. Putting the list together I realised I still have three of her novels to read: Daniel Deronda, Felix Holt and Romola. I sense a little reading project might be in the offing.

Louise Penny

By the time I came across Louise Penny’s crime fiction she had already published eight titles in her series set in Quebec. Her setting in the tiny village of Three Pines won me over, as did her protagonist, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. She’s published a total of 15 books in the series – 16th is due out later this year – of which I’ve read eight. My favourite? That’s a hard one. I think I’m going to go for How The Light Gets In.


Kate Atkinson

My first experience of Atkinson was via her debut novel Behind The Scenes at the Museum which chronicled the lives of six generations of women. I’ve since gone on to read six more of the the 10 books she’s had published. Some of these were not to my taste (I couldn’t finish Life after Life and really disliked Transcription) but when she’s on form, she’s highly enjoyable. Her Jackson Brodie series of detective novels (adapted into the BBC series Case Histories) is first class and like her many other fans I was delighted when she returned to this series in 2019 after a 11 year gap, with Blue Sky.


Ian McEwan

There was a time when I lapped up everything written by McEwan. But in recent years my interest has waned significantly. The turning point was Saturday published in 2005 which I found tedious and pretentious. I’ve read seven of his novels. From his early years, I enjoyed Black Dogs and The Innocent. Of his more recent works, my all time favourite is Atonement.


William Boyd

Another author I no longer enjoy as much as I did. I’ve read six of his novels. The best of those from the twentieth century is I think Brazzaville Beach which tells the story of a woman who is in Africa researching chimpanzees. This century, the outstanding novel has been Any Human Heart, a tremendous story of one man’s life; his attempts at a literary career, several marriages and meetings with a host of famous people. Nothing Boyd has published since has come anywhere close to the quality of that novel and the most recent one I read, Love is Blind, was just awful.


Graham Greene

If you’d asked me in the 1980s whether Graham Greene was one of my favourite authors, you’d have been met with an unequivocal answer in the negative. He’d been on the syllabus for my final English literature module at university and I had unwelcome memories of having to rush through his books. But time has moved on and I’ve come to more deeply appreciate his work, particularly those labelled his “Catholic novels.” My favourite is The Heart of The Matter which portrays a fundamentally decent man taken down the path to a crisis of conscience and despair.


Émile Zola

I’ve barely touched the surface with Zola’s work. I’ve read seven of his novels; Thérèse Raquin, a dark novel of murder and adultery and six of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle.  I’ve yet to read one that hasn’t impressed me with its multi-faceted portrayal French society and life in the nineteenth century and its undercurrents of passion and ambition. My favourite is the novel I read first, Germinal, but L’Assommoir, the story of a working class woman in Paris, is a close second.


Charles Dickens

Like so many readers I was introduced to Dickens at an early age via Oliver Twist. It took me a few decades to warm to him. Yes he can be frustrating (he does so like to digress) and yes his plots are highly dependent on coincidences, but boy can he tell a good yarn. I’ve failed to finish two: Bleak House (I’ll return to it one day) and A Tale of Two Cities). Of the eight novels by him that I have finished, my favourites are Great Expectations (the first encounter by Magwitch and young Pip is unforgettable) and Dombey and Son (especially for its breathtaking scene involving a train).


Jane Austen

When I read Jane Austen as a teenager I was puzzled by descriptions of her as a supremely ‘witty’ author. I couldn’t see anything approaching wit in what I was reading. It wasn’t until I read her as an adult that the penny dropped and I fell in love with her writing. I’ve read all her novels bar one, Lady Susan. Last year I read one of her unfinished works, Sanditon, when a new Oxford World Classics edition was published to coincide with a TV adaptation. She’s an author I feel I can return to again and again and still find something new to enjoy. My favourite? I never tire of Pride and Prejudice but the quieter, more thoughtful Persuasion, has the edge.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, Discover what other bloggers put on their lists by clicking this week’s blog page

What I’m Reading: Episode 26, March 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

For the first time ever I purchased a book in advance of publication. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so much, I just had to have the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I wasn’t expecting The Mirror & The Light to be so big. Huge in fact and because it’s in hardback, it’s heavy. Which makes it very difficult to read in bed….

Hilary Mantel

But that’s only part of the reason why my progress through this book is at glacial speed. The main factor is that this is a book which takes a good amount of concentration. Mantel’s narration is slippery. You have to keep on your toes to be certain who is speaking. Plus there are a lot of characters (the list at the front of the book is five pages long).

But I’m not complaining. This is a book of sheer brilliance. It is absolutely meant to be savoured. I suspect I’m still going to be reading it when it’s time to do my April edition of “What I’m Reading”.  

What I just finished reading

WalesReadingMonth (otherwise known as Dewithon 2020) has been running throughout March. As you’d expect I’ve been participating in the event hosted by Paula at Book Jotter by reading a few books by Welsh authors that were on my TBR shelves.

I posted my review of one of these – Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans – a few days ago. It wasn’t great. Far more to my taste was One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard. It was written in the Welsh language in 1961 as a portrayal of life in a small slate quarrying town in North Wales. The narrator recalls his childhood in this community, a life in which joy, sadness and tragedy are seldom apart.

Caradog Pritchard

Pritchard’s novel is written in a poetic style but also uses the local dialect. Once you’ve tuned into this, and got accustomed to the oddities of character names (Will Starch Collar is my favourite), the book is tremendous. I’ll post a more considered response in the next few days.

Incidentally the photo was taken on what turned out to be my very last trip to a coffee shop for some considerable time. No prizes for guessing why coffee shops are no go areas right now.

I also just finished The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, a debut novel which comes out in April. It has an interesting twist on the theme of relationships because it focuses on a married couple who have not spoken to each other for six months. I’m on the blog tour for this mid April so will share my thoughts in a few weeks.

Abbie Greaves

What I’ll read next

I said at the beginning of the year that I was pulling back from reading challenges that involved making lists of books to read or goals for the number of books to read. But I am joining in short reading events where I can and where I have a suitable book/s on my TBR.

There are two coming up fairly soon. One is ZolaAddictionMonth hosted by Fanda and the other is the 1920club hosted by Karen and Simon.

I have one book lined up for each.

For Zola Addiction month I have His Excellency Eugene Rougon/Son Excellence Eugène Rougon which is book number two in Zola’s Rougon-Macquet cycle. I’ve been reading them out of order but am now trying to fill in the gaps.

For the 1920 reading club I have Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. This will be the final book on my Classics Club project (woo hoo….)

I turned to Twitter to help me decide which to read first. But it didn’t help. Because it was a draw… So I shall have to rely on my instinct instead.

In the meantime there is the (not so small) matter of the Mantel to finish, and The Binding which is the next book club choice. And a library loan of Actress by Anne Enright (not that it needs to be finished soon because libraries have gone the way of coffee shops). And more than 200 other books on my shelves.

I shall be busy.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

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.

My Favourite Books Across the Decade

Favourite books

I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.

That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.

I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.

So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..

I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a  traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien

Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. The book ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

Cove by Cynan Jones

It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page it hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.

The Vegetarian by Hang Kang

This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West

Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. Its such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.

Bizarre And Mysterious Deaths of 10 Famous Authors

quote on death

Albert Camus is right up to a point; we are all destined to die. But if you’re an author then the “when and how” your characters meet their end do matter.  

Some opt for a quiet fading away to the last breath, others prefer the grand gesture along the lines of Madame Bovary. But the deaths of the authors themselves can be just as strange. 

Here are of the most unusual – and bizarre – ways in which famous authors said farewell to this world. 

Albert Camus 1913-1960

Where better to begin than with Albert Camus himself.

On January 4,1960, Camus was in a car on his way to Paris with his friend Michel Gallimard.   Gallimard who was driving, suddenly lost control of the car on an icy patch and slammed into a tree. Both Camus and Gallimard were killed.

About 50 years after this event, stories began circulating that Camus was killed by Soviet spies on the direction of the Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov. They supposedly used a special kind of equipment which could make a hole in the tyre of the car at speed (sounds very James Bond to me). Why would Camus have been targeted? He had written an article three years before his death in which he attacked and criticised Shepilov.

It’s a conspiracy theory that’s never been substantiated.

Emile Zola 1840-1902

Conspiracy theorists were also in evidence in 1902 when the body of the French realist author Emile Zola was discovered at his home in Paris.

He had woken, feeling sick, at 3am on 29 September but he told his wife not to rouse their servants. When day broke she was found unconscious and he was dead.

Carbon monoxide poisoning was suspected but many people raised the possibility he’d been murdered by anti-Dreyfusards (a reaction to Zola’s involvement in the infamous Dreyfus affair.)

An inquest was ordered. Tests conducted on the fireplaces of the Paris house did not discover any blockages. The coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes but refused to make his report public.

The cause of Zola’s death is still the subject of considerable debate.

Nikolai Gogol (31 March 1809 – 4 March 1852) 

Debate rages too about the death of the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol.

In 1852 he was in a state of deep depression. On the night of 24 February he burned some of his manuscripts (containing most of the second part of Dead Souls.) He claimed this was a mistake, the result of a practical joke played on him by the Devil.  

He went to bed, refused all food and died in great pain nine days later. Officially he died as a result of starvation.

His grave at Danilov Monastery was marked by a large stone and topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931 when Russian authorities decided to demolish the monastery and transfer Gogol’s remains, they supposedly discovered that his body was lying face down. This became the catalyst for a theory that he had been buried alive. Sounds a bit of an odd theory to me.

Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849

For a man described as “father of detective fiction” it seems fitting that Poe’s own death should be shrouded in mystery.

On October 3, 1849 Poe was discovered in a delirious condition at a tavern in Baltimore. The doctor who was summoned described Poe as looking hagggard, unwashed and dishevelled.

Poe was taken to hospital, denied visitors and kept in a room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunks. He died a few days later.

The precise cause of Poe’s death is disputed. His first doctor (a supporter of the Temperance movement) was convinced it was the result of alcoholism. This was the line followed by newspapers at the time who reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, (both euphemisms for deaths from unhealthy causes such as alcoholism).

Poe’s second doctor disagreed and said there was “not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person”.  

Theories have abounded ever since, ranging from hypoglycemia to murder and suicide.  The truth is however likely to remain a mystery since no medical records including Poe’s death certificate have been discovered.

Tennessee Williams 1911-1983

The American playwright Tennessee Williams left behind his own mystery when he died on 25 February 1983.

He  choked on a small bottle cap. The medical examiner identified it as the kind of cap that you’d find on eye droppers or nasal spray containers.

The real mystery is of course how the hell did Williams miss his eyes (or nose) and end up sticking the cap into his mouth? I’m wondering whether he found the cap stuck and stuck it between his teeth to unscrew it (done that loads of time myself). Then swallowed at the wrong moment. There’s a lesson there probably…

Mark Twain 1835-1910

Though Mark Twain, (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died of natural causes, it’s the date of his death that is decidedly strange.

Twain was born on 30 November 1835; the day on which Halley’s Comet made one of its rare appearances. He apparently once joked that he would die the next time it was visible (a phenomenon that occurs only every 75-76 years).

The comet was next seen on 20 April 1910. Twain died the following day.

Charles Dickens 1812-1870

There’s no mystery about when Charles Dickens died. But there is a question mark about where the event happened.

Dickens was not in good health in the summer of 1870 though he continued with a full programme of appearances and readings. On 8 June, after working all day on Edwin Drood, he suffered a stroke. He never regained consciousness.

The following day he died, supposedly in his home at Gads Hill Place. However the biographer Claire Tomalin has suggested Dickens was actually in Peckham when he suffered the stroke. His mistress Ellen Ternan and her maids had him taken back to Gad’s Hill so the public wouldn’t discover the truth about their relationship.

Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910

The death of the man considered the greatest of all novelists, was anything but a private affair.

He’d walked out on his wife of 48 years, leaving their home secretly in the middle of the night. In his farewell letter he told her he was “leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet”.

On a train south he was taken ill and forced to stop at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village. The stationmaster give him the use of his house.

Tolstoy’s health declined but he was not to be allowed to go in solitude. When news got out of his condition and his location, hundreds of his admirers flocked to Astapovo. Hot on their heels was a Pathé News camera team and reporters from all over the world. Their regular updates were sometimes wildly inaccurate:

“Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” ran one headline in the New York Times yet the man was drifting in an out of consciousness at the time.

The only person not allowed at his bedside was his wife. Not until the very end did Tolstoy’s friends allow her to enter the room.

Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

The playwright and novelist died a broken man. Penniless and disgraced by his conviction for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment, he had fled to Paris upon his release.

There he died from meningitis in a seedy apartment.

Opinions vary about the cause of his condition, His physicians reported that it was an ear infection sustained while in prison. A 1988 biography by Richard Ellmann however claimed it was connected to syphilis which Wilde himself said he had contracted from a prostitute while a student at Oxford.

Wilde’s family, through his grandson Merlin Holland, have naturally disputed this claim. Extensive research by a London neurologist and two ear surgeons appear to back up the family’s position – they found no definitive proof of syphilis.

Yukio Mishima 1925-1970

Yukio Mishima died not as a result of accident or misfortune but from a deliberate an act of political protest. It was a gruesome

Mishma, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. In 1968 his attention moved away from literature to the political arena when he created the Tatenokai, a private right-wing militia. The movement wanted to see the restoration of the Emperor of Japan.

On 25th November 1970 Yukio and four members of the Tatenokai went to the Tokyo offices of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the building, and tied the commandant to his chair.

Yukio Mishima went out onto the balcony with a manifesto and a list of demands and addressed the gathered soldiers below with the intention of inspiring a coup d’état to restore power to the emperor.

He was mocked and jeered. He went inside and performed seppuku (a ritual suicide) by cutting open his belly and disembowelling himself. A fewllow Tatenokai member tried to decapitate the author but failed despite several attempts.

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

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. 


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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