Zola and the Victorians: Censorship in the Age of Hypocrisy by Eileen Horne was published in 2015 by Maclehose Press. As soon as I became aware of this book I just had to read it as soon as possible. Ever since I became aware of Zola and the problems over the translations into English I have been fascinated with the story of the Vizetellys. Graham King’s book, Garden of Zola was a fascinating and useful book when I was reading the Rougon-Macquart series and chapter 15 of that book covers much of what appears in Horne’s book. So, Zola and the Victorians tells the story of the Vizetellys, notably Henry and Ernest, and their battles with the censors in late Victorian England. And by the way: I love the cover.
Of course, this book will mostly be of interest to anyone that’s read anything by Zola, but also anyone that’s interested in censorship in the Victorian period. It’s not necessary to have read any of Zola’s books to appreciate this book. The first thing I should mention is that I was expecting a straightforward non-fiction account but instead it consists largely of fictionalised episodes. My guess is that there is very little actual source material, especially about the Vizetellys, and that a lot just has to be inferred. Once I got used to it being largely fiction I was ok with it but it does mean that the reader has to question what is exactly from primary source material and what is made up.
La Terre was published in 1887 and was the fifteenth book in Zola’s series of books, Les Rougon-Macquart, and it concentrates on the French peasantry and farming. It is a truly remarkable book that can still shock the reader today as it depicts the misery that exists in the countryside. The book has a huge number of characters, many of whom are either repellent, grasping, murderous or otherwise sick or mentally unstable. It has scenes of murder, violence and rape together with fart jokes and drunk donkeys puking over priests. But the main theme of the book is the battle over Old Fouan’s land after he leaves it to his offspring when he can no longer work the land himself. Even by today’s standards La Terre is brutal and earthy, so it’s no wonder that it caused a stir when published in France.
Inspired by contemporary French literature Henry Vizetelly had started a publishing company with the aim of selling translations of recent literature. He had bought the rights to translate and publish everything by Zola, beginning with L’Assommoir and Nana. With the translation of La Terre Vizetelly was faced with trouble from the start as Ernest Vizetelly had to finish the translation after the original translator refused to work on it. Ernest made a lot of changes to make the book more acceptable to the English reading public before it was published, as The Soil, in 1888.
Horne’s book begins with chapters depicting Zola at home as he works on his next book, The Dream and a debate in the House of Commons on the spread of ‘demoralising literature’ including Zola’s work. But with chapter three we get to see the Vizetellys at home debating the recent interest that the Pall Mall Gazette is showing in Zola’s ‘immoral’ books. In this chapter Henry comes across as a bit of a dreamer whereas Ernest is more pragmatic, more aware of the potential dangers that lie ahead. Henry is convinced that Victorian society is relaxing its morals whilst Ernest is convinced of the opposite. Ernest’s analysis of their predicament is prescient:
“Papa, I do not — I have no wish to worry you…but if Nana and L’Assommoir…were at the boundary edge of public taste, it seems to me that this new book, The Soil, is beyond that scale. What is more, it lacks the lesson that those tales of urban degradation carry. I can see how it was possible to argue that those stories were meant as warning bells, by a moralistic author, to dissuade his readers from emulating the sorry and desperate heroines. But I feel that option is not open to us here; frankly, I don’t know where an apologist would begin with The Soil. I have been going over the final proofs today…there is more revision before we can print.”
Ernest is aware of the furore that had erupted in France over the publication of the book and is well aware of how it will be met with in England, even in its sanitised form. But the Vizetelly’s are about to come up against the National Vigilance Association (N.V.A.) an organisation that has political and journalistic support. Horne is fair enough in this section not to caricaturise the members of the N.V.A. as they believe that they are saving the country from such ‘pernicious filth’. They are certainly patronising though, as they treat ‘the masses’ little more than children that need to be protected from such literature.
Part Two covers the trials that took place and is fascinating reading. The N.V.A. initially brought the cae against Henry Vizetelly but the crown subsequently takes over the prosecution. Much to Ernest’s dismay it is apparent that the prosecution aims to concentrate on The Soil. But Vizetelly seems to be plagued with incompetent or uninterested lawyers and over the course of the two trials their defence is largely non-existent despite receiving support from people such as the novelist George Moore and financial support from the journalist Frank Harris. After the second trial ends without the defence lawyer even putting up a fight Henry is sentenced to three months imprisonment. Later on in the book it’s this lack of a defence of the freedom of the press that gnaws at Henry. When Henry is writing his memoirs Ernest asks why he doesn’t write about the trial:
“But you can set the record right, Papa. You can tell people what happened, and how we were badly misrepresented by our counsel, and in what way you intended to fight the case, for the sake of literary freedom—”
“Intended. But I did not.”
“You were ill!”
“Yes, and I was afraid, which is implicit in my guilty plea. I did nothing for the cause, as you call it, except set it back….”
The book also covers Zola’s affair with his mistress and mother of his children, Jeanne, which is contemporaneous with the trials, and Zola’s visit to England in 1893, where he is hypocritically fêted by the British establishment, many of whom were intrumental in the Viztelly prosecution.
This book was a fascinating read and is recommended to all the Zola enthusiasts out there. The fictional nature of the book helps bring the protagonists alive and allows us to envisage likely scenes that may or may not have taken place. However, we are then unsure what is actually fact or fiction. For example, how much detail of the trials is actually known about? Referring to the relevant chapter in Graham King’s book I notice that he gives short extracts of the trial but it’s not clear whether these come from transcripts of the trial or from newspaper reports. Still, this is an inherent problem with this approach but should be understood when reading it.
This was cross-posted on my Intermittencies of the Mind blog.