If you fancy writing a gritty, realistic novel that doesn’t hold back revealing the murkier underbelly of human nature, try a holiday in charming Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer on the northern coast of Normandy. It worked for Émile Zola.
Like Émile you can settle yourself into a charming villa overlooking Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer’s pretty beach or linger on sparkling champagne sands under wide blue skies and let those creative juices flow.
It was Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and Normandy that finally released the genius within Émile Zola. Here one of France’s greatest authors wrote the masterpiece that would make him a literary star.
The book is titled ‘L’Assommoir’, an old Paris name for a shop that sold cheap liquor.
A cure for all ills in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer
There is a time before the most brilliant authors, talented artists and virtuoso musicians become famous. This is when they are just like us. Like Émile Zola in 1875.
Émile’s wife Alexandrine had been unwell for some weeks and her doctor prescribed time away from the city. It is not clear what was wrong, her husband simply describes her symptoms as ‘ailing’ ‘tired’ and ‘sick’. He did not generally enjoy good health himself, suffering since childhood from nerves and painful stomach disorders. A change could be good for them both.
Now making a little money from his writing, Émile was able to rent a house by the sea at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer in Normandy.
Superb weather and wild tempests
The family arrived on 2 August. Before visiting Normandy Émile only knew Paris and the flat bright colours of the Mediterranean. Normandy was a revelation. He was astonished by the diverse coastal landscapes, dramatic sea and daily theatre of the setting sun over the Channel.
He wrote that Normandy offers “superb weather and wild tempests, days when the sun beats down, nights such as make you believe you are in Naples, phosphorescent seas, and every change occurring so brusquely that I have never experienced such swift transformations of the scenery.”
Émile had not planned for his series of novels analysing French society, the Rougon-Macquart, to include scenes by the sea or of Normandy but now he found himself making copious descriptive notes. Émile’s novel La Joie de Vivre (Rougon-Macquart no.12, 1884) would be set largely in Bonneville, an imaginary town based on Vierville, Grandcamp and Saint-Aubin.
Energised in Normandy
Energised in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer his work went well. On 3 September Émile wrote ‘My dear manager, I just finished a novel, Eugène Rougon, the sixth in my series Rougon-Macquart’ … ‘I think this book is one of the strangest I have ever written.’
Now he had time work on an idea that originated in Paris but could now flourish in the fresh sea air; an unsentimental novel that focussed entirely on the lives of the Paris underclass.
A past in poverty
As a young man Émile experienced poverty while living in Montrouge. He understood the habits, customs and the slang of the streets and had exposed snippets of bleak lives in radical newspaper articles. Now he would go further than brief commentaries and his characters would speak in the vernacular of the Paris poor.
Perhaps it was while watching Normandy fishing boats at the mercy of a turbulent sea that Émile was inspired to place at the heart of his novel a simple girl of the people, whose life is battered like a tiny boat in a gale.
The masterpiece, L’Assommoir
In L’Assommoir (no.7 of his series), hard working poverty stricken laundry worker Mme. Gervaise Macquart, mother of two boys (‘blond young Mum of two’ as the Daily Mail would say) is abandoned by her feckless partner, but finds love again with Coupeau. A beautiful daughter is born, Anna (known as a Nana, star of a later Zola book) and hard work brings a level of comfort.
All is well for a while but this is no fairy-tale. It is clear just from the number of remaining pages, and because it is written by Émile Zola, that something is about to go horribly wrong. Sure enough Coupeau falls off a roof and while he slowly recuperates transforms unpleasantly from regular boozer to a bitter alcoholic who squanders Gervaise’s money.
Honesty and despair
Soon Gervaise is helping herself to more than the occasional nip of absinthe and taking out the 19th century version of pay day loans. She soon loses her pride, income and her hope. Daughter Nana leaves their squalid home to become a prostitute and the book ends with Gervaise dying of hunger and despair.
Émile’s brutal story did not pander to the sentimental literary style of the time. His unsettling tale exposed middle class readers to the reality of working class life and shocked critics called it sordid, vulgar and coarse. Émile called it honest.
Success and secrets
The novel was a huge success. The temperance crowd took it to their hearts as a fine example of why they were right. The social reformers quoted the horrors it revealed to back up their arguments for change and the smartest Paris salons echoed with Gervaise’s misery.
Fans may not have realised that Émile was able to research quite a bit of his novel by talking to his wife, the former Gabrielle Alexandrine Meley. Gabrielle Meley was an illegitimate daughter and a shop girl with a dubious past. She had given birth to a daughter at 17 but was forced through poverty to abandon her to the Children’s Hospital. Only when she married Émile after some years together on 31 May 1870 did she became the very respectable Madam Alexandrine Zola.
A flesh and blood heroine, Alexandrine
Émile was a remarkable man for his time for many reasons and his acceptance of Alexandrine’s past is perhaps one. She told him about her daughter and they searched for her together. Tragically they discovered the babe died just at few months old.
Alexandrine would always be Émile’s strongest and loudest supporter and he valued the the stability their marriage gave him. Sandoz, a writer in Émile’s novel ‘L’Œuvre’ (1886) describes his wife as ‘the guardian of his tranquillity’ who gives him ‘a loving home where he might shut himself up, so as to devote his whole life to the huge work which he ever dreamt of’. And this is exactly what Émile achieved with Alexandrine. Although he did put it very much to the test.
Émile may seem to have the better deal but Alexandrine was in love. The self interest, inattention and moods, nothing would ever break her love for this dour little man, because she had fallen in love with his mind.
Fame, fans and lost friends
The family stayed in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer until the days turned chilly, leaving on 4 October 1875. It was possibly the last quiet family holiday they would have.
The success of L’Assommoir bought fame, money and attention. Émile’s reputation was established. A new house in Medan was purchased and Alexandrine created a comfortable home that allowed Émile to focus on his work. She was a welcoming hostess to his friends.
But life would never be easy for someone as tense, as original as Émile Zola. He felt too passionately and success brought new challenges. As the establishment embraced Émile some of his more radical associates abandoned him. Childhood friend Cézanne, thinking himself unflatteringly portrayed as a character in L’Œuvre, broke their friendship.
The passions of a troubled man
As mutual respect, admiration and trust made Émile and Alexandrine a formidable couple, after some years the routines of a shared middle age left little room for passion. They did not have children, which should not matter but so often does, particularly to a man who can see old age approaching.
It was a troubled man age 48 who took his wife and his household – including a new maid Jeanne Rozerot – to Royan in Charente-Maritime for a holiday in 1888. The Atlantic ocean failed to divert him as the Normandy coast had before and by the end of their six week holiday he had given in to a different kind of distraction. 21 year old Jeanne was his mistress. They would be together for 14 years and have two children, Jacques and Denise.
But he never left Alexandrine, and she almost forgave him.
Émile’s double life
The author divided his time between two homes: one with Jeanne and the children, and one with Alexandrine. In July 1894, he wrote ‘I am not happy. This sharing this double life that I am forced to live eventually drive me to despair. I had the dream to make everyone happy around me, but I see that this is impossible’. But for his own reasons he could abandon neither the mother of his children or the creator of his artistic sanctuary.
More controversy: ‘J’Accuse’
Despite perpetual anxiety and frequent ill health his obsession with social justice always took precedence. Famously on 13 January 1898 Émile infuriated French officials by publishing an open letter ‘J’Accuse’ in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, an Army officer who had been convicted of treason, a debacle known as the Dreyfuss Affair. Émile was found guilty of libel and sentenced to 1 year in prison, fined 3000 francs and removed from the Legion of Honour.
Émile fled to England and after a few addresses settled at the Queen’s Hotel in Upper Norwood in October 1898. Here he enjoyed visits first by Jeanne and the children then Alexandrine, but soon felt isolated. To his relief amnesty was granted a few short months later as the case against Dreyfus crumbled.
On his return to Paris in June 1899 Émile said of London “ It is, in fact, a city, as my wife said, made for me, and I hope to have leisure to study it better some day.” Sadly he would not have the opportunity to return. Just three years later Émile would be dead, under extraordinary circumstances.
On the night of 28 September 1902 at three in the morning both Émile and Alexandrine were awake, feeling sick. Émile decided not to wake the servants thinking it an attack of indigestion. He attempted to get up and open a window but fell to the floor. Alexandrine was immobilised on the bed unable to help him. Unknown to them both Carbon Monoxide had filled the room, their chimney had unaccountably become blocked. On the floor Émile was most vulnerable as the Carbon Monoxide, heavier than air, settled.
At 9 the next morning they were found and although Alexandrine survived, Émile, in a coma, lived just a few hours. During his last afternoon Alexandrine sent word to Jeanne. In Aix, on hearing of Émile’s death, Cézanne shut himself into his room and wept for hours.
Death of a star
Émile was buried on Sunday October 5 1902 in Montmartre. Over 50,000 people filled the streets to pay their respects, from delegations of miners and Freemasons to government ministers. Soldiers presented arms as the hearse passed. Anatole France delivered an oration in Émile’s praise; ‘Zola’ he said ‘was a moment in the history of human conscience.’
The remarkable family Zola
Émile ‘s body was moved in 1908 to the Pantheon, the mausoleum of France’s great. Among those at the ceremony were Alexandrine and with her, Jeanne and the two children. Alexandrine, more a lady than many of much higher birth, had legally recognised Jeanne’s children as those of her husband, changing their lives forever.
Alexandrine once said to a friend ‘Why did he not want children by me when I was still young enough to give them to him?’ A sad lament Émile Zola could now never answer.