London, has (or had) a reputation for housing members of the international awkward squad. Karl Marx wroteDas Kapital in the British Museum reading room and, before he became the Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple and tried to become an English gentleman even though he found our vegetarian food utterly tasteless. Marx is buried in Highgate Cemetery and Gandhi has two statues in London, one in Tavistock Square, the other opposite Big Ben. (For more on Gandhi see: http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/gandhi-in-london.html .)
Another exile who had to put up with our cooking was the French writer Emile Zola who arrived at Victoria Station on 19th July 1898 without any luggage or knowledge of the English language. He spent his first night at the Grosvenor hotel next to the station (where I have often picked up groups) and later moved to theQueen’s Hotel in Norwood. I went there recently to take some photographs and was glad to see that there was a blue plaque to remember him, even if it was obscured by scaffolding as the hotel has a facelift.
The cause of Zola’s flight from his native France was the notorious Dreyfus affair. A French army officerAlfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island for passing secrets to Germany. Another officer Georges Picquart produced evidence which showed that the real culprit was Ferdinand Esterhazy but, as Dreyfus was Jewish, antisemitism won the day. It was Zola who was sentenced to a year in prison and stripped of his Legion d’Honneur for attacking the military establishment in his famous articleJ’Accuse! Rather than going to prison Zola fled to London and spent nearly a year here before returning.
While in South London Zola wrote most of the book Fecundite and a short story Angeline inspired by a local tale which he transposed to France. He received visits from friends and supporters as well as both his wife and mistress. Zola had a complicated love life but remained loyal to both the wife Alexandrine, who was childless, and mistress Jeanne, with whom he had two children. He indulged in his hobby of photography and gradually became familiar with the language although he could never abide the food. (A Frenchman criticising English cooking? Incroyable!)
Eventually Dreyfus’s innocence became obvious to all but the most intransigent and Zola returned to France where he was pardoned. He was, however, not fully exonerated until 1906 four years after his death from carbon monoxide poisoning. The jury is out on whether his death was an accident or murder but in 1953 the French newspaper Liberation published an account of a death-bed confession which claimed that the chimney to his house had been blocked by an anti-Dreyfusard who was working on the roof at the time. Zola may well have paid with his life for defending an innocent man.
Read Michael Rosen’s book The Disappearance of Emile Zola for more on Zola In London and Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy for the story of Picquart’s role in the Dreyfus affair.
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