Emile Zola (1840–1902)

The novels of Emile Zola depict with startling clarity the inhuman and oppressive aspects of working class life in industrial Europe in the nineteenth century.

Zola was born in Paris, the son of a naturalized Italian engineer, but from 1843 spent his childhood years in Aix-en-Provence. His family became poor following the death of his father in 1847 and he returned to Paris in 1858, finding employment as a clerk with a shipping firm, but also gaining the acquaintance of such artists as Paul Cezanne (1839-1906).

His first major novel, Therese Raquin, was published in 1867, and in 1871 he embarked on writing a series of 20 novels, Les Rougon-Macquant, completed in 1893, which depicted the fortunes of two families, one respectable, the other disreputable during the Second Empire. L’Assommoir (The Drunkard), published in 1877 was highly successful, and brought him wealth. Zola achieved particular fame through his publication in 1898 in the newspaper l’Aurore of an open letter, ‘J’accuse’, to the President Felix Faure, in which he alleged that the government was anti-semitic, and had wrongly imprisoned the Jewish army office Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935). Zola was found guilty, but fled to exile in Norwood, south London, from which he returned the following year after a new government granted him an amnesty.

Zola was an exponent of the school of Naturalism, describing human life in frank and sordid detail, based on his reading in social history, and on scientific observation of working and living conditions in industrial areas.

For the industrial historian the two most important of more than 30 novels are Germinal of 1885, which is set in northern France and centred around the life of Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railwayman who by chance secures employment in a coal mine called Le Voreux (the voracious beast), and La Bete Humaine (the beast in man) of 1890, a tale of tortured love, which focuses on the life of a railway engine driver. Zola visited coal mines in the course of writing the first, and made several footplate journeys while researching the background for the second.

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) made an exquisitely beautiful film of La Bete Humaine in 1938, although the locomotives depicted are those of the 1930s, chiefly the designs of Andre Chapelon, rather than those of Zola’s lifetime.