Friday, January 15, 2010

South London French Exiles (2): Emile Zola

The great French novelist Emile Zola lived in the Queen's Hotel in Upper Norwood from October 1898 to June 1899 while in voluntary exile during the infamous Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army, had been falsely accused of spying, largely as a consequence of the widespread anti-semitism in ruling circles. Zola famously came to his defence by writing an open letter to the French President, "J'Accuse" and as a result was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for criminal libel. It was to avoid this that Zola fled to London, where he remained until the death of the President and the withdrawal of the threat of prison.

Zola led a lonely existence in Norwood, his whereabouts concealed from all but trusted friends. His visitors included the French socialist leader Jean Jaures, Yves Guyot (a prominent Dreyfusard), J H Levy of the Personal Rights Association, and the novelist Octave Mirbeau.

Zola spent his time working on his novel Fécondité, cycling and taking photographs of the local area, including the following one of the Crystal Palace.

Interestingly when Zola had visited London five years previously he was deemed sufficiently a literary celebrity to be honoured in one of the regular grand fireworks displays at the Crystal Palace. Along with the 'Ascent of two Large Balloons, bearing torches and Aerial fireworks' and and 'Aquatic Forest of Floating Trees of Fire' the 23 September 1893 display included a 'Fire Portrait of Emile Zola with motto "Welcome"' (Patrick Beaver, The Crystal Palace: a portrait of Victorian enterprise, 1986).

There is a blue plaque for Zola on the hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood (close to Crystal Palace triangle). A collection of Zola's photographs of the area has been published by the Norwood Society.

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