Émile Zola: in profile

Émile Zola was a French novelist, playwright and journalist. He also played a key role in the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer wrongly convicted of treason. Zola won acclaim for his 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series of novels about the history of a family during the reign of Napoleon III. He died in Paris, aged 62, from carbon monoxide poisoning, thought to have been caused by an improperly vented chimney.

When did you first hear about Zola?

In my school sixth form, when we read short stories in French. I had a wonderful French teacher, who introduced us to Zola’s L’Attaque du Moulin. One of the joys of studying a foreign language is the pleasure you get when you suddenly discover that you can read an adult story by a foreign writer in their own tongue. It’s like discovering a new set of clothes that you never knew you had!


What kind of person was he?

His family had Italian origins, so he felt rather despised as an outsider – at this time the French had a kind of racist word for people from the southern Mediterranean: “méteque”. And I think it was this that made him so desperate to get France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour. You get a sense of him thinking: “Aren’t I the most popular writer in France – don’t I deserve this?” He was also a man with a social conscience, advocating workers’ control of industry.

What made him a hero?

The stance he took during the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s. At this moment of high crisis in France, Zola was a resolute supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer of Jewish descent who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island after being wrongly convicted of treason. The affair split France down the middle and a lot of French people proudly called themselves anti-Semites – newspapers even carried the words “the anti-Semitic newspaper” on their mastheads.

What was Zola’s finest hour?

The famous “J’Accuse” letter he wrote – published on the front page of a prominent Paris newspaper in 1898 – in which he accused the French army and government of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. Doing so endangered his career, and indeed his life. Zola exposed the conspiracy between the government and the military, incurring the wrath of many powerful people. He was found guilty of libel, removed from the Legion of Honour, and forced to flee to England, staying in London for nearly a year (where, incidentally, he was appalled by the food). In the end, he returned to France and was pardoned after it emerged that Dreyfus was indeed innocent.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

Some might see him as a bigamist because he was in effect married to two women: his wife and his mistress, the mother of his children. But the trio tried to resolve an irresolvable situation in a modern way.

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What would you ask Zola if you could meet him?

I’d ask him if he was really prepared to go to prison over his J’Accuse letter.

Michael Rosen is a children’s author, poet and broadcaster. His latest book is Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS (Ebury, 2021)


This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Discover more history heroes, our monthy series in which popular figures from the present tell us about who inspired them from the past


York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.