For renowned nineteenth-century French Naturalist novelist Émile Zola, living a full life meant “To make a book, to plant a tree, to have a child.” And, although he eventually achieved each of these objectives, his early years did not look at all promising. His mother and seven-year-old Émile were left practically penniless as a result of his father’s untimely death. The lean times continued for the young man when he had to resort to pawning some of his clothes and roasting sparrows over a fire at the end of a curtain rod in order to survive. But with the publication of L’Assommoir (1877), the seventh book in his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, Zola discovered previously unknown fame and fortune.
Because his wife Alexandrine had fallen ill, a Parisian doctor suggested spending time away from the city as a remedy. After some searching, Zola paid a bargain price for what he termed “a rabbit hutch” in a letter to his friend Flaubert. For nearly a quarter century, the house on the Seine in Médan became “a perpetual work zone.” During their annual eight months at the location, the couple transformed the rustic property into a vast estate. Zola “the architect” took charge of the layout of the house, adding two towers named for his successful novels Nana (1880) and Germinal (1885). Naturally, time was devoted to creating his study: the desk, bookcases, as well as a divan for afternoon naps. Inscribed above the room’s chimney the prolific novelist put his Latin motto Nulla dies sine linea, “not a day without [writing] a line.” He also designed a park with a long line of linden trees, vegetable and flower gardens. Since he adored entertaining his network of friends, he had the Pavilion Charpentier constructed to house some of the leading authors and artists of the time such as Daudet, Cézanne, and Manet. Alexandrine, for her part, created an artistic sanctuary, allowing her husband the time required to do his writing.
Other regular guests at the idyllic setting included a group of six “disciples” who, like Zola, were interested in the Naturalist idea of applying scientific methods to works of literature. These young writers, Guy de Maupassant and J.-K. Huysmans among them, had initially gathered around Zola in Paris. As a group, they decided to produce a volume of short stories which they named after the country home: Les Soirées de Médan (1880). For, while the literary camaraderie dispersed a few years later, they had spent many happy hours there at Sunday parties in the summer—fishing, walking in the gardens, or rowing out to the island. The cordial Zola warmly welcomed them and his wife relished her role as hostess, treating and spoiling the men with good food and maternal affection.
All of these relaxed, cheerful good times preceded the turbulent final decade of Zola’s life, an affair he began with the seamstress at Médan (and which produced two children) would bring the author and Alexandrine to the brink of divorce in November 1891. Seven years later in a January issue of L’Aurore newspaper, he would publish his famous letter “J’accuse” in which he blamed the French army for obstructing justice in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. This brave act not only cost Zola several friendships but possibly also his life. Years later a stove-fitting contractor would make a death-bed confession about having blocked the chimney of Zola’s Paris apartment which resulted in the author’s death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
In March 1983 the Maison Zola at 26, rue Pasteur in Médan achieved historic monument status. More recently, once fashion executive Pierre Bergé was named the house’s administrator, he began planning to “make Médan a place of memory dedicated to the defense of Émile Zola’s work and to the history of the Dreyfus Affair.” The six-million-dollar renovation of the house with the addition of a Dreyfus museum was finally completed in October 2021. Besides the beautiful grounds, visitors can now enjoy the Nana tower which contains the kitchen, the dining room, and Zola’s study; the high-ceilinged pool room with its magnificent stained-glass windows in the Germinal tower; the author’s simple, bright bedroom; and the tiled bathroom. All of the furnishings were restored to near original through the use of Zola’s photos. There are several means to access the town located about an hour northwest of the capital. Perhaps the fastest and least expensive way is to take the train from the Gare Saint-Lazare to Villennes-sur-Seine, a neighboring town, for the equivalent of about eight dollars.
Related: Unconventional Women: The Wild Lives Of George Sand And Colette and French Writers And The Club Des Hashischins
Read more about authors Zola, Daudet, Flaubert, and Maupassant as well as artists Manet and Cézanne in my book Paris and Parisians: The Cheapo Snob Explores the City and Its Famous French Residents.
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