Magazine article History Today

Death of Emile Zola: September 20th, 1902. (Months Past).(Brief Article)

Magazine article History Today

Death of Emile Zola: September 20th, 1902. (Months Past).(Brief Article)

Article excerpt

THE MOST famous French writer of his day died at sixty-two in curious circumstances. Emile Zola and his wife Alexandrine returned to their house in the rue de Bruxelles in Paris on September 28th from a spell in the country. It was wet and cold, and a smokeless coal fire was lit in their bedroom for the night. They slept with the window shut and Zola locked the door, as he always did. Many death threats had been made against him in the last few years. Without realising what was happening, the two of them were slowly overcome by carbon monoxide fumes. At three in the morning they were both awake, feeling sick, but Zola stopped Alexandrine rousing the servants for what he thought was merely an attack of indigestion. It was a fatal decision and later she was unable to move when he got out of bed, perhaps to open the window, and fell to the floor.

At nine o'clock, with something obviously wrong, the bedrooom door was forced. Zola was on the floor, dead or nearly so. Alexandrine was lying on her bed, unconscious. Doctors were sent for and gave Zola artificial respiration for twenty minutes or more, in vain. Alexandrine was taken to a clinic to recover. By early afternoon she had sent word to her husband's mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, and her two children by him, Denise and Jacques. Denise had just had her thirteenth birthday and Jacques his eleventh. The horrified Jeanne immediately jumped to the conclusion that Zola had been murdered.

Jeanne Rozerot was twenty-seven years younger than Zola and had been his mistress since 1888, a situation that Alexandrine had reluctantly accepted as she and Zola had no children. The mistress would not be the only person to suspect something fishy about Zola's death. He had made fanatical enemies on the nationalist right by his attack on the authorities over the Dreyfus Affair. Meanwhile, his body lay in an open coffin bowered in flowers in the Paris house. Alfred Dreyfus was one of those who came to pay their respects and Jeanne and the two children came to the house for the first time. Alexandrine returned from the clinic and on October 5th, a Sunday, a crowd of some 50,000 came out for the funeral at the Montmartre Cemetery, attended by government ministers, officials and delegations of miners and Freemasons. Soldiers presented arms as the hearse passed. Dreyfus was there and Anatole France, who delivered an oration in Zola's praise. …

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