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155 From L’Assommoir to “Let’s ha’ some more”: Émile Zola’s Early Circulation on the Late-Victorian Stage A n thon y Cu mmins • When Émile Zola became famous in France with his controversial novel L’Assommoir (1877), the British literary press kept quiet.1The periodicals that covered noteworthy foreign fiction avoided the slangy tale of working-class alcoholism, and the rare notices that did appear were curt in suggesting why so little had been said about the book. “No words can be strong enough to paint [its] filthiness,” warned the Athenaeum (“Novels”). In only one line, the Saturday Review dismissed the entire novel as “six hundred pages of garbage” (“French”). With “M. Zola” hardly known in Britain in 1877, and no translations available of his novels, such terse denunciation gave little away to an audience that was unable to read French.As such, it is commonly believed that “the English reader, ignorant of French, really had no opportunity of forming any personal opinion [of Zola]” until 1884, when Henry Vizetelly (1820–94) translated Nana and L’Assommoir (Vizetelly 242).2WhileVizetelly is the name most closely associated with Zola’s circulation in English—largely because his translations led him to be jailed for publishing obscenity3—the reader who was ignorant of French did not, in fact, have to wait seven years before encountering L’Assommoir. In 1879—within two years of the book’s French publication—London theatregoers flocked to see Drink, a seven-act melodrama that the outspoken novelist and dramatist Charles Reade (1814–84) adapted from a French play that was based on L’Assommoir. Literary surveys of Zola’s transmission in Britain have tended to ignore Reade’s play, and though it is acknowledged in critical studies of Victorian drama, there is little indication of the extent to which it put Zola into mainstream British culture.4 To the dismay of a circumspect literary press that had sought to keep Zola at bay, early British exposure to L’Assommoir was not restricted to London audiences, nor was it limited to Drink.Theatres in more than seventy towns and cities nationwide staged competing dramatizations, ensuring L’Assommoir’s widespread early circulation in Britain.5 As this suggests, the early British dissemination of L’Assommoir owed nothing to enterprising publishers likeVizetelly, nor did it owe to an aspiring “English Zola” like the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore (1852–1933), another victorian review • Volume 34 Number 1 156 traditional focus for studies of Zola’s British reception.6 Rather, L’Assommoir achieved its prominence because the business practices of the nineteenthcentury theatre—adaptation, imitation, and touring—served to connect the British provinces with the French capital, via London’sWest End. Furthermore, wherever L’Assommoir was produced, street advertising further extended its remarkable reach, turning passersby into British “readers” of Zola.The story of Zola’s translation in late-Victorian Britain cannot be told, therefore, only by reference to the traditional objects of cross-cultural literary reception study, the prestigious periodical review and the printed translation. These sources tend to give the impression that Zola was little known in Britain until 1884. This article examines wider-circulation media such as plays, newspapers, and posters to argue that, even beforeVizetelly issued his popularizing translations, the early British encounter with Zola was hardly confined to French-reading sophisticates. I The catalyst for this early British encounter with Zola was the French dramatization of L’Assommoir at theAmbiguTheatre in Paris, on 18 January 1879. Though Zola collaborated with the dramatistWilliam Busnach (1832–1907) to adapt his novel for the stage, he did not want his involvement known publicly and refused to identify himself with the play. This was because Zola and Busnach had abridged L’Assommoir’s original story to satisfy moral decorum and theatrical convention. For instance, they excised the ménage à trois, making Gervaise resist the advances of her ex-lover Lantier. More fundamentally, Zola and Busnach attributed the decline of the Coupeau family not to hereditary and environmental determinations but to the malign scheming of Virginie. The story of L’Assommoir thus resembled not only the early conception of the novel that Zola had rejected, but also the productions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 155-170
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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