Zola in the eighteenth century: The Dream and the embroiderer’s art

Emile Zola, The DreamWhen I began work on my translation of Emile Zola’s Le Rêve (The Dream) of 1888 for Oxford World’s Classics, I did not appreciate just how distinctive an eighteenth-century flavour the novel takes on in places.

Zola, who lived from 1840 to 1902, is of course one the great chroniclers of the French nineteenth century: in the Rougon-Macquart series, published between 1871 and 1893, he portrays life in France under the Second Empire (1852-1870) across a broad geographical sweep, from south to north, and through all levels of society – from the struggles of the poor in novels like L’Assommoir (1877) and Earth (1887) right up to the machinations of the very rich and powerful in The Kill (1872) and Money (1891).

Zola took great pains in striving for documentary accuracy in the series. As well as touring key sites and conducting interviews, he read omnivorously. The thousands of pages of notes and plans he made for the series are kept at the Bibliothèque nationale (and are now consultable on Gallica). Naturally enough, the majority of his sources date from the second half of the nineteenth century: works on coal mining or contemporary socialism for Germinal, on the working class and Parisian slang for L’Assommoir, or on the French railway system for La Bête humaine (1890).

If Zola is sometimes guilty of anachronism in his Rougon-Macquart novels, it is because he inserts elements from the time of their composition into a Second Empire setting. And so, in Germinal (1885) for example, he transplants details of an 1884 strike into an earlier 1860s setting. While this sort of chronological tinkering is relatively unremarkable, in The Dream the mixing together of different time periods takes on a new significance. It is done for a specific artistic purpose: he merges the Second Empire setting with the more distant past in order to create a dreamlike mood.

The Dream is one of the most curious of the Rougon-Macquart novels. After his 1887 novel Earth had been denounced as obscene, Zola changed tack and aimed to write a ‘simple idyll’ which could be placed in ‘the hands of young girls’.[1] The Dream has an unusual hybrid form: it is both a realist novel set in the years 1860-69 and a fairy tale. It relates the story of a young girl, Angélique, abandoned by her parents and taken in, one snowy Boxing Day, by a pair of honest but childless embroiderers. The fairy-tale elements proliferate: the girl falls in love with a lord’s son, her own Prince Charming, but his father refuses their match. The setting and mood are created in meticulous detail: Angélique grows up in the shadow of a medieval cathedral and becomes preoccupied by the lives of the saints in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, even as she develops into an expert embroideress. Heraldry and stained-glass windows, along with Gothic architecture, the lives of the saints, and embroidery, form the backdrop to Angélique’s life.

Zola was a keen medievalist and draws on many different sources to overlay his nineteenth-century setting with a mood more suggestive of the Middle Ages. But there is further anachronism: the descriptions of the embroiderers’ practices in the novel are closely based on Zola’s reading of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s L’Art du Brodeur (‘The Embroiderer’s Art’), published in 1770. To this extent, the novel takes on a particularly eighteenth-century complexion.

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, drawing by his son Augustin de Saint-Aubin (1736-1807), Paris, Institut Néerlandais.

Saint-Aubin (1721-1786) was an embroiderer who attracted the favour of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour and adopted the title dessinateur du roi pour la broderie et la dentelle. In 1770 he published his influential manual on embroidery as part of a series of seventy-two treatises on different luxury products that was overseen by the Académie des Sciences. In L’Art du brodeur Saint-Aubin traces the history of embroidery back to ancient times and goes on to describe contemporary techniques and terms in great detail, offering numerous illustrations. Saint-Aubin also published a Recueil de plantes, containing fine plant drawings, for Madame de Pompadour,[2] and was involved in producing the satirical Livre de caricatures.

L’Art du Brodeur

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, L’Art du Brodeur (Paris, L. F. Delatour, 1770), plate 2 (detail), Google Books.

Zola’s reliance on L’Art du Brodeur is profound. His set-piece description of Angélique and her guardians in their embroidery workshop, with all its tools and implements, is modelled closely on a drawing from Saint-Aubin’s treatise:

‘Fashions were changing and the embroiderer’s craft was evolving, but, embedded in the wall, a heavy brace – a piece of wood supporting the embroidery frame at one end, as a movable trestle did at the other – remained where it had always been. Old tools slumbered in the corners: a diligent, with its cogwheels and pins, by which one could transfer spooled gold thread onto a spindle without touching it with one’s hands; a hand-held spinning wheel, a sort of pulley, which twisted together different threads that were attached at one end to the wall; and tambours of all sizes, with their hoops and taffetas, used for crochet embroidery. An old collection of spangle punches lay on a shelf, alongside a relic, a large traditional copper candlestick that had served the embroiderers of bygone days. In the loops of a rack, made by nailing a strap onto the wall, hung bodkins, mallets, hammers, irons for cutting vellum, and small boxwood chisels used for shaping thread as it was worked. Under the lime-wood cutting table there stood a yarn windle, consisting of two cage-like revolving wicker cylinders, around which a skein of red wool was trained. Chains of brightly coloured silk spools, strung onto a cord, hung by the sideboard. On the floor lay a basket heaped with empty spools. A ball of string had rolled off a chair, unravelling a little.’[3]

The passage continues with descriptions of the embroiderers themselves, and offers a very close reproduction of the illustration, right down to the unravelling ball of string – with the precise vocabulary drawn from the treatise’s ‘Explanation of Some Terms’. Other lengthy accounts of Angélique’s craft also derive from Saint-Aubin, as she takes on, for example, the technique of padded three-dimensional embroidery known as ‘shaded gold’. The treatise also serves as an inspiration for other features of the novel: the river running through Angélique’s town is named the Ligneul – a term that appears in the treatise, being a type of thick waxed thread.

Readers will discover in The Dream a Zola very different from the well-known naturalist master. In this novel he retreats at times into the Middle Ages for mood and detail, but also into a more recent century: channelling Saint-Aubin, Zola momentarily presents the world to us through eighteenth-century eyes.

– Paul Gibbard

[1] Emile Zola, preparatory notes for Le Rêve, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: n.a. fr. Ms 10323, f. 217.

[2] See Juliet Carey, ‘The king and his embroiderer’, in The Saint-Aubin ‘Livre de caricatures’: Drawing Satire in Eighteenth-Century Paris, ed. Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, and Emily Richardson (Oxford, 2012), p. 261-81.

[3] Emile Zola, The Dream, trans. Paul Gibbard, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford, 2018), p. 33-34.

On a similar subject, see also: ‘Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award’.


Lighting the Enlightenment

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, A. Roger Ekirch, Craig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination, Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and entrepreneur de l’illumination Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and spectacles at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combatting not just crime but superstition and fear.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

– Darrin M. McMahon

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth. His article, ‘Illuminating the Enlightenment: Public Lighting Practices and the Siècle des lumières’, appears in the August 2018 edition of ‘Past & Present’.

Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’ [1]

Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753), by François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard.

The French natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’ [2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better than, the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption, which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practice, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s in terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018).

The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in Western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one – but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.) http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/, vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th-century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

‘Une encyclopédie de ma façon’: le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Voltaire

Voltaire a toujours soutenu la grande entreprise collective de l’Encyclopédie dirigée par D’Alembert et Diderot (consulter cet ouvrage en français ou en anglais). Il a rédigé une quarantaine d’articles pour le dictionnaire, mais avait toutefois quelques réserves sur certains articles: ‘La France fournissait à l’Europe un Dictionnaire encyclopédique dont l’utilité était reconnue. Une foule d’articles excellents rachetaient bien quelques endroits qui n’étaient pas des mains des maîtres,’ écrit-il à Francesco Albergati Capacelli le 23 décembre 1760. Une quinzaine d’années plus tard, il fera imprimer le charmant conte De l’Encyclopédie, qui fera encore l’éloge de cet ouvrage tout en lui reconnaissant certains défauts. Voltaire trouvait notamment que les articles avaient tendance à être trop longs ou trop subjectifs: ‘Je suis encore fâché qu’on fasse des dissertations, qu’on donne des opinions particulières pour des vérités reconnues. Je voudrais partout la définition, et l’origine du mot avec des exemples’ (à D’Alembert, le 9 octobre [1756]).

Après l’achèvement de ce grand dictionnaire, l’éditeur Charles-Joseph Panckoucke forme le projet de publier une réédition avec des corrections. Cela donne à Voltaire l’occasion de proposer des réductions et des réécritures du texte. Un certain nombre de manuscrits trouvés parmi ses papiers après sa mort semblent témoigner de ses efforts dans ce sens, textes déjà publiés dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Cependant, cette entreprise ne sera pas menée à terme.

Voltaire se décide alors à faire un dictionnaire ‘de sa façon’, où il se sert peut-être de certains articles écrits pour Panckoucke, et où il redéploie quelques-uns des textes qu’il a rédigés pour l’Encyclopédie. On retrouve donc dans ses Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772) des thèmes et des sujets qui lui sont chers et omniprésents dans son œuvre (tolérance, critique biblique, questions juridiques, superstition…). Mais étant donné que ce n’est plus un ouvrage de référence, l’auteur ne suit pas les consignes qu’il avait préconisées pour le dictionnaire collectif. Le caractère plus personnel de ses Questions lui permet d’adopter par moments un ton ludique: il invente la fiction plus ou moins transparente du Mont Krapack, où une petite société de gens de lettres est censée vivre et travailler aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. De nombreux articles jouent l’effet de surprise. Le titre ‘Montagne’ annonce un très court article (de 120 mots seulement) qui évoque la fable de La Fontaine où la montagne met au monde une souris, afin de railler les matérialistes de l’époque, qui voulaient que la matière ait produit le vivant. Sous le mot ‘Rare’, l’auteur congédie la signification du mot en physique pour proposer une méditation sur le sens moral et esthétique: ‘on n’admire jamais ce qui est commun’, affirme-t-il avant de considérer l’émotion que nous éprouvons face aux livres rares, aux trésors architecturaux, à un rhinocéros à Paris. La fine satire ‘Gargantua’, enfin, évoque bel et bien le personnage de Rabelais, mais constitue une sorte d’allégorie où l’auteur, en disputant ‘des esprits téméraires qui ont osé nier les prodiges de ce grand homme’, vise en fait les miracles vécus par et attribués à maints personnages des Saintes Ecritures (Moïse, Josué, Jésus…).

La collection complète des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation.

L’ouvrage des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie a disparu dans les éditions posthumes de ses œuvres. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation, composée de huit volumes (2007-2018) sous la direction de Nicholas Cronk et de Christiane Mervaud, dont l’introduction de Christiane Mervaud vient de paraître, permet de redécouvrir ce texte, le plus long et sans doute le plus varié de Voltaire. L’introduction est la première monographie à être consacrée à ce grand ouvrage, et rend compte de sa genèse, des réactions d’époque, de sa relation complexe avec l’Encyclopédie, et des stratégies d’écriture développées par l’auteur.

Nous remercions tous les collaborateurs de cette édition, qui ont participé à l’annotation des articles, à la préparation des index, aux vérifications bibliographiques. J’ai eu personnellement l’honneur et le grand plaisir d’être associée aux huit volumes de la collection, et d’être secrétaire de l’édition pour six d’entre eux. L’édition critique d’un ouvrage de cette envergure ne peut être qu’un travail d’équipe, en l’occurrence mené sur une période de plus de dix ans, et qui représente en miniature l’entreprise des Œuvres complètes, elle aussi sur le point d’être achevée.

– Gillian Pink