Zola in the eighteenth century: ‘The Dream’ and the embroiderer’s art
When 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’. 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.
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, and was involved in producing the satirical Livre de caricatures.
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.’
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
 Emile Zola, preparatory notes for Le Rêve, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: n.a. fr. Ms 10323, f. 217.
 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.
 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’.
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