When Émile Zola needed to leave Paris in a hurry he made for the Gare du Nord. The year was 1898 and France was abuzz with the Dreyfus affair. In January of that year Zola’s open letter to the French president had been published on the front page of L’Aurore under the provocative title “J’accuse”. Amid the ensuing litigation, Zola opted for exile in England over detention in France. On the evening of 18 July 1898, Zola slipped quietly out of the Gare du Nord on a train for Calais where he boarded a boat for England.
In the years before and ever since Zola’s departure from the Gare du Nord, this Paris station has been the obvious departure point for England. Obvious, but not unchallenged. Travellers who favoured the longer sea crossings via Dieppe or Le Havre left from the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Émile Zola’s late evening ride from Paris Gare du Nord to Calais took the author through landscapes of northern France about which he had written so passionately in novels such as Germinal — Zola’s hard-hitting account of deprived mining communities in the region.
I’d like it if my own work was like a train journey, running right from the start of the line through to the arrival platform at the end, with variations of speed and stops at each station — much like the chapters of a book.
Émile Zola in a letter to the French novelist Paul Alexis in 1880
Émile Zola’s overnight journey from Paris to London lasted about ten hours. During the ensuing decades, the travel time barely improved. From 1936, except of course during the Second World War, travellers could enjoy the novelty of boarding a sleeping car at the Gare du Nord and snoozing their way from Paris to London. The Wagons-Lits carriages with their comfortable sleeping berths were conveyed on a ferry which left Dunkerque in the early hours of the morning for the port of Dover.
Trains, and railways in general, are important in Zola’s novels. His La Bête humaine (1890) is one of the great railway novels of European literature — one which provides a French counterpoint to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which was published in serial form between 1873 and 1877).
Zola was the son of a civil engineer, a man who had founded his own railway company just prior to his premature death. The younger Zola knew all the good things that can happen on trains, but he knew about all the bad things too. La Bête humaine has more than its fair share of railway accidents, murders and suicides.
These are considerations best put to one side as one boards the Eurostar train to London. It is a train service which Émile Zola would probably have viewed with some suspicion. Zola had a tortured relationship with speed. Remember the express train in La Bête humaine, abandoned by its driver and fireman, which hurtles through the night, conveying carriages full of inebriated soldiers to their deaths.