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Paris, by Émile Zola (1898)

Paris, by Émile Zola (1898)

Zola was one of France’s most astute social critics at the end of the nineteenth century.  A prolific writer, he embarked on a 20-volume series of novels in the 1870s about corruption in French society and the upper echelons of the infamous French bureaucracy during the period from 1850 until 1870.  He learned to evaluate the official government line with suspicion, an approach which led him to write his famous “J’Accuse” letter, exposing the Dreyfus affair in the French press in 1898.  Zola single-handedly exposed the corruption in the French military and the court system, including the anti-Semitic prejudice in both government and military. 

Zola’s last three-volume work, which he wrote in the 1890s, was an indictment of the failings of the Catholic Church at a time when the gap between the poor working class and the aristocracy (including the “nouveaux riche”) was widening.  In the second volume, Paris, one of his protagonists is a priest who abandoned the cassock after becoming disillusioned with the church.  The priest finds himself on a bicycle ride with a young woman who was betrothed to his older brother.  Their conversation about bicycling and women gives us a window into the mind of a liberal intellectual at a time when the power of personal mobility for women was only just beginning to be understood and the layers of strict Victorian morality were being stripped away from traditional French society. 

To understand Zola’s perspective on the bicycle you need to be aware of the broad history of how the bike became available to a wide public in the early 1890s.  Zola published Paris in 1898, a time when bicycle manufacturing and sales had just peaked in both Britain and France. Until 1890, the bicycle was used little by women.  The cumbersome and dangerous high-wheel “penny-farthing” was difficult to mount, hard to master and dangerous from all perspectives, so women were discouraged from riding.  In short, bicycle riding was limited largely to young macho-men.  As Mark Twain wrote after learning to ride a high-wheel, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.” 

By 1893 the invention of the so-called “safety bicycle”—which had two wheels of equal size and a drive train connected by a chain—revolutionized bicycling and made riding available to men and women alike.  Since riders could touch the ground with both feet, the “safety bicycle” was easy to mount and dismount.  This new invention opened up the world of cycling to women in a way never before seen, and because of this, women began to enjoy a personal mobility unlike any other time in the past.  Hence Zola’s observations on the education of women, which included advocating, through his heroine, that young women learn to ride a bicycle. 

It is noteworthy that Marie, the young woman in the question, had been educated at Lycée Fénelon, the first French middle school to accept women.  Her father had placed her in the school when she was twelve years old.  It was unusual for a woman from the middle class to have enjoyed such an education, and Marie was not shy about either her education or expressing her opinions.  

Zola sets the scene as Marie and Pierre ride their bicycles out of Paris:   

"It was a delightful morning.  When they started, Pierre could fancy himself with a friend of his own sex, so that this trip together through the warm sunlight seemed quite natural.  Doubtless their costumes, which were so much alike, conduced to the gay brotherly feeling he experienced.  But beyond all this there was the healthfulness of the open air, the delight which exercise brings, the pleasure of roaming in all freedom through the midst of nature."

Zola felt it necessary to explain their dress and to make it clear that Marie was no typical female, since she wore a black jacket and “rationals,” while Pierre was also in a black jacket, breeches, and stockings.  “Rationals” refer to the baggy trousers worn by “liberated” women, especially for sport, at the end of the Victorian era.  The name comes from the Society for Rational Dress, which began in England in the 1850s and which promoted elimination of the corset, skirts and petticoats. 

Through this scene, Zola’s young protagonist expresses her thoughts about dress for women:  “‘Ah,’ she continued in a jesting way, ‘there is nothing like rationals, you know!  To think that some women are foolish and obstinate enough to wear skirts when they go out cycling!’” Marie explains further with an example from her school days playing baseball, when she and her classmates had to “tie up our skirts with string so as to run the better, for we were not allowed to wear rationals like I’m wearing now.” 

Zola takes the lesson even further, using the bicycle as a metaphor for life:  “if ever I have a daughter I shall put her on a bicycle as soon as she’s ten years old, just to teach her how to conduct herself in life,” proclaims Marie.  

“Education by experience, eh?” responds Pierre.

“Yes, why not?  Look at the big girls who are brought up hanging on to their mothers’ apron-strings.  Their parents frighten them with everything, they are allowed no initiative, no exercise of judgment or decision, so that at times they hardly know how to cross a street, to such a degree does the traffic alarm them.  Well, I say that a girl ought to be set on a bicycle in her childhood, and allowed to follow the roads.  She will then learn to open her eyes, to look out for stones and avoid them and to turn in the right direction at every bend or crossway.  If a vehicle comes up at a gallop or any other danger presents itself, she’ll have to make up her mind on the instant, and steer her course firmly and properly if she does not wish to lose a limb.  Briefly, doesn’t all this supply proper apprenticeship for one’s will, and teach one how to conduct and defend oneself.”

She continues:  “. . . what I wish to convey is that those who learn to avoid stones and to turn properly along the highways will know how to overcome difficulties, and take the best decisions in after life.  The whole education lies in knowledge and energy.” 

“So women are to be emancipated by cycling?” asks Pierre?

“Well why not?  It may seem a droll idea; but see what progress has been made already!  By wearing rationals women free their limbs from prison; then the facilities which cycling affords people for going out together tend to greater intercourse and equality between the sexes; the wife and the children can follow the husband everywhere, and friends like ourselves are at liberty to roam hither and thither without astonishing anybody.  In this lies the greatest advantage of all, one takes a bath of air and sunshine, one goes back to nature, to the earth, our common mother, from whom one derives fresh strength and gaiety of heart!  Just look how delightful this forest is.  And how healthy the breeze that inflates our lungs! Yes, it all purifies, calms, and encourages one.’”

I’ll leave it to the feminist literary critics to comment on this last paragraph, but it seems to me there is no question as to Zola’s enthusiasm for the bicycle as a means of freeing women from the confines of traditional social values and behavior.   

The bicycle plays but a minimal part in Zola’s Paris, but if you are interested in the social struggles, including class struggles, the role of the church in French society, and the rise of socialism and anarchism in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, you might enjoy this novel.  Zola does a wonderful job of describing the geography of Paris and it’s socio-cultural context in the mid 1890s at the time of the Dreyfus affair. 

He doesn’t do a bad job, either, of making a case for why everyone, including women, should learn to ride a bicycle during and after the “belle époque!”

During the golden age of cycling, the bike had a profound impact on society, and especially on women’s lives.  It’s a period we find fascinating.  If you do too, you might be interested in our Annie Londonderry tour, or you might like reading these articles and book reviews: