This is a version of an article I wrote for the superb Mondial magazine, produced by Rapha.
When Émile Zola lived in London between July 1898 and June 1899, he spent a lot of time on his bike photographing women on their bikes. The French author was in Norwood, a town dominated by the vast glass Crystal Palace exhibition hall, and most days he cycled around his unfamiliar environment. Zola attached a camera to his handlebars so he could take “photos that were marvellously sharp and clear”. He intended to “make an album of exile”, a record of his strange secluded months in south London. This was eventually published in 1997 by The Norwood Society as Emile Zola: photographer in Norwood, South London 1898-1899.
Zola arrived in London on July 19 1898, carrying a nightshirt folded inside a newspaper and a piece of bread. He had left Paris in haste following his role in one of the great scandals of French politics. Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier, had been accused of passing secrets to the Germans; Zola believed Dreyfus was convicted only because he was Jewish. He defended Dreyfus in a newspaper editorial – J’Accuse – and was charged with libel. Rather than spend a year in jail, he fled to London.
Michael Rosen’s The Disappearance of Émile Zola is a lively summary of Zola’s lonely London life, where he hid in an anonymous suburb, unable to speak English or enjoy the terrible English food. One of his few treasures was his bicycle – cycling round Paris had been a passion –and also his camera. He took more than a hundred photographs of Norwood, and Rosen describes these as “pictures of a new kind of London, the modern suburban fringe to the old city.”
The bicycle was part of this modernity, providing users with freedom and ease of use. Bikes crop up repeatedly in Zola’s photographs – on dusty roads, busy high streets, outside the Crystal Palace and in surrounding country lanes. He was particularly interested in one type of cyclist: women. Of the 100 plus images compiled by the Norwood Society, 15 feature women cyclists. They wear long skirts and hats, some wheel their bikes uphill or swarm past the camera in groups. The only two male cyclists Zola photographs have female companions. “I meet women who cycle in all weathers in order to go shopping,” Zola marvelled. His photographs prove these words to be true.
So why the obsession? Did Zola have a fetish? Was he surprised to see so many women cycling in London compared with France? Or was he simply recording what was naturally occurring around him? The answer is probably a bit of all three. Women certainly were cycling in large numbers – it was a good way to get around while husbands were at work – so genuinely formed part of the streetscape. All the same Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built For Cars, thinks Zola “was probably going to some lengths to make sure he got those shots. The boom years were 1896–7 so it would have been waning in 1899. He was the “Copenhagenize/Cycle Chic” of his day – spotting pretty women on bikes.”
Rosen is unequivocal. “He was certainly interested in women cyclists!” he says. “Zola did see women on bikes in Paris, but noted that they wore culottes but the women in London wore skirts. He thought the English women looked more elegant. His letters read as a man looking at women. There is an element of voyeurism about it. Of course there is a “modernity” aspect to this too – in Zola’s own lifetime, this was new. As a child he would not have seen women anywhere riding bikes. In 1898/99 there were many.”
Zola returned to Paris in 1899 after Dreyfus was pardoned by a new French government but this was not the only time the Dreyfus Affair touched upon cycling. Another Dreyfus supporter was Pierre Giffard, the editor of France’s leading sports paper, Le Vélo. His pro-Dreyfus stance led to arguments with advertisers, who withdrew support and formed their own newspaper, L’Auto. In 1903, with circulation low, L’Auto writer Géo Lefèvre suggested the magazine should invent a profile-rising six-day cycling race around France. Henri Desgrange, the editor, was intrigued. “As I understand it, petit Géo, you are suggesting a Tour de France.” And so it came to pass.