Controversy surrounded Zola during his life-time, and controversy has followed him ever since. No other French writer was so violently attacked by contemporaries, none had a more devoted following. This high priest of Naturalism scandalized France by the frankness of his treatment of the seamier side of human nature and electrified the whole of Europe and America by his denunciation of the military establishment of his country over the Dreyfus case. His reputation has remained in dispute ever since his mysterious death in 1902, some critics arguing his work's consistently high and original literary quality, others its undue reliance on cheap sensationalism. This biography, which at was the first in English for twenty-five years when it was first published in 1966, draws on significant material to present a full and rounded account of a life that progressed from abject poverty to powerful influence and relative affluence, an account that considerably modifies our ideas about a writer who was always a public figure but at the same time a defensively shy and secretive man. F.W.J. Hemmings delineates the social facts that lay behind Zola's great panoramic cycle of novels Les Rougon-Macquart, with its theme of corruption spreading through all levels of French society from the festering economic degradation at the bottom of the social scale. Consideration of the real-life settings of such novels as The Drunkard, Nana, Germinal and Earth gives us enhanced appreciation of the compelling power of these works.
Frederick William John Hemmings (1920-1997) was born in Southampton. Hemmings did war service decrypting German codes in the Army Intelligence Corps but in 1946 he returned to academic life in Oxford, completing his DPhil in 1949, a groundbreaking study that was published the following year by Oxford University Press, The Russian Novel in France 1884-1914.
Hemmings really made his mark as a pioneer of Zola studies and is known as the foremost Zola critic in the English-speaking world. Further studies on Zola and Stendhal unfailingly appeared in later years, as did books on two other major 19th-century French writers: The King of Romance: A Portrait of Alexandre Dumas (1979) and Baudelaire the Damned (1982). This project of Balzacian and Zolaesque proportions was realized all the more remarkably during a busy nine-year term of office as head of the French department at Leicester University. Hemmings was a hugely respected literary scholar and Professor of French Literature, Leicester University 1963-85; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Leicester 9 May 1997.