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Non-fiction roundup: Michael Rosen, Julie Ferry and Diana Athill

New books expose Émile Zola’s travails in London, high-end matchmaking and the charms of Florence.

Sentenced to prison in 1898 for challenging the French Government during the Dreyfus Affair, writer Émile Zola fled Paris for parts unknown, deliberately laying a false trail to suggest he had gone to Russia. For much of the next year, he lay low in south London, occupying his time with writing, walking and trying to remain incognito. Well-known children’s book writer Michael Rosen takes a new direction in THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ÉMILE ZOLA: LOVE, LITERATURE AND THE DREYFUS CASE (Faber & Faber, $36.99), explaining how the writer spent his time during his British exile. He not only wrote another controversial novel, this time about birth control and infanticide, but also penned screeds of letters to his “wife” Jeanne and their two children, who had been left behind in Paris. His legal wife, Alexandrine, remained with him in exile and, obligingly, helped arrange a visit from Jeanne and the children. Rosen believes Zola may also have had two emotional breakdowns during the sojourn. Certainly, his constant complaining about English cooking is indicative of a man whose very soul is wounded.

Pity the poor chaps in the upper echelons of the British aristocracy at the end of the 19th century. Their stately homes crumbling and landed estates no longer returning an effortless income, they had been educated to spend money, not make it. Enter the dollar princesses – the heiress daughters of American families whose fortunes were so new that even the US upper crust cold-shouldered them. But the dukes and earls found they had one thing left to sell – their titles – and the foreign heiresses fitted the bill in every sense. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman: two pioneers of the genre, unofficial marriage brokers Minnie, Lady Paget and Consuelo Yznaga, Duchess of Manchester, themselves dollar brides, made a discreet living by ensuring that the landed met the loaded. In THE TRANSATLANTIC MARRIAGE BUREAU (Quarto, $32.99), historian Julie Ferry describes the events of 1895, when the bride trade was at its zenith. Focusing on the saga of the marriage of the saddest of brides, Consuelo Vanderbilt, to the outstandingly unpleasant Sunny, Duke of Marlborough, she allows us to glimpse in minute detail how high society in England organised its dowry system and Their Graces saved their faces.

In 1947, two young Englishwomen made their first visit to Florence. The art lovers were Diana Athill and her cousin Pen, and the slender record Diana kept of the holiday has been published as A FLORENCE DIARY (Granta, $28). Although she deliberately avoids describing the art lest she sound like a guide book, Athill is a charming guide to the difficulties and discomfort of travel in an era when a war-ravaged Europe was still piecing itself back together, electricity supply was uncertain and often absent, baths were a shilling and nylons were pounced upon when you found them. Athill describes the holiday as “escape, discovery, renewal and refreshing plunges into what I most wanted to experience”, and takes us with her in her inimitable style.

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.