Following flow of ideas reveals mass media roots

No matter if making connections across the centuries, or just around the corner, Genevieve de Viveiros’ exploration of a 19th-Century French novelist has led to 21st-Century insights about the spread of ideas and the place of her community in the world.

While delving into the Western Archives and Research Collection Centre, the French Studies professor pulled out an 1892 playbill from the Grand Opera House in London – an ancestor of the Grand Theatre – advertising a play by Émile Zola. The unexpected find was yet another clue into de Viveiros’ exploration of how culture, ideas, opinions and news traveled across Europe and North America during the 19th Century.

“This is the period when mass media truly originated,” de Viveiros said. “And Zola was a pioneer in using mass media to his advantage. He used it to popularize not only his literary works, but also his opinion pieces in newspapers on various political and social issues.”

Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was born April 2, 1840 in Paris, France. He published his controversial first novel, La Confession de Claude, in 1865 and continued his journalism career while publishing novels. As the founder of the naturalist movement, Zola also published several treatises to explain his theories on various topics, like art. He died in 1902.

In the 19th Century, a booming book industry, due to innovative advances in printing technology, meant affordable books and newspapers. As a result, education and information became more accessible to the masses, especially women.

Zola’s writings created a stir and pushed the boundaries of realism, with vivid descriptions of human emotions and societal class differences, but also graphic accounts of bodily functions like childbirth, sickness and pregnancy.

He became one of the most famous celebrity authors of the era. His works were widely translated and read all over Europe and North America. In fact, many of his novels were illegally copied, translated and pirated.

Many of his novels were also adapted into plays, a popular way to communicate works of literature. While a controversial practice among the literary elite, it was wildly popular with audiences, de Viveiros explained. Touring theatre companies would often do a circuit of different cities and his plays were some of the most popular.

Through Zola and his contemporaries – like Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas – de Viveiros charts the spread of ideas, opinions and news all over Europe and across the Atlantic.

“Mass media in the 19th Century changed and influenced culture and communication in Europe and North America,” de Viveiros said. “Understanding these patterns of change in the past will help us better understand how information, in the form of social media and ‘fake news,’ for example, is shaping opinions and culture now.”

But de Viveiros’ work is also uncovering a little known depiction of 19th-Century London, Ont. – one with a vibrant and dynamic cultural scene.

She recently found, in the Western Archives, letters and diaries of families living in London that regularly mention attending plays and music recitals, many of which originated in Europe – including Zola’s.

“London was a very important Victorian-era Canadian town and a part of the cultural circuit around the Great Lakes area,” said de Viveiros, currently exploring archives in Toronto and Montreal to see if Zola’s plays travelled across other Canadian cities.