A Flat in Neuilly

Douglas Johnson

  • Ideology and Experience: Anti-Semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair by Stephen Wilson
    Associated University Presses, 812 pp, £30.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 8386 3037 5
  • Cinq Années de ma Vie by Alfred Dreyfus
    Maspéro, 263 pp, fr 15.00
  • La Républic et les Juifs après Copernic by Schmuel Trigano
    Les Presses d’Aujourd’hui, 272 pp, fr 75.00, April 1982, ISBN 2 901386 03 2

In 1965 I spent several weeks working in the manuscript section of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, reading documents which were relevant to the Dreyfus Affair. After I had returned to England I received a letter, sent to my university address, which told me that if, in any forthcoming book on Dreyfus, I wished to avoid the mistakes which had been made by so many previous historians, I would be well advised to call on the author. I saw that the writer of the letter had the same name as that of an officer who had played some part in the Affair, and I assumed she was his granddaughter. But how had she known that I was writing a book about Dreyfus? She gave no explanation and her short and cryptic letter was intriguing. Naturally I replied, and after a short correspondence I arranged to go to Paris and to call on her in her flat in Neuilly. This I did, one wintry afternoon. She led me into a darkened room and invited me to sit down in a wicker chair which, she told me, had been sat in by General Billot (who had been Minister for War during a crucial period of the Dreyfus case). By sitting in it, she said, I would know that I was now fully immersed in the Affair.

This lively old lady (she explained that she was the daughter of the officer who had been involved with Dreyfus) then moved from gentle courtesies to a most imposing formality. She realised, she said, that I spoke French, but in order that we might avoid any possible misunderstanding she wanted to put a question to me in English. Then, speaking excellent English, she asked: ‘Professor Johnson, are you Jewish?’ I looked her straight in the eyes and replied that to the best of my knowledge I was not Jewish. There followed a long silence. I wondered if I should have been more vehement in my denial. But I filled in the embarrassing pause by saying that I was born in Edinburgh. This was a foolish remark, since, as I need hardly say, one can be Jewish and be born in Edinburgh: but it was nonetheless a happy inspiration. She was delighted and, presumably, reassured. She added that she had not really needed this information, for she had already analysed my handwriting and knew that I was to be trusted. I had no need of General Billot’s wicker chair to realise that I was, indeed, deeply immersed in the world of the Dreyfus Affair.

She then produced, and put into my hands, a bulky, typewritten manuscript. I was told that it was the journal kept by her father, which no one, other than she herself, had looked at. I started to read it with considerable interest, but was hampered by the darkness of the room and by the lady’s ceaseless conversation, which was all the more distracting because it was entirely about Dreyfus and his contemporaries. It was ironical that whilst I had supposedly come to Neuilly in order to avoid the errors of earlier historians, I must have behaved like all my predecessors when they were faced with new documents. ‘Do these papers contain the secret of the Affair?’ I asked myself as I tried to read the typescript. I was wondering how I could inquire if I might be allowed to take the manuscript to a table, and whether she would let me make notes, when my visit was abruptly terminated. ‘Now you see,’ she said, and took the papers away, making me solemnly promise that I would not use any of the material I had gleaned from the manuscript in my book. I had no alternative but to accept, and I gave my word. But as I prepared to leave I did not hide my disappointment.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I was asked if I would like to see a most remarkable sight. I was then taken into a narrow corridor, and by the light of a baladeuse, and standing too close for comfort, I was shown what was clearly a beautiful picture. I was told that this was not only a Poussin, but the Poussin, the original Holy Family on the Steps, of which the version which had been sold to a Washington gallery (by a Jewish dealer) was a fake. Hesitatingly I asked whether the art experts agreed, and was shown an article by a Soviet art historian (written in Russian) which purported to confirm the genuineness of her Poussin. I inquired whether Anthony Blunt had been consulted and she was scornful. You would not, she explained, expect an Englishman like Blunt to agree with a Soviet specialist.

Before I left the flat, I asked how it was that she knew of my interest in Dreyfus. ‘I too have my service de renseignements’ was her answer, and it was on this mysterious note that we parted. All the elements of the Dreyfus affair had been present in this short interview. It wasn’t merely the anti-semitism and the unnecessary secrecy: my character had been judged on the basis of my handwriting; I had a strong sense of being watched and spied upon and a feeling (in the event unfulfilled) that something important was about to be revealed.

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