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11 October 2023

Germinal is an extraordinary book – it’s a love letter from the past, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of working folk 150 years ago. 

Today, interest in coal mines is growing. Not for the coal itself, but for the geothermal resources that can be accessed via flooded, abandoned mines. To understand the hydraulics of flooded mine systems, we need to understand the geometry of the void spaces, the methods of construction, and the interconnectivity of tunnels. It’s often struck me that the mere detail of whether a ventilation door is open or closed could have great significance for flow pathways in flooded mines. In 2023, thirty to forty years after the closure of most of Britain’s deep coal mines, we are beginning to lose the social memory of miners’ working lives and methods. But many of the last generation of British miners are still around – talk to them and treasure their experiences. 

Fortunately, Émile Zola’s 1885 novel Germinal also preserves some of that folk memory of mining experiences. The novel is set in the coal fields of northern France in the 1860s, specifically, the Valenciennes field. Like Dickens, Zola sought to document the lives of those at the bottom of the societal hierarchy, and their relations with the gentry. Unlike Dickens, Zola gave us the story straight: he didn’t distract us with witticisms or silly names. He showed us the working and sanitary conditions in the home, pithead, and underground. He described the workers, men, women, and children, toiling naked in the humidity and heat of the coalface. He was honest about the occasional pride and the frequent humiliation of the miners’ homes and cramped quarters, as well as the precarious lives of young women – balanced between the constant threat of sexual assault and the need to snare a working man to support them and their families. He described the technology: the working methods at the steeply dipping strata of the coal face, the construction of the shafts, drainage, and ventilation, the gruelling climbs up and down to work each shift, and the lack of safety and escape routes. 

Zola showed us all this through the eyes of Étienne Lantier, an outsider who arrives one day in the mining community of Montsou (Heap of Pennies) by walking in along the road from the north, through fields of beetroot. Étienne seeks work in the mine and eventually becomes a union agitator for strikes and better conditions. If he sounds like a hero, Zola doesn’t make it so easy for us. He serves us up no heroes and few out-and-out villains. The Union men come across as scheming and ruthless, with little care for the impact of the strikes on the mining families. The mine manager and owners are certainly portrayed as naïve, but not as villains – merely as half-decent people trapped in the roles society has dealt them. Did I say 1885 and Northern France? It could so easily be 1985 and South Yorkshire. 

Arenberg pit in the Anzin mining region of Northern France (CC BY-SA 3.0 by Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick via Wikimedia Commons).

The novel climaxes with (spoiler alert) the mine shaft being sabotaged, resulting in a truly frightening inrush of groundwater to the mine. In the absence of clear escape routes, Étienne and his colleagues must scramble upwards and outwards along abandoned mine passages, eventually reaching a dead end. There they lie, with the water creeping up, unaware of the rescue attempt from adjacent old workings. 

At the end of the novel, Étienne walks away from the mayhem that he and his activism has helped to precipitate, along the same track by which he arrived. Zola offers us one possible, but ambiguous, glimpse of hope in an otherwise unforgiving novel. ‘Germinal’ was the French revolutionary name for the month of (roughly) April. Zola sees the bodies of dead miners, many hundreds of metres underground, as seeds planted in the hard times of struggle. He waits to see if they will germinate. And if they do, will they usher in a new springtime, leading to the harvest of a new and just society? Or will we reap what we have sown, a harvest of anger and retribution, rising from the furrows, seeking vengeance? 

If you are a geologist, especially if you are a hydrogeologist working with mine water, then please, read this book. But, hey, if you’re a human being – able to think and feel – then please, read this book! 

Reviewed by David Banks 



BY: Émile Zola (1885 (1st edition), 2008 (reviewed edition)). Translated by Peter Collier. Oxford University Press. 576 pp. (pbk)

ISBN: 9780199536894

PRICE: £9.99 www.whsmith.co.uk