Sunday, July 23, 2023

The Ladies' Paradise

This cover of this edition of The Ladies' Paradise
by Emil Zola features a scene from the BBC
adaptation, which I didn't see. The book is excellent. 

Hanging from above were pieces of woollen and cloth goods, merinoes, cheviots, and tweeds, floating like flags; the neutral, slate, navy-blue, and olive-green tints being relieved by the large white price-tickets. Close by, round the doorway, were hanging strips of fur, narrow bands for dress trimmings, fine Siberian squirrel-skin, spotless snowy swansdown, rabbit-skin imitation ermine and imitation sable. Below, on shelves and on tables, amidst a pile of remnants, appeared an immense quantity of hosiery almost given away knitted woollen gloves, neckerchiefs, women’s hoods, waistcoats, a winter show in all colors, striped, dyed, and variegated, with here and there a flaming patch of red. Denise saw some tartan at nine sous, some strips of American vison at a franc, and some mittens at five sous. There appeared to be an immense clearance sale going on; the establishment seemed bursting with goods, blocking up the pavement with the surplus.”

Denise and her brothers are standing awestruck outside The Ladies’ Paradise - the biggest store in Paris - in Emile Zola's novel of the same name. The orphaned trio hope to find a home with their uncle and his family. Even more hopefully, 20-year-old Denise believes she will be able to work in her uncle's drapery shop, earning enough to pay for Pepe, aged five, to be educated. Meanwhile, she has already apprenticed Jean (16) to an ivory carver. But her uncle cannot help because he, like all the other small, old-fashioned establishments in the area, is facing bankruptcy, pushed out of business by the ever-expanding emporium directly opposite his premises.

Le Bon Marche, the iconic French department store
may have been the inspiration for The Ladies Paradise.
(Pic: Wikipedia).

Denise finds work in the ready-made section of the store, where she is ostracised by the other women because she is plain, small (she is described as being 'puny' and a 'bag of bones'), and poorly dressed. They are also annoyed because the boss of the store has taken an interest in her. She perseveres, scrimping and saving so she can looking after her brothers - especially Jean, who is a charming, feckless womaniser, always in need of cash to get himself out of a scrape. Eventually, though no fault of her own, she loses the job, but gets it back later. She is very naive, and it takes her a while to realise Octave Mouret (the man in charge) has more than a passing interesting interest in her, and even longer to realise she is in love with him. 

I always think of Zola as being a kind of French Dickens. He doesn't copy Dickens, he very much has his own style, but he has the same ability to juggle various plots and subplots with ease, and a talent for describing what seems like dozens of characters so clearly that you can see them and hear them - you know how they behave, as well as what they look like, and they are all credible. Even if you wouldn't act like that, you can understand that other people would. The Ladies' Paradise features a young woman (Denise's cousin) who dies of love because her fiance is besotted with a salesgirl who sleeps with anyone and everyone, a kindly old umbrella maker, a vengeful ex-mistress and a henpecked  husband who has only one arm. There are shy young men and women, brash, confident young men and women. And there are all sorts of customers, like the shoplifter who is desperate to keep up appearances and possess lovely lace that she hides some up her wide sleeves, or the beautiful and mysterious lady who spends a fortune and could be a duchess or courtesan, but no-one ever discovers which!

Denise and her brothers arrive at their Uncle Baudu's
shop and home. (Pic from 1886 edition on Poject Gutenberg)

Another similarity is his descriptions of buildings, landscapes, interiors, gardens and so on: he paints pictures with words. Dickens' descriptions are often criticised by modern readers - I think they would prefer more conversation and action, and they would probably feel the same way about Zola, But I love the way he describes the window displays, and the goods which are piled high in every department. He layers image upon image, making the store feel like some kind of magical Aladdin's cave, just as in Le Ventre de Paris he stacks the market stalls at Les Halles with every food imaginable with an assault on the senses that overwhelms you. 

Additionally,  Zola, like Dickens, was a social commentator, with a strong sense of the need for justice and reform. Just as Dickens highlighted social issues in his novels and journalism during the early and middle years of the 19th century, so Zola showed similar concerns in his work during the last part the the 1800s.  He exposes the hypocrisy of people at the top of the social pile, and the squalor and misery of those at the bottom. 

Inside Le Bon Marche, The interior of The Ladies' Paradise
must have look much the same. (Pic: Wikipedia)

In The Ladies' Paradise (or Au Bonheur des Dames to give it its French name) he has a field day showing how the business methods used by Octave Mouret, which were very innovative (and, possibly unethical), ruined lives. Traditionally there were lots of small shops, all catering for different things: umbrella makers, silk dyers, ready-made clothes, materials, gloves, lace... You name it, there was a specialist shop to meet your needs. But Mouret, the driving force behind the retail giant, is selling all the these goods in different areas of the shop, and has even branched out into furniture: it's the beginning of the department store! To make profit, he buys goods as cheaply as possible, so smaller artisan suppliers can't compete with prices offered by bigger, mechanised company, and he introduces 'loss leaders', like the very expensive silk which he sells cheaply to attract customers - and once he's pulled them in, they're hooked, and buy all sorts of other things they probably neither want nor need. Mouret also buys up surrounding buildings, so his empire is growing bigger all the time.

Some staff sleep in small, cold rooms at the top of the building. Denise is installed  in No 7, where her box had already been put. "It was a narrow cell, opening on the roof by a skylight, furnished with a small bed, a walnut-wood wardrobe, a toilet-table, and two chairs. Twenty similar rooms ran along the convent-like corridor, painted yellow; and, out of the thirty five young ladies in the house, the twenty who had no friends in Paris slept there,” Zola writes. They wear regulation black silk dresses, which rustle. "All wore between two buttonholes of the body of their dresses, as if stuck in their bosoms, a long pencil, with its point in the air; and half out of their pockets, could be seen the white cover of the book of debit-notes" he adds.  

The salesmen and women, who live in little, cold rooms, at the top of the building, rely on commission from sales to eke out their wages - and many of the women find lovers to help keep them. There is supposed to be a system of 'taking your turn' with sales, but the more sales you make, the more money you get, so there's a lot of competition between the sales staff, and very little help or companionship. In addition, there's a reward  for reporting mistakes others have made, and there's a strict hierarchy, so there's a lot of currying for favour and jostling for position. As well as sales girls there are clerical staff and administrators who handle paperwork and money. And, since customers (the wealthy ones at any rate) don't carry their purchases home themselves, there are also staff who wrap and deliver parcels, and inspectors who check that neither staff nor customers are stealing from the store.

Madane Boves being searched for stolen lace
in a 1988 edition on Project Gutenberg

Despite the fact that it was written in 1883, The Ladies' Paradise still has relevance today. The issues raised haven't gone away, and human nature hasn't changed that much. I think Zola deserves to be more widely read than he is today.

*I've posted this for Paris in July 2023, which used to be hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, but is now organised by Emma, who was born in France, but now lives in America. You'll find the main post about the event, together with other participants, at her Words and Peace website.


  1. As you say, Zola’s depictions of people, places, and the entire city of Paris remain vivid and totally relatable today. The Ladies’ Paradise is one of my favorites (though I haven’t read the entire series). I love to go to the Paris department stores that still have the look and feel of the one that was being invented in the novel.
    Nice review!
    best, mae at

    1. I haven't read all the Rougon Macquart books either, but they can all be read individually as stand alone novels, so you can read them in any order. Thank you for the comment.

  2. Great review! As a French student, I read a bunch in the series, but alas, not this one! One day, I want to reread them all in order

    1. I think you would like it - and you be able to read it in the original French, which is probably better. I always wonder how accurate translations are, and whether they capture the feel of the book and the voice of the author..


I am trying to make up for lost time here! I cannot believe nothing has been posted on the blog since July (apart from Sunday's offering...