19th century · authors · books · historical · paris · romance · romance novels · romantic location · writers · zola

Sex and shopping in 19th century Paris: Zola’s gripping classic novel, The Ladies’ Paradise

helena fairfax, the paradise, zola
Victorians shopping (Image courtsey of Pixabay)

A few weeks ago I mentioned how much I enjoyed the BBC series The Paradise, and how I was looking forward to reading the novel on which it is based, Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise).

I’ve just put the book down with a satisfied sigh, and what a gripping read it was!  I loved it so much, I thought I’d review it here.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a department store in Paris, owned by the novel’s hero, Octave Mouret.  I didn’t realise until I began reading this book that this fictional department store is actually based on a real store in Paris, Le Bon Marché, which began trading in the 19th century.  It expanded rapidly in a spectacular fashion and is still flourishing today.

The author based much of the growth of his ficitonal department store on the phenomenal rise of the real Bon Marché.  Octave Mouret, the hero of the novel, is a man of absolutely ruthless ambition for his store.  Like the real Bon Marché, The Ladies Paradise is an architectural design of iron and glass (both highly fashionable materials at the end of the nineteenth century).  The real Bon Marché was in fact designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

So already we have a building designed like a cathedral dedicated to commerce, and Mouret is a master of exploiting the desires of his female customers.  I absolutely loved the descriptions of the way Mouret fits out the shop to entice customers in a way that, to us 21st century customers, is now the norm (see Selfridge’s Christmas window display, for example), but which, in those days, was absolutely revolutionary.  For his first sale, for example, Mouret fits out the main hall like an Eastern bazaar:

helena fairfax, the paradise, zola
Ceiling of a department store in France (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

“…on all four sides were hung door-curtains: door-curtains from Kerman and Syria, striped with green, yellow and vermilion; door-curtains from Diarbekir, of a commoner type, rough to the touch, like shepherds’ cloaks;…carpets from Schoumaka and Madras, a strange blossoming of peonies and palms, imagination running riot in a dream garden….in the centre was a carpet from Agra, an extraordinary specimen with a white background and a broad border of soft blue, through which ran purplish embellishments of exquisite design.”

There are other brilliant descriptions:  a celing from which parasols of every hue are hung, twirling in the draughts; folded gloves piled neatly and stacked to the ceiling; and most of all the fabrics: silks of every description, laces, gauze, calico.  Behind the beauty of the displays is a cold-blooded, ruthless manipulator of female desire, who seduces his female customers with an orgy of sensuous delights.

And along the way, others fall victim to Mouret’s driving ambition.  The heroine of the novel, a young orphan called Denise, arrives in Paris to live with her uncle, who owns a small draper’s shop opposite The Ladies’ Paradise.  Her uncle, and several smaller shop-keepers, are stubbornly refusing to give up their shops to Mouret’s ruthless desire for expansion.  They desperately try to continue to trade, but gradually we see their supply of customers dry up.  Any shop-keeper who refuses to sell to Mouret ends up in grinding poverty.  In some cases Mouret literally drives anyone against him to death, in such a careless fashion that he barely notices the people crumpled under the wheels of his business.  It’s a chilling specatacle.

At the start of the novel, though, we hear Mouret’s assistant, Bourdoncle, warn Mouret that his chilling manipulation of women’s desires will one day come to an end.  He tells Mouret:

” ‘They’ll have their revenge.  There’ll be one who’ll avenge the others, there’s sure to be.’

‘Don’t you worry!’ cried Mouret…’That one’s not born yet!’ “

For Mouret, the store is not just a money-making machine, it’s an instrument of sexual exploitation and domination.  He has careless affairs with female customers and shop-workers alike, showering helena fairfax, the paradise, zolathem with money and gifts before moving on to the next.  But in Denise it seems he finally meets someone he can’t buy.  He tries to persuade her to become his mistress, and his obsession with her becomes so great he offers her hundreds of thousands of francs, but, even though she has grown to love him, she refuses to become another fleeting commodity.

As an aside here, this was the one thing I wasn’t sure about in the novel.  I can see why Mouret would become obsessed with Denise: she’s courageous, has a quiet pride, she refuses to be made use of.  She gradually gets promoted in the store and the women who work for her look up to her and respect her.  She is someone worth loving.  But why, then, does a girl like Denise fall in love with a guy who’s been portrayed as pretty much a monster?  The only explanation the author gives is here:

“…the force which was carrying everything before it was carrying her away too, she whose coming was to be a revenge.  Mouret had invented this mechanism for crushing people, and its brutal operation shocked her.  He had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, he had despoiled some and killed others; yet she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement, and each time he committed some fresh excess of power, despite the flood of tears which overwhelmed her…she loved him even more.”

Is it believable?  I suppose so, in a way.  Whatever the case, Denise begins to have a gentling effect on Mouret, persuading him to introduce better working conditions for his staff, for example, and to look after the shop-keepers he has crushed.  Mouret’s love for her grows until he can think of nothing else.  He begins to think about asking her to marry him, even though he had always maintained that if he married one woman, his power over all the others would cease and he would no longer be able to control his store.  The dilemma is making him ill.

Denise hands her notice in, no longer able to cope with her love for him, and Mouret is forced to come to a decision.  I’m a sucker for symbolism, and Zola is a master at it.  On the day Mouret must decide whether to ask Denise to marry him, the shop is having a spring sale, and the theme of the shop is white.  Everywhere there are white textiles, furnishings, white dresses and children’s clothes.

“Then there were the galleries, dazzling in their whiteness like a polar vista, a snowy expanse…a mass of glaciers lit up beneath the sun.”

The shop assistants are giving away white violets to anyone who makes a purchase.  They are also holding bets on whether Mouret will ask Denise to marry him, and whether, if he does, she will even say yes.  The tension mounts in a dramatic fashion throughout the last few chapters.

So, does he ask her, or does he let her go in order to commit himself to his monster of a store?  I can’t possibly reveal the answer, or it would spoil the novel for you.  I do hope you will read it, and enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s a story of modern consumer culture, changes in sexual attitudes and class relations, and consuming love.  It’s a great read.

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