Thursday, 27 August 2009

Zola takes on the delights of a female heaven

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Paradise is the eleventh novel in Émile Zola’s massive Rougon-Macquart cycle, and first appeared in 1883.

Generally lighter in tone than many of the rest of the series, the story focuses on retail entrepreneur Octave Mouret and shop assistant Denise Bandu.

Mouret has been changing the face of shopping in Paris with his rapidly expanding Ladies’ Paradise, a vast department store. As it (and other like it) expands, it helps to sweep away the dark and mildewed shops that had existed before, and it creates both opportunities and problems for women.

On the one hand, it provides respectable work and housing for many women, and a public place that others can feel is theirs – is safe – without male chaperones or the threat to a reputation. But on the other, shopaholics bankrupt families and theft develops too.

Zola describes this change in retail with great attention to detail, creating an extraordinary sense of the store itself as a vast, modern machine – almost alive and full of energy and light.

It’s partly based on the development of department stores in Paris at the time – indeed, my copy has as the cover a detail from a painting of Le Bon Marché, which is still in business, and which apparently influenced the book greatly.

The social detail is interesting – the store as a public space for women, plus attitudes toward working women – and of course, Zola’s open treatment of sexual relationships always strikes one when compared with British authors of the same period.

A light and enjoyable read.

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