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

The Ladies' ParadiseI loved this book! I have a mountain of other things to read but after seeing the BBC series created out of Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise I couldn’t resist bringing it home from the library. However, I also stumbled across Julian Barnes Levels of Life that day – and it was so beautiful and wise that I read and reviewed that first, and then I found myself with only a day to read all 480 pages of The Ladies’ Paradise and no, I couldn’t renew it because it’s in high demand at the library.

By the time I had read the brilliant introduction by Brian Nelson and the first chapter I knew I had to finish the story without waiting for a copy by snail mail, so I resurrected the hated Kindle to buy a copy from You-Know-Who. And because I had fallen in love with Zola I succumbed to buying a Collected Works edition. How different could it be, I thought?

Quite different. Not just ignorant proof-reading errors like shoot instead of chute and a disconcerting he instead of she in a crucial piece of dialogue, and the translation by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1853–1922) has a quaint way with words like jades and fanfaronade. There are also shades of meaning which matter, when a young woman’s rival is stout instead of buxom. But more importantly The Complete Works of Émile Zola lacks Brian Nelson’s introduction, which places this novel in a context which is still very relevant today. So, take my advice, if you are going to read anything by Zola – don’t do as I did, but do as I mean to do from now onwards: make sure you get hold of the five Oxford World’s Classics titles which have been translated by Brian Nelson, professor of French Studies at Monash University, Melbourne and editor of the Australian Journal of French Studies.

Zola is famous for his series about the Rougon-Macquart family, which he used to express his pseudo-scientific belief that ‘human behaviour is determined by heredity and environment’ (p. vii). He wrote 20 novels and a short story about this family using the descendants of the three children of an insane woman called Tante Dide to show that they were fated to live out their warped heredity. The offspring of the legitimate child prosper, while the fortunes of the illegitimate strand vary. The Macquarts are unbalanced and prone to violence as I saw in Germinal (see my review) while the Mouret family are ‘successful bourgeois adventurers‘ (p. viii). According to Nelson, The Ladies’ Paradise was a shift in outlook for Zola, who in the character of Octave Mouret focusses on a self-made man capitalising on opportunity in the new Paris. (Quite different to his story of the prostitute Nana, which I have in a nice old Folio Society edition on my TBR).

But these biographical details aside, what captivated me about Brian Nelson’s introduction was the way he analysed the book as an exploration of the new 19th century consumerism and commodity culture. Everything he had to say resonated with what I have heard and read about cataclysmic change in contemporary retailing since the arrival of online stores. A friend of ours is an economist, and he predicts that within 20 years shops as we know them will be gone. There will be large warehouses servicing online sales, and there will be display stores offering specialist expertise where – for a fee – we will go to investigate the range of whitegoods or whatever before we buy online. Shopping centres will offer only services that you can’t buy online, like hairdressing, dry-cleaning, cafes and restaurants. This bodes well for strip shopping centres because that is mostly what they do now anyway, and they will make the transition more easily than department stores and mega malls which are already complaining about losing sales to online merchants. If our friend is right, it’s an interesting future, eh?

Zola’s novel captures Paris in its transition from a city of small artisan shops to the rise of the mega department stores. When the story opens, orphans Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers have come to the city from the countryside, as so many hopefuls did. Opportunity lies in the big city as Second Empire capitalism takes hold, and Denise needs to support her dependants (then aged five and twelve). Her hopes of work with her uncle Baudu falter as she sees his customers abandon him for the brilliant new department store across the road. The Ladies’ Paradise is a new phenomenon which is determined to ruin him, and its marketing strategy is the seduction and conquest of female customers …

As 19th century industrialists produced more and more goods at prices ever cheaper, commodity culture emerged. Octave Mouret, with his dream of creating an entire world in miniature to entice his female customers knows how the commercial principle of supply works:

He bombards his customers with advertising which panders to their dreams, and he offers ‘free entry’ with no obligation to buy so that shopping becomes a leisure activity (displacing the churches as a respectable place for ladies to congregate outside the home). His fixed prices make buying quick, impersonal and guilt-free, and ‘easy returns’ mean that anything unsatisfactory can be quickly replaced by ‘another object of desire’. The layout of his store forces customers to walk past displays of merchandise they had no intention of buying in order to create a desire they didn’t know they had. (Ikea is the worst culprit to do this in the modern world, once in, you can’t get out without walking through the whole shop). Most disastrous of all to his pitifully inadequate rivals struggling to survive the onslaught, his building is full of warmth and light and spectacle. It is the place to be.

All this is fascinating stuff, especially for those of us who have succumbed to the Galerie Lafayette in Paris, and the story of Denise’s painful journey to maturity is riveting to read. There are significant differences between the novel and the series, especially in the characterisation of minor characters like Madame Aurélie and Madame Desforges, but the stronger, more dynamic Denise of the series is an improvement on the Denise of the novel. As Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations has noted, in Zola’s book Denise’s implied sainthood makes her a problematic heroine. Indeed, Zola’s characterisation of women in general reminded me very much of Balzac: regardless of their class, they are either heartless females who bestow sexual favours for gain or they are impossibly good women who seek, sometimes vainly, to restrain the impulses of men. For Denise, torn between her admiration for a man who represents a bright future and her concern for the exploitation of her fellow-workers and the ruin of the local traders, love is a complication that she struggles to manage. She is both bewildered by and attracted to Mouret and his magnificent store, and while she feels intense pity for the tragedy of her uncle’s demise, she feels disdain for the irrational refusal to adapt that characterises both his and Bourras’s response to generous offers from Mouret.

What is also notable in the novel is Zola’s use of imagery to sustain the notion of store as seducer. Mouret’s female customers correspond to the customer types that contemporary marketers will recognise, and The Ladies’ Paradise exploits them all:

  • Madame Marty, the unselective buyer who consumes everything and anything and spends more than she can afford;
  • Madame Guibal, who can only afford to window-shop but likes to feast her eyes on the merchandise and helps to bolster the compelling crowds;
  • Madame de Boves, who is short of money too, but resents what she can’t buy. She buys only for her daughter’s ‘glory box.
  • Madame Bourdelais, who is careful, practical and only buys up the bargains. She thinks she is besting Mouret, unaware that he needs her to buy unsold stock to sustain his strategy of always offering something new; and
  • Madame Henriette Desforges who buys only gloves, hosiery and coarse linen because she likes to be exclusive (but quietly buys her material there and has it made up by her dressmaker).

Mouret’s sales are extravaganzas. He decks out the store with all kinds of discreet sexual allusions, reaching the pinnacle with the grand opening of the final façade on the new boulevard. Everything is bridal white, with images in the ladies’ underwear department of clothing strewn on the floor and the sweet innocence of childhood in Denise’s department. The irony is that the designer of this imagery does not yet know his own mind and may yet lose the one he loves.

It’s a terrific book that stands the test of time better than many books of its period.

Review contributed by Lisa Hill December 2013, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Ladies’ Paradise
Translated from the French Au Bonheur des Dames and with an introduction by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2012
ISBN: 9780199675968 (BBC series tie-in edition)

Other covers

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Fishpond: The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford World’s Classics, BBC series tie-in edition)
Book Depository: The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford World’s Classics, BBC series tie-in edition)

Or free:

PS I have now ordered all the available translations by Brian Nelson, click the covers for more information.
The Belly of Paris (Oxford World's Classics) Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World's Classics) The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World's Classics) The Kill (Oxford World's Classics)

10 comments on “The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

  1. Au Bonheur des Dames is a fabulous read. In addition to the history of department stores, we are privy to part of Haussmann’s plan for Paris which included the widening of the boulevard by The Ladies’ Paradise.

    Anyone planning to read all of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels should try to read Pot-Bouille before Au Bonheur des Dames. In Pot-Bouille we meet Octave Mouret in his early days in Paris.


  2. Guy Savage says:

    Hello Lisa: fancy meeting you here. Have you got series 2 yet? Of the two books, I preferred Pot-Bouille. Both are great of course.


  3. Hi, Guy! I rather prefer Pot-Bouille myself. A more exciting story to me. The wonderful thing about Au Bonheur for me was seeing the workings of the huge department store, one of the first in the world. I so enjoyed reading of Zola’s research for the book, how he visited the store, talked for hours with managers and department heads and even went shopping with his wife.

    We’d love to have you as a contributor here if you are so inclined or if you are interested in cross-posting any of your commentaries like Lisa did. It’s a joint effort and the more the merrier.


  4. Lisa Hill says:

    Hello Guy, I’ll second that invitation to contribute. Like our sister blog about Balzac, the intention and spirit of this one is that it be a collaborative blog, though it doesn’t look much like it yet because it’s only 48 hours old and there’s only Dagny and me at the moment.
    I haven’t read Pot-Bouille yet – I’m working my way through the R-M Cycle with the GoodReads group and at the moment I’m reading His Excellency Eugene Rouget, so that will be my next commentary.
    So yes, please join us:)


  5. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks both of you for the invitation. Is there any one book you want me to comment about? Or a translation comparison?


  6. Conrad says:

    This one took me ages, for various, mainly real-life reasons. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t ever get captivated by the story the way most of the other books have. There were some nice set pieces around the store at that was about it. Denise just struck me as a bit bland I guess, and watching Mouret’s ascent at one remove was a bit ho-hum as well.


  7. Lisa Hill says:

    I guess different books appeal to different readers. This one is actually the one that made me start reading the whole cycle. I had read Germinal but not loved it, but I was rapt in The Ladies Paradise!


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