When I was a small boy, a holiday treat would be to visit my father who, for several decades, was the advertising manager of Pontings department store, the least glamorous if most worthy of its siblings on Kensington High Street, Barkers and Derry & Toms. There were a variety of routes through the store – via Ladies’ Coats, Hardware or maybe the domed Linen Hall – leading eventually to the roof-top office where my father and his staff were enveloped in a chaos of merchandise sent up by each buyer to be advertised on the back of the Evening Standard or included in the latest catalogue. Young though I was, I became infected with a strong desire to possess things, which all but the most ascetic of us probably share. This is what makes Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise such a pleasure, even if, by the end, a guilty one.
Set in one of the new department stores such as Bon Marché or Le Printemps that had been springing up in Paris since the 1860s, Au Bonheur des Dames, or The Ladies’ Paradise, races along with enormous narrative verve. Denise Baudu, a native of the Cherbourg peninsula, arrives in Paris with her two dependent brothers. Shy and awkward at first, she is very different from most of her fellow sales girls who see the shop as a stepping-stone to the arms of a good – or maybe not so good – man. Will Denise’s resolute good sense and utter incorruptibility be rewarded? Zola teases us to the very last page.
The new cathedral of consumerism is evoked in amazing detail, from the staff dining-rooms in the cellars with their three sittings for every meal (the men separated from the women), up through the glamour of the ever-expanding sales departments to the rooms like rabbit hutches at roof level where many of the staff are forced to live, freezing in winter, unbearably hot in summer. The shop is like a theatre, and Zola takes us behind the scenes, showing us what back-breaking labour goes into mounting this great spectacle for the public’s delight.
He creates a complete world, laying out for us all the different types of fabric, letting us into the secrets of successful window-dressing and the delivery arrangements to customers’ homes. We learn that, a century before M&S, such stores operated a return system for those goods that did not suit, even if from time to time customers abused it. You feel after reading this book you could confidently join the sales staff at Selfridges – perhaps, after studying Denise’s plan for including the staff in a contributory bonus scheme, even that of John Lewis.
Image is recklessly piled on image until, like the stacks of merchandise, they threaten to collapse. Sale times are a positive orgy as woman after woman succumbs to the seduction of what is on offer: ‘the chemises, buttoned up to the neck for the night, and leaving the cleavage bare during the day, held up only by narrow shoulder-straps, and made of plain calico, Irish linen, and cambric, the last veil slipping from the breasts and down the hips’.
Yet Zola doesn’t baulk at the tragedies which big business inflicts on individual lives. The small shops which surround the Ladies’ Paradise are one by one forced into bankruptcy. Through Denise’s eyes, Zola faces the inevitability of progress:
Mouret had invented this mechanism for crushing people, and its brutal operation had shocked her. He had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, he had despoiled and killed others; yet she loved him for the grandeur of his achievement.
Unlike Dickens, who was writing at around the same time, Zola is strikingly modern. He appreciates the exhilaration of successful business. Octave Mouret could be one of our own age’s go-getting businessmen whom we admire for their energy but correspondingly loathe for their methods. Zola understands our ambivalence. He shows his admiration for Mouret by making his ruthlessness attractive, and he accepts that such a man will have many relationships with women. With Clara, a loud and lazy sales girl, Mouret satisfies his most basic animal desires. But with Madame Desforges, a rich widow, he shamelessly uses his appeal as a younger man to gain access to the drawing-rooms of the influential. It is left to Denise to rescue him from this amoral man’s world.
The Ladies’ Paradise confronts us with a very modern dilemma. On the one hand we may deplore consumerism but on the other we relish the choice it gives us. We may profess to feeling guilty when we rush to the sales, but we still do. We accept that the world of fixed-term contracts and casual labour on which commercial success often relies is still with us 120 years after Zola’s novel was first published.
One thing is certain. At whatever level you read it, this book is retail therapy as satisfying as a trip down Oxford Street and not half as exhausting.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Andrew Wall 2004