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 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 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 mountin
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