The mosaics & ceramics of the friezes were sparkling, the greens & reds of the paintwork were lit up by the fires from the gold so lavishly applied. It was as if the displays, the palaces of gloves & ties, the clusters of ribbons & lace, the tall piles of woollens & calicoes, the variegated flower-beds blossoming with light silks & foulards, were now burning in live embers. The mirrors were resplendent. The display of sunshades, curved like shields, was throwing off metallic glints. In the distance, beyond some long shadows, there were faraway, dazzling departments, teeming with a mob gilded by the sunshine.
This is the Ladies’ Paradise, a new phenomenon in 19th century Paris, a department store. It’s the brainchild of Octave Mouret, the owner-manager, who has built the store up from its origins as a family store owned by his wife’s family into one of the biggest stores in Paris, taking over a whole block & crushing smaller shops in its path. Considering it was published in 1883 this is an incredibly modern novel. It’s about seduction in its many forms, mainly retail seduction. Mouret is the great seducer. In his private life, he takes mistresses; in his professional life, he seduces investors, staff, suppliers & the public with his vision of retail heaven. The novel opens with the arrival of Denise Baudu & her brothers in Paris from the country. They’re orphans & have come to live with their uncle, a shopkeeper. Their uncle’s shop is opposite the Ladies’ Paradise & all the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood are obsessed & appalled by the department store hovering over them, stealing their customers & their staff, disrupting their lives. M Baudu can’t afford to employ Denise so she goes to work at the Paradise. Her career starts badly. She’s badly dressed, persecuted by the other shopgirls, living on the edge of poverty, trying to support her brothers. Zola’s descriptions of the lives of the staff are wonderful. He describes the rivalry, the bitchiness, the jockeying for position & advantage, the long hours & meagre rewards. Denise is eventually sacked, & after hovering on the edge of dire poverty, she reconciles with her uncle & goes back to work at the Paradise with very different results. This time, she’s more experienced, her gentleness & honesty bring her respect & promotion & she catches the eye of Mouret, who finds in her an honest woman who refuses to be corrupted. The novel is full of great set pieces. The grand sale which takes place early in the book is a great gamble for Mouret. He’s set on changing the retail behaviour of Parisian women. He uses many of the techniques we’re very familiar with now. Lots of bargains at the front of the store to lead people in, a lavish display of Oriental rugs & fabrics to dazzle the eye, scattering departments all over the store so customers are drawn further & further in to get what they want (like putting the milk at the back of the supermarket), aggressive sales techniques. The chapter begins in the early morning with the empty store full of anticipation. Mouret walks through the store, making changes, checking stock & staff. The staff grumble about the lack of customers. Anxiety rises, the staff work on commission, what if no one comes? Gradually, the customers come, drawn in past the Oriental bazaar & into the growing frenzy of consumerism & retail madness. The chapter rises to a crescendo of overblown excess, the sale is a success & Mouret’s confidence is justified. The customers are just as well-drawn as the staff. Mouret’s mistress, Madame Desforges, & her friends are helpless in the face of so much luxury. They exhaust themselves with shopping & then, after a break in the buffet, they emerge to shop some more. Zola’s descriptions of laces, velvets, silks & satins are so luscious. Luscious is the word I kept thinking of as I read. The sheer accumulation of detail, whether of desperate poverty or overblown excess, is intoxicating. I loved everything about this novel. Zola is such a compelling writer. I was struck again by the frankness of French novels of this period about sex & the emotional life of the characters. I read Zola’s L’Assommoir a couple of years ago & was just bowled over by it. It’s the story of a laundress & her struggle for a respectable life. She’s gradually consumed by poverty & ill-health & even as I was repelled by the story, I couldn’t stop reading. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. There’s a prequel to The Ladies’ Paradise called Pot Luck which traces Mouret’s early career. That may be my next Zola. If anyone has any other recommendations, I’d love to hear them.
My online reading group is about to read High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, a novel about a shopgirl in the North of England in the 1930s. Some of us are reading The Ladies’ Paradise as a companion read. I’ll be reading High Wages next (maybe with a mystery in between as a change of pace) & I can’t wait to see how it compares with this French confection of luxury. I imagine the atmosphere will be a little more austere!