‘Get the women… and you’ll sell the world!’

I’ve spent the past month reading about mid 19th century Paris for an article I’ve been writing, and apart from the utter fear of submitting a piece for publication in the proper grown up world, I’ve been having a blast. I’ve been mainly reading collections of academic essays, which has given my brain DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) – who doesn’t love that delicious freshly run over feeling you get the morning after exertions, especially when it’s been rather a long time since you worked those synapses quite so hard?

One unexpected joy has been discovering Emile Zola’s ‘Au Bonheur Des Dames’ or ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ as  it’s known in English. I already knew the story of the department store based on The Bon Marché, the first department store in Paris, and the largest department store in the world for a time, from the BBC adaptation – ‘The Paradise’ that aired a couple of years back. Thinking about it now, I do remember hearing that it was based on an Emile Zola novel, but I hadn’t really assimilated the fact, and to be fair,  the strong accents of some of the characters didn’t fit with my view of Paris in the late 1860s. My children and I really enjoyed the series at the time, looking forward to watching Denise realising her career ambitions, and Mouret struggling to attract investment while their romance blossomed as the series progressed. It made for the perfect cosy Sunday evening viewing, so reading the novel came as quite a shock.


The first thing that struck me was the Frenchness of it. The BBC series was set in Northern England, and some of the characters from the series are so branded in my mind that I can’t shake their northern accent. Clara, or Cloora, for example, sounds like Cheryl Cole, or whatever she’s calling herself nowadays, in my head. let’s just say, if she liked football, it’d be the Toon, and not PSG she’d be cheering for. That’s pretty confusing when I’m trying to conjure a slice of authentic 19th century Parisian life as I read.

More startling is the casual yet brutal mysogyny of most of the male characters. The men working in the department store objectify the women around them as a matter of course, and worse, Octave Mouret, the entrepreneur behind the success of the grand magasin is blatant in his calculated exploitation of women.

Of supreme importance, more important than the facts he had already given, was the exploitation of Woman…It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, then seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire….when he had extracted his fortune and his pleasure from them, he would throw them on the rubbish heap for those who could still make a living out of them.


Emun Elliott as Octave Mouret, or John Moray as he is called  in the BBC adaptation.

In comparison with the air-brushed BBC version, Zola’s portrayals of this birth of a new consumerism are cut-throat, and unashamedly exploitative. Mouret’s pursuit of wealth and success is all about deception and illusion, but beneath the theatre, it is a bloodsport.

Once I’d got over the shock of the mysogyny, I found Zola’s accounts of the workings of the store and the economics behind the baby steps of capitalism fascinating. What really gripped me, though, were the descriptions that were so vivid they felt painted rather than written. For example, the description of a multitude of rolls of cascading fabric is exquisite, and ignites a genuine excitement for the sheer innovation and scale of it all.

First, pale satins and soft silks were gushing out: royal satins and renaissance satins, with the pearly shades of spring water; light silks as transparent as crystal – Nile green, turquoise, blossom pink, Danube blue. Next came the thicker fabrics, the marvellous satins and the duchess silks, in warm shades, rolling in great waves. And at the bottom, as if in a fountain-basin, the heavy materials, the damasks, the brocades, the silver and gold silks, were sleeping on a deep bed of velvets… their shimmering flecks forming a still lake in which reflections of the sky and of the countryside seemed to dance.

Having watched the series and read the book I now have a strange mash up of Geordie/Parisian characters, in a world that’s part saccharine love story and the cold hard face of business. Fortunately,  Zola’s writing is immensely readable, vivid and richly evocative, which overrode the confusion admirably. It gave me all the background I needed for my article, and introduced me to the wonderful writing of Emile Zola. It might be the first novel of his I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.