Artizan street library reading group reads

Emile Zola’s – The Ladies Paradise

ladiesOur oeuvre this time was Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Ladies’ Paradise, his eleventh in the Rougon-Macquart series. None of us had read it before, although some of us had read other, earlier Zola works, and, at least to Malcolm, it came as quite a surprise. The title refers to the name of an invented department store, based on the real-life Bon Marché, the first of its kind to appear in France, and the story follows the trials and tribulations of a pretty, provincial salesgirl who finally marries the boss.

Now Zola usually does stark stuff, L’assommoir, Thérèse Raquin, and here we have him getting almost raphsodic over… shopping! Not that you notice straight away. Right from the start, you see a wealth of social detail, and well into the narrative you have the main (male) character spitting out a sexist manifesto of female exploitation, a project of utter subjugation to consumerism. It starts to look like a contentious critique. But then, what is this incredibly detailed enthusiasm for haberdashery, window-dressing? And even more for an almost generic women’s intrigue centred on a noble-spirited heroine, her perils and grand amour? Maybe Zola, of all people, had a part in the evolutionary tree which finally sprouted Mills and Boon.

Rory had read the immediately preceding novel in the series, Pot-Bouille, in which the store-boss first appears, and could inform us, that was much more gritty. Malcolm had gone in search of not so much grit as meat on the bone, led on by the book’s introduction which mentioned Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, his social study of the Parisian galeries de vente. Not a mention in Benjamin, though the intro is spot-on in attributing the success of the project to its giving women, all of a sudden, a public space to inhabit. Maybe, Jenny thought, women’s role as consumers constituted some sort of liberation. Only that they consumed and were consumed in their turn, added Janet. Wasn’t it striking that the heroine is advised by her friend to follow convention and take a lover to support her?

The turning point of the book, according to Malcolm, was the store-boss falling deeply in love with the salesgirl. Not so, according to Janet. That wasn’t love, it was obsession. Even when the book ends with the convention of the pair falling into each others’ arms? If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck… etc. Nevertheless, Liz claimed, it was a powerful social commentary. It was, and had the hall-mark of Zola’s ‘naturalism’, Malcolm agreed – he’d had a look at the French original and had been unable to understand – first, all those 1880s haberdashery terms, then the salesmen’s slang. Immense research! And another thing about Zola’s ‘naturalism’, hardly present in this book, was hinted at only by the description of the Hartmann character’s head (Zola creates a baron based on the real-life Haussmann, who developed all the great Parisian boulevards) – he has ‘the large head typical of people from Alsace.’ Just a bit odd, but actually the tip of the iceberg, because Zola held a sort of racial theory about physiognomy revealing character.

Romance aside, Tim took Zola to be showing how he understood the poison of developed society. The only thing he misses is obesity. Plus, Jenny suggested, he couldn’t foresee the present popularity of artisan shops as rivals to the megastores. Anyway, it made a change to have Zola celebrating a ‘new age’ as opposed to grimly describing a dystopia. And how prescient he was, Rory and Janet agreed, on the pattern of consumerism, albeit with some peculiarly Gallic provisos about opening hours. Prescient might be understating it, according to Malcolm. Try anachronistic – the plot has the noble-spirited salesgirl, once the boss is enamoured, introduce all sorts of staff benefits to the store and Zola proudly announces (according to the text of the OUP edition) that ‘This was the embryo of the vast trade unions of the twentieth century.‘ Note the tense and the fact this is supposed to have been written in 1883!

So, what about the raphsody? Where Zola’s declared ‘optimism’ takes flight? Knickers! Reserved until the climax of the store’s rise and rise, he pursues one of his accelerating descriptions of consumer goods into the ladies’ underwear department: ‘the frigid bloomers retaining the creases from the box, and all that dead cambric and muslin lying dishevelled, strewn about, and piled up on the counters were soon to become alive with the life of the flesh, scented and warm with the fragrance of love, a cloud of white which would become sacred, steeped in night, and of which the slightest flutter, the pink of a knee glimpsed in the depths of the whiteness, played havoc with the world.’ Not necessarily kinky, but it could pass. And asymmetric – no novel at all goes on about Y-fronts or long-johns.

Well, Tim posed the question: did it seem convincing as a characterisation of women? No such thing, according to Jenny, just individuals. OK, ’nuff said. Changing the subject, what Tim knew of Zola was his respect for craft, tradesmen, in his novels. What happened in this book, if you asked him, was a mere translation into cost-cutting – the métier of the store boss.

How, finally, asked Janet, is the predicted revenge of women on the store-boss (predicted by the worldly-wise Baron Hartmann) put into effect? By Mills and by Boon, according to Malcolm. His playboy days are arrested. Another one bites the dust. It’s not very clever.

City of London Libraries

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