The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

 The Ladies' Paradise cover

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola was first published in 1883, but it’s set in the 1860s when Paris was undergoing a huge rebuilding. It’s part of the Rougon-Macquart series and features Octave Mouret as one of the main characters. The Mourets are an illegitimate branch of the family.

Octave Mouret is an ambitious young widower who sets about building up the biggest department store in Paris, The Ladies’ Paradise, at a time when shoppers were served by hundreds of small independent shops. He employs the sort of marketing devices which we see today, and they have the same effects now as they had then. The small shop owners are unable to keep up with the cheaper prices which The Ladies’ Paradise can market the goods at and eventually they all go out of business. Silk fabric is used as a loss leader to entice the ladies into the department store. Mouret manages to sell it so cheaply only because he drives such a hard bargain with the silk manufacturer that they end up going out of business.

As you would expect from Zola the descriptions of the merchandise on sale are seductive, the lace department is a favourite with the ladies, some of whom are completely intoxicated by it and end up shoplifting.

The main character is Denise, a young woman who has travelled to Paris with her two young brothers after the death of their parents. It’s a shock to the youngsters who are used to rural life and they are having to stay with an uncle and his wife temporarily, under sufferance. The uncle’s business is already being damaged by the setting up of the department store across the road from his shop. But Denise is fascinated by the new store and is on the side of Mouret as she thinks anything which means that the public can get cheap goods is a step in the right direction.

The book details how Mouret’s business ideas developed and how his shop rapidly became a place where the women of Paris could go on their own, the only other place which they could do that was church and his store became a cathedral to commercialism. The smell of such a mass of women in the store was at times overwhelming (the mind boggles).

Store managers are still employing exactly the same principles when setting up departments in stores, with goods being changed around constantly, meaning that the shopper has to trail all over the place to find what they want, obviously the owners hope that you will pick up other things on the way to find whatever it is you wanted to buy in the first place. Zola was writing a history of French life through his fiction and he undertook a huge amount of research.

I thought of the farmers in the UK who have been put in the position of having to sell their milk at below cost price because they have been bullied by the supermarket to do so, many of them having been put out of business because of it, nothing much seems to have changed in our capitalist world.

I wasn’t at all sure about this book to begin with because the subject matter wasn’t too exciting to me, but after about 100 pages I really got into it. I believe that the BBC serialised the book last year as The Paradise but I didn’t watch it so I have no idea how well it was done.

I read this book for The Classics Club, another one ticked off, but in fact I didn’t have this book on my list, it was a random choice from the library.