Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

Our heroine is Denise Baudu, a young woman who arrives from the countryside with her two younger brothers in tow, hoping to find work in Paris. She has experience working in a shop in her hometown and wonders whether her uncle Baudu, who owns a fabric shop, might be able to offer her a job. However, she finds her uncle in miserable circumstances. He has spent his life diligently working away in his little shop, only to see a new and fearsome competition rising opposite: Au Bonheur des Dames, one of Paris’s first department stores. Suddenly Baudu’s dark little shop, in which his wares are haggled over and sold for as much as possible, is cast into further shadow by the new selling techniques of the Bonheur. Its vivacious and daring owner, Octave Mouret, is prepared to sell at cost – or even at a loss – because, as long as he can get customers over the threshold with a bargain, they’re bound to buy something else. It’s an entirely new approach which captivates female shoppers and leaves Baudu struggling to understand. As the Bonheur opens more and more departments, expanding into ladies’ wear, silks, laces, lingerie and woollens, the specialist small boutiques in the surrounding streets begin to crumble. Baudu is angrily holding out, believing that specialist knowledge and tradition will triumph in the end. He, like his umbrella-maker neighbour Bourras, are two voices crying in vain against the tempest, doomed even as they fight.

And this is the world which Denise enters. Her uncle cannot offer her work and it’s a bitter irony that the only place which is flourishing, and which does have jobs available, is the great behemoth of the Bonheur opposite. She is taken on as an assistant in ladies’ wear, suffering the scorn of her colleagues and the prurient interest of the male assistants. Zola often refers to the Bonheur as a ‘phalanstery’, a word I didn’t know before, but which means a large commune in which up to 2,000 people live together and work for the common good. The store, with its salesgirls’ rooms under the roof, its staff dining rooms, its gossip and rigid hierarchies, does indeed seem to fit this idea. Denise struggles to find her place in this seething world, where her fellow salesgirls gang up on her and she can’t seem to make ends meet. Her only friend, Pauline, suggests that Denise do as every other girl has to do and find a lover – it’s the only way one can survive – but Denise refuses. Her quiet provincial determination, naivety and charm eventually bring her to the notice of the store owner, Mouret. Distracted by numerous love affairs, he is used to having any woman he likes – but Denise has a steady appeal which begins to work its magic on him. She is oblivious to it, of course, like any good and virtuous heroine. Will she soften Mouret’s heart and reform his character? Only time will tell.

There are two conflicts at the heart of the novel, both of which are echoed in its main story. First, there’s the new concept of selling, represented by the department store – flexible, innovative, creative – against the old conventions represented by the small boutiques – rigid, unmoving, entitled. And then there’s the encounter between ‘woman’ (in the shape of the store’s female customers) and those who want to exploit her for money (i.e. the store’s managers). To some extent, this is reflected in Denise’s struggle to remain virtuous in the face of temptation, whether that’s the charm of her colleagues, the devotion of a friend, or her desperate need for money to support her brothers. I get the impression that Zola doesn’t have much time for women. He seems to think them childlike, susceptible and silly, transferring their passionate devotion from churchgoing to these new cathedrals of commerce. But he is certainly sharp-eyed and shrewd about how shops work, explaining precisely why you might go into a shop to buy a couple of pillowcases and come out with those, as well as a new dress, several saucepans and some overly expensive face cream that seemed like a good idea at the time:

Woman was what the shops were fighting over when they competed, it was woman whom they ensnared with the constant trap of their bargains, after stunning her with their displays. They had aroused new desires in her flesh, they were a huge temptation to which she must fatally succumb, first of all giving in to the purchases of a good housewife, then seduced by vanity and finally consumed.

Oh, we’ve all been there. And one of the most fascinating things about the novel is looking at the mechanics of selling: how to lure people in with a sale; how to teach them to want things; how to make shopping an aspirational activity rather than a practical one; and how to reel poor shoppers in even further with the invention of the ‘return’. (“Go on, take it. You can always bring it back if you don’t like it.” So dangerous.) More than this, Zola keeps coming back to the eroticism of these shops, partly in the intoxicating freedom that they offer their shoppers to create new lives for themselves, but also in the sheer sensual abundance of items on display – items which perhaps, in the days of the small boutiques, would never have been freely visible:

Here were the items of fine lingerie, white sleeves and cravats, fichus and white collars, an infinite variety of light, frilly things, white foam emerging from its boxes and piling up like snowdrifts. Here were camisoles, little bodices, morning dresses, evening gowns, linen, nansouk, lace, long white clothes, free and thin, in which one could feel the stretching and yawning of idle mornings after amorous evenings.

And who would have thought to single out ‘that stiff, almost pubescent grace of women’s accessories when they have never been worn‘? He definitely has a compelling, almost mouth-watering way with words. My favourite passages in the book were his exuberant, extensive descriptions of the shop – often consisting of mere lists of gorgeous things, like the quote above, but creating a vivid picture of this glorious jumble. He does remember to be cynical now and then, but often he seems on the verge of getting carried away by his own sumptuous imagination, on a cloud of lace and silks.

There is something fairy-tale-like about this novel: the story of a humble young girl who enters what might as well be an enchanted castle, only to gain the eye (and perhaps win the heart?) of its supposedly arrogant, impervious owner. And yet, as the introduction points out, love stories between bosses and assistants were known: one such match was that between Ernest Cognacq and Louise Jay, a couple who went on to assemble an impressive art collection (now the Musee Cognacq-Jay in Paris). You read this novel with a sense of the sheer irresistible power of modernity – the department stores are expanding, the new Parisian boulevards are being built, the shabby old streets are being demolished. Old Paris, like the failing small shopkeepers, looks on in disbelief at ‘the wind of the times which was blowing away the crumbling edifice of the past‘. And the new Paris, the glorious present-day city of space and light and elegance, rises from the ruins.

A fascinating and absorbing book, rendered even more enjoyable by the vivid translation by Robin Buss (seriously, he makes it immensely readable. The Penguin Classics edition with the cover I show here is highly recommended). I have several more novels by Zola and am looking forward to tackling them, though I probably won’t find a subject quite as appealing, nor a story quite as charming as this one. An excellent place to start if, like me, you’re dipping your toe into the vast and daunting ocean of 19th-century French literature. (And, as a bonus, you can watch The Paradise, a BBC adaptation of the novel which moved the action from 1860s Paris to 1870s England. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m tempted. Has anyone else seen it?)

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