Tonight sees the start of a major new drama series on BBC 1, The Paradise. Adapted from Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) and set against the backdrop of the spectacular rise of the department store in the 1860s and 70s, the story follows the fortunes of a young girl from the provinces who starts work as a salesgirl in the shop, and her entanglement with the charismatic owner. The model for the store in Zola’s novel, set in Paris, is the Bon Marché, but there were parallel developments in the explosion of retail opportunities in the United States and England, and the BBC has relocated the action to the north of England.
There is a great cast of characters, a powerful love story, all the social intrigue of the staff’s relationships and rivalries, as well as some fascinating comparisons with modern-day retail practices: Mouret (Moray in the television adaptation), the business genius behind the shop’s success, is an arch manipulator who uses every marketing trick in the book to seduce his female customers, and tramples over smaller rivals on the way. Oxford World’s Classics is delighted to publish the tie-in edition of Zola’s novel, in a compelling translation by Brian Nelson. In this extract from chapter two, Denise has arrived for her interview with the formidable head of Ladieswear, Madame Aurélie (played by Sarah Lancashire as Miss Audrey in the TV series):
Denise had not dared before to venture into the silk hall; its high glazed ceiling, sumptuous counters, and church-like atmosphere frightened her. Then, when she had at last gone in, to escape the grinning salesmen in the linen department, she had stumbled straight into Mouret’s display; and though she was scared, the woman in her was aroused, her cheeks suddenly flushed, and she forgot herself as she gazed at the blazing conflagration of silks.
‘Hey!’ said Hutin crudely in Favier’s ear, ‘It’s the tart we saw in the Place Guillon.’
Mouret, while pretending to listen to Bourdoncle and Robineau, was secretly flattered by this poor girl’s sudden fascination with his display, as a duchess might be by a brutal look of desire from a passing drayman. But Denise had raised her eyes, and she was even more confused when she recognized the young man she took to be the head of a department. She thought he was looking at her sternly. Then, not knowing how to get away, quite distraught, she once again approached the nearest assistant, who happened to be Favier.
‘Could you tell me where I can find Madame Aurélie, please?’
Favier gave her an unpleasant look and replied curtly:
‘On the mezzanine floor.’
Denise, anxious to escape from all these men who were staring at her, thanked him and was once more walking away from the staircase she should have climbed, when Hutin yielded to his natural instinct for gallantry. He had called her a tart, but it was with his most amiable salesman’s smile that he stopped her.
‘No, this way, miss … If you would be so good as to…’
He even went with her a little way to the foot of the staircase in the left-hand corner of the hall.
There he bowed slightly, and smiled at her with the smile he gave to all women.
‘Upstairs, turn left … The ladieswear department is straight ahead.’ […]
‘You’re too kind … Please don’t trouble … Thank you so much, sir …’
Hutin had already rejoined Favier, to whom he said under his breath, in a crude tone:
‘She’s skinny, eh!’
Upstairs the girl found the ladieswear department straight away. It was a vast room with high cupboards of carved oak all round, and plate-glass windows facing the Rue de la Michodière. Five or six women in silk dresses, looking very smart with their chignons curled and their crinolines sweeping behind them, were moving about, talking to each other. One of them, tall and thin, with an elongated head which made her look like a runaway horse, was leaning against a cupboard, as if she was already tired out.
‘Madame Aurélie?’ Denise repeated.
The saleswoman looked at her without replying, with an air of disdain for her shabby dress; then, turning to one of her companions, a short girl with a pasty complexion, she asked in an artless, wearied manner:
‘Mademoiselle Vadon, do you know where Madame Aurélie is?’
The girl, who was in the process of arranging long cloaks in order of size, did not even take the trouble to look up.
‘No, Mademoiselle Prunaire, I don’t know,’ she said rather primly.
A silence ensued. Denise stood there, and no one took any further notice of her. However, after waiting a moment she plucked up enough courage to ask another question.
‘Do you think Madame Aurélie will be back soon?’
Then the assistant buyer of the department, a thin, ugly woman whom she had not noticed, a widow with a prominent chin and coarse hair, called to her from a cupboard where she was checking price tickets:
‘You’ll have to wait if you want to talk to Madame Aurélie personally.’
And, addressing another saleswoman, she added:
‘Isn’t she in the reception office?’
‘No, Madame Frédéric, I don’t think so,’ the girl replied. ‘She didn’t say anything; she can’t be far away.’
Denise remained standing. There were a few chairs for customers, but as no one told her to sit down she did not dare to take one, although she felt that her legs might drop off with fatigue. These young ladies had clearly sensed that she was a salesgirl coming to apply for a job, and they were staring at her, stripping her naked, out of the corners of their eyes, with the veiled, ill-natured hostility of people seated at table who do not like moving up to make room for those outside who are hungry. Her embarrassment grew; she crossed the room very quietly and looked out into the street, just for something to do. Just opposite, the Vieil Elbeuf with its rusty frontage and lifeless windows seemed to her so ugly, so wretched, seen thus from the luxury and life of her present vantage-point, that her heart was wrung with something akin to remorse.
‘I say,’ whispered tall Mademoiselle Prunaire to little Mademoiselle Vadon, ‘did you see her boots?’
‘And her dress!’ murmured the other.
Émile Zola was the leading figure in the French school of naturalistic fiction, of which Thérèse Raquin (1867) is his earliest example. The first volume (La Fortune des Rougon) of his principal work, Les Rougon‐Macquart, which he termed the ‘natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire’, appeared in 1871; in 19 more volumes (including L’Assommoir, 1877; Germinal, 1885; La Terre, 1887; La Bête humaine, 1890; La Débâcle, 1892), Zola produces an extraordinary panorama of mid‐19th‐cent. misery, poverty, and the violence of human instinct. The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) was published in 1883 and is the eleventh novel in the series.
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