The BBC are now showing a major adaptation of one of Emile Zola’s more neglected novels 'Au Bonheur des Dames' (sometimes translated as 'The Ladies Paradise'). This is a good excuse as any to look again at a great but overlooked work.
Quite a few people (especially on the left) have read Emile Zola’s novel 'Germinal' with its grim realistic depiction of class struggle in the coalfields of northern France. Others have also read 'Le Bete Humaine' and 'Therese Raquin' which are intense psychological thrillers obsessed with sex and death. Compared to these 'The Ladies Paradise' can seem like a slight work. Its often comedic, it has a happyish ending and the one notable death in the novel is played for black comedy rather then shock, realism or horror.
Its set in an around a department store in Paris in the last years of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. This is the “Au Bonhuer des Dames” of the title. This vast new store is run by Octave Mouret a obsessive and innovative retail tyrant. Mouret’s great insight is that the sexual and gender repression bourgeois women feel can find a momentary realease through a fetishised experience of shopping . One of the main themes of the book is commodity fetishism to the point of erotic fetishism. Zola’s description of the displays of silks, Damasques, muslins and lace set up by Mouret in displays look like the 19th century fantasy of oriental harem’s is deeply sexualised. there is much talk of the shoppers admiring the tactile qualities of the fabrics in a obsessive way. One respectable women find herself becoming a compulsive shop-lifter because of her obsession with the store and its goods.
The hero of the book apart from the store itself is Denise Baudu a impoverished young women from the provinces. She starts work at first in her relatives shop nearby to the department store. This drapers shop like all the other shop is being driven out of business by Mouret’s vast emporium. The relatives along with the other shop keepers rail against the new store. Denise though can see the writing on the wall and does not share her relatives hatred. Much against their chagrin she takes a job in the underwear section of Au Bonhuer Des Dames. Zola’s description of working life in the department store is vivid and very recognisable; snobbery, bullying and sexual harassment from management. Then there is the Snooty and rude customers. However the other side of this is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the workers and for the women workers a level of financial and social independence unknown for the vast majority of working class women in 1860s France. The workers are also depicted as more independent then their heavily corseted, dependent and idle clients.
Most 19th century novels would have shown this vast new capitalist enterprise driving out of business the small shop keeper as a uniformly dreadful thing and side with the small shopkeeper. Zola does nothing of the sort he actually presents the going out of business of the small shops as a necessary and inevitable result of material progress. There is a blackly comic funeral of the last shop keeper in the district to hold out who is literally killed by Mouret’s endless expansion of the department store, all of the old desiccated and broken shopkeepers come out to mourn the death of the way of life of the petty bourgoise. Zola pities these traders but does not mourn their passing.
However if this makes the novel sound like purely an early advocate of consumerism it misses Zola’s whole point which is informed by his radical and socialist politics. Zola in general sided with the workers against capital and particular the dehumanising and alienating effects of Capital. His socialism though was shifting and eclectic. His main influence was the utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier.
Fourier was a utopian but he was not a reactionary opponent of capitalism. He believed socialism could be built on of the revolution in production and concentration of workers in large work places. He was also an early advocate of Women’s rights and even LGBT rights (in this he was in advance of Marx and Engels). Fourier unlike Zola was also an anti-Semite. Unlike Marx he did not see the workers as the agency to bring this revolution about. Like all utopians he presented his blueprint for the perfect society and hoped the French government would carry out his programme.
Zola sees in the large department stores and other big capitalist enterprises of his day the future basis for a classless socialist society. The camaraderie, the rough equality, the sexual freedom shown amongst the workers is to Zola what modern production allows us to achieve but is held back by the interests of profit, a corrupt government and a hidebound class system. Symbolically at the end of the novel shop floor workers increasingly take over the running of the store.
The BBC adaptation shifts the action to the north of England in the 1890s. I have no problem with this kind of transposition. You could even set the novel today without loosing a lot of its meaning. However I do hope that the sense of the real possibility for a new society to built out of the old in the interests of the workers themselves is not lost.