The new cover of Émile Zola’s classic – Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) has a familiar face from the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series – “The Paradise.” The televised series focuses on the melodrama, with cliffhangers at the end of each episode, using Zola’s idea of French shoppers in the nineteenth century, and offering behind the scenes tales of the sales team and the driven aggressive shop owner. I bought the book to catch up with the story, but did not expect to fall under Zola’s spell. He paints each scene so clearly, you can imagine you are in the midst of lush fabric and frenzied shoppers.
The young virginal Denise stars in both the book and the series, but PBS conveniently left out her two younger brothers, and recast her unforgiving uncle, the small store owner, as a willing conspirator. Zola’s book includes the romance and the anguish of the television drama, but they are clearly asides to the marvel of those times – the first large department store with clever marketing, enticing sales, and the harbinger of the future of shopping. Small shop owners could not compete with retail on a large scale, and the stark comparison of the very rich to the poor working class sets a harsher scene than the televised series. Zola’s descriptions of those 13 hour work days, cell-like housing, and putrid food are conveniently left out. Zola, of course, was the crusader (remember the Dreyfus Affair); through Denise, his heroine, he champions the woman’s new role as independent entrepreneur, and creates better working conditions for the sales team – the seed of future union labor.
The PBS series is a charming and engaging period drama, conveniently focusing on the simmering romance between Denise and Mouret, the innovative store owner. While “Paradise,” the PBS version of upstairs/downstairs in the marketplace includes the happy romantic ending that Zola provided in his book, the novel includes more information on the effects of the new big box store as it destroys small shop owners and their way of life.
If you are looking for the Readers’ Digest adaptation with a few Hollywood embellishments, you will probably find the televised series more enjoyable – a good preface to the upcoming season of Downton Abbey. But if you are willing to take the time to examine social motivations and immerse yourself in another era, Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight combines history with Zola’s unique perspective and descriptive language. I liked both.