Émile Zola’s “Paradise” – The Ladies’ Delight

9780143124702_p0_v1_s260x420The 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 9780140447835conveniently 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.

Émile Zola

Émile Zola

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.

6 thoughts on “Émile Zola’s “Paradise” – The Ladies’ Delight

  1. I read several of Zola’s novels in grad school, but not this one. While watching the series it struck me that it seemed to be lacking the typical Zolaesque grit and dirt and down-and-out misery. Now I see that the novel has been prettified for TV.

  2. I haven’t been watching the TV series and will probably do what I usually do — catch up with it later when the series in complete. I have read some Zola, however, and he always draws me in with his clear depiction of the people and world of his day. His theme is often some place or occupation about which we learn a great deal. I recommend The Belly of Paris (the great market at Les Halles) and The Masterpiece (modern art).

  3. I’m not a huge fan of the show to be honest but my mum absolutely loves it! With the holidays around the corner I was wondering if I should get her the book to give it a try. Worth a read if you’re a fan of the show then?

    • Yes, worth a read. A friend of mine noted that Zola needs to “be read carefully and slowly.” Because I had read the book before the series ended, I kept shifting the characters. They are not all the same, but easy to track. Zola’s background on the life and times of 19th century Paris and his comments on the lifestyle fill in the gaps of the show.

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