The Ladies’ Delight – originally published in French as Au Bonheur des Dames – is a delightful read. This is the novel that the BBC/PBS series ‘The Paradise’ is based on, but is so much better. The plot is almost identical, though set in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.
The story is all about the advent of the department store. Until this time, retail was a very select affair, with shopkeepers selling only one or two specialty items. The idea that all manner of goods could be sold under one roof with low costs on specific items pulling in the customers was considered absolutely revolutionary. We enter this world with Denise Baudu – a young woman from the provinces who has come to Paris with her two younger brothers after the death of their parents. Their uncle owns a store across the street from Au Bonheur and as such, his livelihood has been much affected. Since he cannot provide for them, Denise must do the unthinkable and apply for a job at the department store.
From Denise’s perspective, we see behind the glamorous façade – the 13-hour workdays, the expectation that the female sales assistants stay unmarried, live chastely in the attic, and retire at 40. There is much in-fighting and jostling for position within the departments, and Denise as the unsophisticated country girl bears the brunt of much of it. However, she soon catches the eye of the visionary owner of Au Bonheur, Octave Mouret.
The world Zola describes feels absolutely real and the Parisian landscape is wonderful. The difference in position between the salesgirls and the women they serve is so distinct that they seem to be from different completely different worlds. This is a fantastic read.