Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2013

The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson #BookReview

The Ladies' ParadiseI loved this book! I have a mountain of other things to read but after seeing the BBC series created out of Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise I couldn’t resist bringing it home from the library.  However, I also stumbled across Julian Barnes Levels of Life that day – and it was so beautiful and wise that I read and reviewed that first, and then I found myself with only a day to read all 480 pages of The Ladies’ Paradise and no, I couldn’t renew it because it’s in high demand at the library.

By the time I had read the brilliant introduction by Brian Nelson and the first chapter I knew I had to finish the story without waiting for a copy by snail mail, so I resurrected the hated Kindle to buy a copy from You-Know-Who.  And because I had fallen in love with Zola I succumbed to buying a Collected Works edition.  How different could it be, I thought?

Quite different.  Not just ignorant proof-reading errors like shoot instead of chute and a disconcerting he instead of she in a crucial piece of dialogue, and the translation by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (1853–1922) has a quaint way with words like jades and fanfaronade.  There are also shades of meaning which matter, when a young woman’s rival is stout instead of buxom.  But more importantly The Complete Works of Émile Zola lacks Brian Nelson’s introduction, which places this novel in a context which is still very relevant today.   So, take my advice, if you are going to read anything by Zola – don’t do as I did, but do as I mean to do from now onwards: make sure you get hold of the five Oxford World’s Classics titles which have been translated by Brian Nelson,  professor of French Studies at Monash University, Melbourne and editor of the Australian Journal of French Studies.

Zola is famous for his series about the Rougon-Macquart family, which he used to express his pseudo-scientific belief that ‘human behaviour is determined by heredity and environment’ (p. vii).  He wrote 20 novels and a short story about this family using the descendants of the three children of an insane woman called Tante Dide to show that they were fated to live out their warped heredity.  The offspring of the legitimate child prosper, while the fortunes of the illegitimate strand vary.  The Macquarts are unbalanced and prone to violence as I saw in Germinal  (see my review) while the Mouret family are ‘successful bourgeois adventurers‘ (p. viii).  According to Nelson, The Ladies’ Paradise was a shift in outlook for Zola, who in the character of Octave Mouret focusses on a self-made man capitalising on opportunity in the new Paris.  (Quite different to his story of the prostitute Nana, which I have in a nice old Folio Society edition on my TBR).

But these biographical details aside, what captivated me about Brian Nelson’s introduction was the way he analysed the book as an exploration of the new 19th century consumerism and commodity culture.  Everything he had to say resonated with what I have heard and read about cataclysmic change in contemporary retailing since the arrival of online stores.  A friend of ours is an economist, and he predicts that within 20 years shops as we know them will be gone.  There will be large warehouses servicing online sales, and there will be display stores offering specialist expertise where – for a fee – we will go to investigate the range of whitegoods or whatever before we buy online.  Shopping centres will offer only services that you can’t buy online, like hairdressing, dry-cleaning, cafes and restaurants.  This bodes well for strip shopping centres because that is mostly what they do now anyway,  and they will make the transition more easily than department stores and mega malls which are already complaining about losing sales to online merchants.  If our friend is right, it’s an interesting future, eh?

Zola’s novel captures Paris in its transition from a city of small artisan shops to the rise of the mega department stores.  When the story opens, orphans Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers have come to the city from the countryside, as so many hopefuls did.  Opportunity lies in the big city as Second Empire capitalism takes hold, and Denise needs to support her dependants (then aged five and twelve).  Her hopes of work with her uncle Baudu falter as she sees his customers abandon him for the brilliant new department store across the road.  The Ladies’ Paradise is a new phenomenon which is determined to ruin him, and its marketing strategy is the seduction and conquest of female customers …

As 19th century industrialists produced more and more goods at prices ever cheaper, commodity culture emerged.  Octave Mouret, with his dream of creating an entire world in miniature to entice his female customers knows how the commercial principle of supply works:

He bombards his customers with advertising which panders to their dreams, and he offers ‘free entry’ with no obligation to buy so that shopping becomes a leisure activity (displacing the churches as a respectable place for ladies to congregate outside the home).  His fixed prices make buying quick, impersonal and guilt-free, and ‘easy returns’ mean that anything unsatisfactory can be quickly replaced by ‘another object of desire’.  The layout of his store forces customers to walk past displays of merchandise they had no intention of buying in order to create a desire they didn’t know they had.  (Ikea is the worst culprit to do this in the modern world, once in, you can’t get out without walking through the whole shop).  Most disastrous of all to his pitifully inadequate rivals struggling to survive the onslaught, his building is full of warmth and light and spectacle.  It is the place to be. 

All this is fascinating stuff, especially for those  of us who have succumbed to the Galerie Lafayette in Paris, and the story of Denise’s painful journey to maturity is riveting to read.  There are significant differences between the novel and the series, especially in the characterisation of minor characters like Madame Aurélie and Madame Desforges, but the stronger, more dynamic Denise of the series is an improvement on the Denise of the novel.  As Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations has noted,  in Zola’s book Denise’s implied sainthood makes her a problematic heroine.   Indeed, Zola’s characterisation of women in general reminded me very much of Balzac: regardless of their class, they are either heartless females who bestow sexual favours for gain or they are impossibly good women who seek, sometimes vainly, to restrain the impulses of men.  For Denise, torn between her admiration for a man who represents a bright future  and her concern for the exploitation of her fellow-workers and the ruin of the local traders, love is a complication that she struggles to manage.  She is both bewildered by and attracted to Mouret and his magnificent store, and while she feels intense pity for the tragedy of her uncle’s demise, she feels disdain for the irrational refusal to adapt that characterises both his and Bourras’s response to generous offers from Mouret.

What is also notable in the novel is Zola’s use of imagery to sustain the notion of store as seducer.  Mouret’s female customers correspond to the customer types that contemporary marketers will recognise, and The Ladies’ Paradise exploits them all:

  • Madame Marty, the unselective buyer who consumes everything and anything and spends more than she can afford;
  • Madame Guibal, who can only afford to window-shop but likes to feast her eyes on the merchandise and helps to bolster the compelling crowds;
  • Madame de Boves, who is short of money too, but resents what she can’t buy.  She buys only for her daughter’s ‘glory box.
  • Madame Bourdelais, who is careful, practical and only buys up the bargains.  She thinks she is besting Mouret, unaware that he needs her to buy unsold stock to sustain his strategy of always offering something new; and
  • Madame Henriette Desforges who buys only gloves, hosiery and coarse linen because she likes to be exclusive (but quietly buys her material there and has it made up by her dressmaker).

Mouret’s sales are extravaganzas.  He decks out the store with all kinds of discreet sexual allusions, reaching the pinnacle with the grand opening of the final façade on the new boulevard.  Everything is bridal white, with images in the ladies’ underwear department of clothing strewn on the floor and the sweet innocence of childhood in Denise’s department.  The irony is that the designer of this imagery does not yet know his own mind and may yet lose the one he loves.

It’s a terrific book that stands the test of time better than many books of its period.

PS 7/12/14 Do visit Silver Threads where Nancy has posted a superb review of this novel.

PPS If you are interested in the rest of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, click the Zola Project in my tag cloud and also visit the collaborative blog that celebrates all things Zola at The Works of Emile Zola.

Author: Emile Zola
Title: The Ladies’ Paradise
Translated from the French Au Bonheur des Dames and with an introduction by Brian Nelson
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2012
ISBN: 9780199675968 (BBC series tie-in edition)


Fishpond: The Ladies’ Paradise (Oxford World’s Classics, BBC series tie-in edition)

PS I have now ordered all the available translations by Brian Nelson, click the covers for more information.
The Belly of Paris (Oxford World's Classics) Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) (Oxford World's Classics) The Fortune of the Rougons (Oxford World's Classics) The Kill (Oxford World's Classics)



  1. This sounds great! Great review, too!

    • Thanks, Melinda.
      I see from your blog that you like classics too:)

      • Yes! And historical fiction :)

    • I’m sorry that you chose not to pay $7.19 to buy The Ladies’ Paradise (BBC tie-in) (Oxford World… (Kindle Edition) It has Brian Nelson’s translation, notes, introduction, everything the paperback has delivered in seconds insttead of days.

      • Hi Joy,
        Ah, but then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of looking at my growing set of Zolas on the bookshelf! I love being here in my little library surrounded by the well-loved books that I’ve read, and the others waiting patiently on the shelves for their turn. A kindle’s just not the same …

      • I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if this was for me? :)

        • Hi Melinda
          I think Joy’s comment was meant to be a comment in response to what I wrote about buying the collected Zolas on the kindle, not a response to you.
          LOL Following threads can be confusing …

  2. Thanks for the link. Pot Luck, The Belly of Paris and The Kill are all amazing. It’s criminal that in all the lit classes I took, Zola never appeared once. I’ll be particularly interested to see what you make of The Kill.

  3. BTW I read all 20 Rougon-Macquart novels over about a 3 year period. It was an amazing experience and one that convinced me to read all of La Comédie Humaine (still working on it)

    • Hey, Guy, me too about Balzac. I joined Dagny’s Yahoo Balzac group when they were half-way reading their way through La Comedie Humaine, and am still going. I have 34 to go, but now (obviously) I am going to do Zola as well. And *firm frown at self* I am not going to start Maupassant until I have finished both of those.

  4. Not your typical Zola, is it? I also found it fascinating to read about the huge department store. During his usual painstaking reseach, Zola also went shopping with his wife.

  5. Reblogged this on Vauquer Boarding House – Books, tv and more and commented:
    A very refreshing atypical entry in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart saga.

    • That’s a compliment, Dagny:)
      I love that Zola went shopping with his wife, all in the service of his art, eh?

  6. Thanks for explaining the background. From the French title Au Bonheur I realize I have this book in French but I haven’t got around to read it. My grand plan of reading Balzac and Zola in original may not take off.

    • I’d love to be able to do that. What I need (apart from the books in the original French, of course) is a very large amount of money so that I can abandon all my responsibilities and live in regional France for six months (anywhere congenial) while my pathetic school/tourist French becomes fluent. I would achieve this with regular trips to Paris to inspect the Louvre again and again and again, ordering many fine meals and Mastering The Art of French Wines, and reading the newspaper. Possibly some lessons because I can’t remember how to do future tense, as long as classmates were not loud tourists. (I myself am a quiet tourist, there is a difference).
      Yes, I can see myself idling through Zola in a succession of cafes and bistros … it might take more like a year … or two …

      • I love your picture of a French escape. May I suggest, as a preliminary, that you check out the Duolingo site? It’s a fantastic way of brushing up your schoolgirl French; free, friendly and fun.

        • Hmm, it looks interesting, and I like the concept (though I’d like to know who’s funding it). The thing is, and I know this because I am a dilettante learner of a few languages at tourist level (French, Italian, Spanish, Russian) and I have proper qualifications to teach Indonesian (but have lapsed in fluency) – it’s not the method that matters much, it’s putting in a regular commitment of enough time. Anything less than 45 minutes at least 3 times a week is not going to achieve much. That’s the hard part, finding the time, and sticking to it week in, week out.

          • look at Wikepedia on Duolingo. It is funded by inviting students to translate pieces of text from the internet. There is nothing sinister about it. And as for motivation, I think you will find it is so fun, and there is an excitement in climbing the levels, you will easily find time and motivation.

            • That doesn’t seem sinister LOL, but how does that make money/cover the costs for whoever set it up?

              • Je ne sais pas. Il faut demander a Duolingo. Je suis sur qu’ils peuvent vous repondre. Pardonnez le manque d’accents.

                • Très bon! *chuckle*
                  (The only way I can do an accent is to do it in Word and paste it in, though when I was learning Russian I discovered that you can fiddle around with a keyboard so that it does Russian letters instead of English ones, so I suppose you can do that with French, but you have to remember which ones they are which is a bit of a pain).
                  I scouted around and found that apparently Duolingo pays for itself by selling the translations which the students do. To be profitable in the long term it needs to retain its advanced students. I read some reviews of it too, and they were positive overall. It’s a clever idea:)

      • As long as we have unfulfilled yearnings no one can write us off. I would have three set of books one for reading whether waiting for bus or train whatever,one for writing on the margin as you read along and the other for tactile experience. Alas I must economize! I admire Zola as the man for his courage to write J’Accuse! at a time the Dreyfus case was ripping the French society apart. Have a nice weekend,Lisa,

        • Yes, that Dreyfus affair was dreadful and it took great courage to stand against the tide. Another reason to admire Zola for sure.

        • And writing J’Accuse caused Zola to flee France for almost a year, until it was safe to return. He went to England and Vizetelly helped him out, including appointing his daughter as housekeeper. Vizetelly wrote about that year in a charming book titled With Zola in England which can be found at Project Gutenberg:

          • Thanks,Dagny. How are you?

            • Hi, Benny. Doing good and trust you are also.

  7. What an awful cover for this wonderful book.

    I loved this one too and I’ve read it twice. It’s optimistic for a Zola.
    His description of the raise of consumerism is exceptional, isn’t it?

    I recommend The Kill and Money.

    • The cover is a still from the BBC series. I can’t remember the name of the actor who played Denise, but her appearance is quite different to the way Zola describes her. From the book I imagine someone as thin as a waif, with a great mass of hair – and Zola is quite ambivalent about whether she is beautiful or not, isn’t he?
      Which of the four I’ve ordered should I read first?

      • I don’t think Denise was beautiful or even pretty.

        I have only read The Kill and The Belly of Paris among the ones you ordered. I loved The Kill but less The Belly of Paris. Too many descriptions of food for me. But you can read an enthusiastic review at Whuthering Expectations; maybe the descriptions of French cheeses do something else to foreigners :-)

        I haven’t read the other ones but Pot Bouille is very famous.

        If you read The Kill, you should read Money right after.

        • Thanks, Emma, I think I might be one of the foreigners who find descriptions of French cheeses irresistible. We have great cheeses here in Australia, but still, the cheese course at Les Hautes de Loire is one of my great tourist experiences. *smile*
          I think I will try to read them in the order suggested on Wikipedia, but I will try to find better translations than the Kindle one, for the ones I haven’t got.

          • I had the idea you might like the food descriptions more than me.

            Btw, your French is a lot better than what you say.

  8. Wonderful review, Lisa. I too read the book on Kindle after watching it on TV. I hadn’t had the privilege of reading the introduction, and like you, I was disappointed by the translation. But I was fascinated by Zola’s extraordinary creation of a world that was changing as a backdrop to a romance with a difference. His forensic recreation of the department store as a hub of desire and seduction on every level is astonishing. I’d never seen department stores in this way, just avoided them, but I’ll never see them in the same way again. I read Germinal and loved it too, but I found Paradise more optimistic, because of the character of Denise, who struggles with consumerism, but by implication, when consummation is reached, will bring a more humane ethic to the empire.

    • Hello, Christine and welcome:)
      I know exactly what you mean about viewing department stores in a different way, and what was especially interesting was that I had never realised quite how explicitly they set out to woo women. DJs, and all those bridal flowers and romantic piano music, oh my!
      And I like your use of the word forensic to describe what Zola is doing: he is more analytical than, say, Charles Dickens, and even though I don’t care for his theory of biological determinism, I feel I have learned something powerful to guide me in analysing my own society.
      I am undecided what to read next. I wonder if there’s an order the books ‘should’ be read in?

      • Are there any shoulds in literature! I follow my own erratic order of desire and opportunity, rather like one of the women who shop at the Paradise.

        • Well, true, but it does help for example to read Balzac in the ‘right’ order because he has so many characters that he re-uses that you get more of a sense of character development than you would if you read them as wholly separate short stories.
          I’ve just done a search and Wikipedia has a list of the novels in publication order and a recommended reading order, see – and oops! there are 20 of them, not ten as I originally thought… I’ll have to fix that above.

  9. I ve same copy ,but missed show on tv hope to read it before the repeated in the uk ,only read him once before many years ago ,all the best stu

  10. I’m another fan of Brian Nelson’s translations, so much more enjoyable than the hack jobs out of copyright on Project Gutenberg. :)

  11. Just to let you know that you can find free downloads of Zola online for kindle in French. I think they are on a Quebec uni site but sorry don’t remember exactly.
    Reading French on a kindle seems to be easier for some reason.(My opinion)
    Oh, and I started with L’Assommoir with a pretty average level of French, but it was so gripping…it’s still my favourite. Enjoy.

    • Thank you for letting me know about this … I just might give it a try…

  12. […] Review contributed by Lisa Hill December 2013, and cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers. […]

  13. […] but it was not until I saw the BBC series based on The Ladies’ Paradise and read the novel (see my review) that I decided to begin a long-term project to read them all. I’ve enjoyed reading this one, […]

  14. […] a forthcoming religious celebration, and thus has entrée to the Huberts’ home. As he did in The Ladies’ Paradise, Zola makes symbolic use of white in this novel, (virgin snow, sheets, dresses, etc,) but now […]

  15. I’ll have to go and check if Ben Nelson has written the intro to the editions of a few Zola books I have. I do have the Oxford World Classic editions so may be in luck. I know what you mean about the poor quality of the e-version. I had a similar experience with a version of Canterbury Tales I obtained via Gutenburg.

    • I think the version I read was the Norton one, it was excellent, just enough footnotes to clarify things here and there, and well-presented on the page.
      Though I would like to have a really swanky illustrated version, that would be nice!

  16. […] then either).   Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next […]

  17. […] invented then either). Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next […]

  18. In looking for a link to advertising in the 21st century and the 19th, thinking about Zola and Au Bonheur, I found all the comments…wonderful .they made me realize again how fortunate I was to have had Professor Nelson as a guide in my studies at Monash.

    • The right lecturer makes all the difference, I agree!

  19. […] in everything from the pressures of the Industrial Revolution on mining in Germinal (1885) to The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) (1883) showing the emergence of ruthless entrepreneurs and the impact of the Industrial Revolution […]

  20. […] in everything from the pressures of the Industrial Revolution on mining in Germinal (1885) to The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) (1883) showing the emergence of ruthless entrepreneurs and the impact of the Industrial Revolution […]


%d bloggers like this: