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Monday, 10 February 2014

Book of the film – The Paradise

Okay, it isn’t a film but a TV series, and the book is not quite the same title, but The Ladies’ Paradise. I must admit that both publishers of the paperback of Emil Zola’s 1883 novel have taken liberties on their covers: ‘As seen on TV’ and ‘A BBC TV series’ . The series is inspired by this book, but apart from a few similarities, the book is not the story depicted on TV. Bill Gallagher, the creator and scriptwriter of the TV series is to be applauded for not only transposing the original from Paris to an English northern city, but also for redrawing virtually all the characters and infusing them with even more complex lives.
BBC's 'The Paradise' based on Zola's novel

In the book, Denise does indeed come to the city (Paris), but she has two young brothers in tow when she arrives on the shop doorstep of her uncle, Baudu. Her uncle is married and has a daughter and they have a lodger who works in the shop too. Denise does find employment at the department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, in the department run by Madame Aurélie (Miss Audrey in the series), who happens to have a husband, ‘Lhomme, the cashier, a fat man who had his right arm cut off by an omnibus.’ They also have a rather lazy son who works in the store.

The imperative of the department store owner, Octave Mouret is similar to that depicted by John Moray in the series: ‘You can sell as much as you like when you know how to sell! Therein lies our success!’ (p74) And next page, ‘… he spoke of the exploitation of women… It was women the shops were wrangling over in rivalry, it was women they caught in the everlasting snare of their bargains, after they had dazed them with their displays.’
Alma Classics version, 2013

Widower Mouret was a womaniser, at least until he was smitten with Denise, and liked nothing better than to be surrounded by the fair sex – ‘in the midst of the heady scents which were rising from their hair, he maintained the composure of a conqueror, taking little sips of tea, the perfume of which cooled down those other more pungent scents, in which there was a touch of musk.’

While Denise is ambitious and forthright in the book, it is Mouret who gets the brainwaves about enlarging the premises, introducing a restaurant: ‘… idea came to him after a cousin’s wedding; stomachs were always good for business, for he had been made to pay ten francs for some washing-up water with a few noodles swimming about in it.’

The intriguing possibly sinister character of Jonas is an amalgam of L’Homme and  old man Jouve who was constantly writing reports on the staff and engineering dismissals (p195). Some other staff members have been retained – Pauline and Clara – and others introduced to good effect in the series. Intriguingly, Mouret’s business assistant Bourdoncle has a great antipathy towards Denise (contrary to his counterpart Dudley in the series); perhaps he feared for his own position, perceiving in her innocence ‘the dark enigma of woman, death disguised as a virgin’ (p322).

‘Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy there’ (p229). And yet he is confounded by Denise, who is not seduced by his charms, to the point that his mind is filled with her most of the time. He is so besotted that he even gives up his mistress, Madame Desforges (Katherine in the series).  He gradually learns that Denise ‘... supplied all the good to be found in women – courage, gaiety, simplicity – and her gentleness exuded a charm with the penetrating subtlety of perfume… if she deigned to smile, one was hers for life.’(p324)

This book is much more than a romance about Mouret and Denise, however. Zola undertook considerable research in two Parisian department stores, Le Bon Marché and Le Louvre, interviewing staff. In the book he reveals a great deal that is commonplace in the retail trade today, whether that’s loss leaders, enticements at the entrance, the destruction of small shops nearby, and even a ‘returns’ system. These insights are fascinating.

Any potential reader expecting to renew acquaintance with the TV characters might be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be, because they will be enriched by Zola’s characters and his story regardless, as well as his sensuous language: ‘The silk department was like a great room dedicated to love, hung with white by the whim of a woman in love who, snowy in her nudity, wished to compete in whiteness. All the milky pallors of an adored body were assembled there, from the velvet of the hips to the fine silk of the thighs and the shining satin of the breasts ‘(p404). Above all, Zola was an observer of life, and attempted to reveal it in all its naturalness. And with flair, of course: ‘… and beneath the heavy downpour nothing could be seen but a confused procession of umbrellas jostling each other, swelling out like great gloomy wings in the darkness.’

Perhaps life imitates art, too.  Zola had been married to Alexandrine since 1870, and remained with her for the rest of his life (he died in 1902), but in 1888 he began a long-term affair with Jeanne Roserot, a 21-year-old who entered service in his household. He installed Jeanne in an apartment in Paris and she gave birth to a daughter, Denise in 1889 and a son, Jacques, followed in 1891. After Alexandrine discovered the affair in 1892 (an anonymous letter), a mutually acceptable arrangement was set up and Jeanne and the children lived as part of the Zola family.

The English version I read was published by Alma Classics, translation by April Fitzlyon.


Jan Warburton said...

Fascinating post, Nik! As you know, I'm a huge fan of the BBC TV Drama series "The Paradise", inspired by Emile Zola's "The Ladies Paradise".
Ashamed to say, I've not read the Emile Zola book, but may well do so now.
I'm also enjoying "Mr Selfridge". How about you?
Having worked in Harrods myself in the late 50s during my art college Summer holidays, anything about departmental store life in the earlier years fascinates me enormously. Might even incorporate it in a novel myself eventally. Thanks for this enlightening post, Nik. I enjoyed reading it so much.

Nik said...

Thanks, Jan. No, I haven't watched Mr Selfridge, but may get the DVDs at some future date, as it seems interesting too. Zola seems a precursor of Arthur Hailey, in deeply researching an organisation before writing about it.