BBC One’s new eight-part series of Émile Zola’s classic novel, The Ladies’ Paradise, made a promising start last Tuesday. Set in the 1870s it follows Denise, who takes a job in a fashionable department store.
Zola’s novel is fascinating. He is of a generation of novelists who used fiction to explore the strange new world of 19th century capitalism.
A string of English novels looked at industrial life at this time. Yet despite their skill, these writers often struggled to depict the social relations emerging in workplaces. Zola elegantly captured these complex dynamics.
Denise arrives in a new city in search of work to find her uncle cannot afford to take her on in his small shop.
She finds work at The Paradise department store, owned by Mouret, who is expanding his business fast. He sees selling as a form of seduction, so plots a bold new tactic to attract customers—a sale.
Episode one brings out Zola’s key themes well. But it struggles to convey the intoxifcation of the department store, which seems dull compared with modern shops.
In the 1870s and 80s, department stores had just appeared—a result of retail companies growing, gobbling up competitors, temples to commodities. Zola shows how inanimate objects seemed magically to take on a life of their own while people felt powerless.
The episode lets these contradictions emerge. But it tries to resolve them too easily, implying the shop workers’ interests lie in the success of Mouret’s business. Still, I’ll be tuning in to the second episode.
The Paradise is showing on BBC One on Tuesdays at 9pm