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Review: The Paradise and Zola’s The Ladies Paradise

2012 October 16
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

Ben Moore (University of Manchester)

Ben.moore@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk


The current BBC television series The Paradise, based on Émile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise), arrives in the wake of a number of successful British television period dramas, most conspicuously Downton Abbey, whose popularity and critical acclaim suggests that the appetite of UK and US audiences for class-based dramas combining buttoned-up propriety with a hint of sexual and political transgression continues to provide a lucrative market for programme-makers. The Paradise, which transfers Zola’s novel about one of the first Parisian department stores to an unnamed city in northern England, has been adapted for television by Bill Gallagher, the man behind Lark Rise to Candleford. With such a provenance, the series might be expected to have as much in common with Downton and its fellows as with Zola’s original novel.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the transplantation of the narrative from metropolitan Paris to provincial England has been accompanied by a softening of the sharp edges and radicalism of Zola’s novel. In The Ladies’ Paradise, Denise Baudu arrives in Paris exhausted and frightened with two dependent brothers in tow: evidently more relies on the success of her career than her own prosperity. In The Paradise Denise arrives alone, but not distressingly so, and soon finds herself comfortably employed in Moray’s department store. Once there, barring a brief interview to confirm the end of her probationary period, she seems to be free from the danger of dismissal which Zola portrays as an ever-present threat for store employees (and which Denise suffers in the novel).

As Zola’s own research had revealed, discharge without warning was a genuine risk for shop-clerks in the early days of the department store, with many establishments following a practice of over-hiring in busy seasons, before promptly firing the weakest employees when business slackened.[1] In episode 2 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n7j8x) of the BBC series, by contrast, a threat of dismissal is not followed through, as an employee accused of forcing himself upon a wealthy female customer is merely demoted, and ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. This downplaying of disturbing or threatening elements is typical of the BBC adaptation, and extends to the prevalent use of soft-focus photography, a nostalgic technique widely employed in Lark Rise to Candleford.

As a result, the store in The Paradise more closely resembles a stately manor house than the ‘machine working at high pressure’, simultaneously mesmeric and destructive, which Zola describes.[2] The paternalistic compassion of the store-owner Moray (the novel’s Octave Mouret) is exaggerated, while his ruthless capitalism and exploitative attitude towards women are played down. When the department store staff line up before him, they resemble nothing so much as a group of servants being inspected by their benevolent aristocratic master. Tellingly, the shop scenes for The Paradise were filmed not in an actual store but in a castle on the Lambton Estate outside Durham, an appropriate location for a country-house drama.

This Upstairs, Downstairs vision of the department store is, I think, associated with a provincialisation and Anglicisation of Zola’s novel. An intensely modern Parisian novel has been turned into a television series concerned with Victorian manners and morality, deploying the familiar tropes of Victorian England in ways that preserve a fixed idea of what that period should look like. This often functions to reproduce what Foucault has called the repressive hypothesis – the idea that the Victorians were sexually repressed, so that modern life is by contrast perceived as free and liberated. Symptomatic of this is the transformation of Madame Desforges, in Zola an independent young widower who dominates fashionable Paris, into Katherine Glendenning; an heiress whose fortune and sexuality are equally under the sway of her father.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting element of the new series is not its plot or characters, but its props. Just as the early department stores were notable for bringing the produce of the world together under one roof, making goods from places like Persia, India and Japan available together for the first time, the production company for The Paradise has bought goods from as far afield as Indonesia, Bulgaria and America in order to create an ‘authentic’ Victorian feel. Although (or because) this is a very British Paradise, it has been made from the products of a globalised world – a world which the department store both inaugurated and helped create.


[1] See Michael Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981), especially 83-87.

[2] Émile  Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise, trans. Brian Nelson (Oxford: OUP, 1995): 16.

Ben Moore is a third-year PhD student in the English Literature, American Studies and Creative Writing Department at the University of Manchester. His thesis is on the topic of architecture and the city in the novels of Gaskell, Dickens and Zola. He teaches seminars on the undergraduate courses ‘Reading Literature’ and ‘Reading the Nineteenth Century’. His essay ‘ “When I went to Lunnon town sirs”: Transformation and the Threshold in the Dickensian City’ is forthcoming in the December 2012 issue of Dickens Quarterly.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. huma permalink
    November 15, 2012

    One of the best reviews I have read. The BBC drama lead me to reading the Zola novel and I have to agree with you that the two products are a world apart.
    I enjoyed both immensely, but I would like to point out that the novel has not been transplanted into north East England on a whim. The world’s first department store actually was in Newcastle upon Tyne, by the name of Bainbridge, established by Emerson M Bainbridge in 1838. Bill Gallagher has loosely based his story on Zola’s novel , as is made clear by the BBC, and with a clear nod to Emerson Bainbridge in the name of John Moray’s father -in -law. Perhaps BG is feeding our never ending appetite for Victorian England period dramas, but it would appear that Bainbridge’s were more ‘paternalistic’ in their approach to their employees as the Albert House Benevolent Society was founded in 1870 to help former and present Bainbridge employees who had fallen on hard times. I would like to think that there were compassionate individuals like the English Moray who were leaders of their time.

  2. Ben Moore permalink
    November 22, 2012

    That’s really interesting about Bainbridge’s, I wasn’t aware of the store before but the influence is clearly there in the BBC series. The Michael Miller book I cited has an interesting section which discusses the ways in which department stores often extended the model of the family enterprise out to their employees, especially in the early years. Miller is primarily interested in Parisian department stores rather than English ones, taking as his example the Bon Marché (where Zola did his research for the novel). He gives examples of council meetings in the early 1890s where money was granted to employees with sick families, or to the families of deceased former employees (p.153). It is interesting that there seems to have been room for both ruthless capitalism and benevolent paternalism in the early department stores – a sign perhaps of a contest taking place between competing visions of what role this new type of shop should play in modern society?

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