Emile Zola’s acclaimed novel ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ revolves around the glittering world of the Parisian department store. Taking place in approximately 1865-1869, Zola’s fictitious department store was modelled on Le Bon Marché, situated in the affluent 7tharrondissement.
The novel details the exciting and innovative developments of Parisian 19th-century life and retail. The legacy of Zola’s writing and the luxury all-under-one-roof reputation of Le Bon Marché stands strong today.
Tracking the similarities and developments between today’s reality and yesteryears’ literature, let’s delve into the story of the Parisian grand magasin and contemporary Rive Gauche life.
The great Parisian 19th century flourish – a paradise?
The mid-19th century was a pivotal time in French urban history. Napoleon III transformed Paris.
Its narrow streets were drastically widened to the now classic huge boulevards. Haussmann’s renovation of architecture completely reshaped the landscape. Medieval neighbourhoods were demolished in place for new parks, avenues and bourgeois buildings.
The rapid industrial change brought with it sometimes unsettling societal and social changes. The urban experience, as well as the landscape, was shaken. Due to developments in textiles and retail, there were visible symbols of wealth presented in the city, such as advertising, kiosks and the introduction of the department store. Life wasn’t so rosy for all.
Few lower class women advanced, and often their behaviours were deemed criminal.
Living conditions were undesirable for many and salons solidified class differences.
Diversity within the middle class distanced the aristocracy from the working class more than ever before.
The luxury all-under-one-roof department store Le Bon Marché was founded in 1838. It became the first ever modern French department store and profited greatly from this period of urban renovation.
Le Bon Marché: Zola legacy and femininity
Zola’s novel, ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’, translated as ‘The Ladies Paradise’ represents the 19th-century fascination with documenting femininity, in great detail, as an essential aspect in understanding societal changes. His narrative details many of the development of the age, such as mail order, in-house staff commissary, household goods and new methods of the theatre of fashion: retailing fashion.
Le Bon Marché is magnificently depicted as…
la cathédrale du commerce moderne, solide et légère, faite pour un peuple de clientes”
… perhaps a metaphor which can be transferred to describe the lifestyle on the rive gauche today. Zola crafts images of the vast range of products sold under one roof, from hosiery to haberdashery, all excellent quality.
Le Bon Marché was a luxury playground for the newly emancipated Parisian bourgeoisie.
Le Bon Marché: architecture
Arguably the most striking feature of Le Bon Marché in the 19th century and today is its timeless architectural design, particularly the exquisite staircases:
Des escaliers de fer s’élevaient du rez-de-chaussée, des ponts de fer étaient jetés d’un bout à l’autre, aux deux étages.”
Les voûtains des planchers, les cloisons des distributions intérieures, l’air et la lumière entraient librement, le public circulait à l’aise.”
Le Bon Marché: a rich heritage
There are stark consistencies in the physical aspects of Le Bon Marché and the commitment to style and luxury, from Zola’s time to today. Perhaps epitomised by the ever popular grand épicerie de Paris, the Parisian department store remains a symbol of Rive Gauche life.
The setting of the novel is clearly a key feature, but it is also a story of love, consumer culture, changing sexual attitudes and class relations.
In light of this, present-day Parisian department stores can be seen to still represent the forces of capitalism and bourgeois class from that time.
As presented by the orphan Denise in the novel and the roles and living conditions of the workforce, it is important to challenge the less sparking aspects of retail which also stand today while celebrating the store’s rich heritage.
Do you think that Zola and Le Bon Marché significantly contributed to French life today? Share your comments in the box below.
As a French and English literature student, I am fascinated by French culture, from arts and politics to vin et fromage. I am particularly interested in the architecture and urban history of Paris, where I recently completed my year abroad studying at La Sorbonne IV.
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