AU BONHEUR DES DAMES is a novel by Emile Zola set in the world of the department store in nineteenth-century Paris. It covers the period approximately from 1864 to 1869 and it’s the eleventh novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macqart series.
From Zola’s original manuscript for Au Bonheur des Dames
When Zola was writing Au Bonheur des Dames, department stores were not only a new concept, their approach to retail sales was nothing short of revolutionary, which I suppose is what sparked Zola’s interest. Today of course we take department stores and other mega retail outlets for granted.
Following on from a blog piece I published recently about l’Assommoir, a Zola novel set around the quartier de la Goutte d’Or , I thought it would be interesting to capture today’s soundscape of Zola’s setting for Au Bonheur des Dames.
The department store at the centre of Zola’s novel is called Au Bonheur des Dames (Ladies’ Delight or Ladies’ Paradise) and Zola modelled it on Aristide Boucicaut’s hugely successful, Au Bon Marché, which, by 1852, had become one of the largest stores in Paris and one of the first department stores in the world.
Boucicaut had revolutionary ideas about retailing. Under the Ancien Régime the typical retail outlet was the boutique specialising in one variety of product with no fixed pricing – bargaining was the rule. Boucicaut changed all that.
The change that he brought to retailing included everything we take for granted today. He was the first to “pile it high and sell it cheap”, he introduced the selling of more than one variety of product under the same roof, fixed pricing, the price ticketing of individual items, free entry encouraging customers to browse at will, the clearance sale, and for his employees – commission on sales and participation in profits.
These revolutionary changes of course came at a price.
Au Bon Marché in 1910
In the novel we see Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, aiming to overwhelm the senses of his female customers, forcing them to spend by bombarding them with an array of choices and by juxtaposing goods in enticing and intoxicating ways. Massive advertising, huge sales, home delivery, a system of refunds and novelties such as a reading room and a snack bar, further induce his female clientele to patronize his store in growing numbers. In the process, he drives smaller, speciality shops out of business.
At the start of the book, Au Bonheur des Dames occupies almost a whole city block but Mouret is not beyond using all his political wiles to expand even further and threaten the existence of all the neighbourhood shops.
Au Bon Marché – Gravure
Today, Au Bon Marché is owned by the luxury goods group, LVMH, and it occupies more than one city block with the department store sitting cheek by jowl with the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, across the street.
Inside Au Bon Marché
Sounds inside the department store:
Just like Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, Au Bon Marché aims to overwhelm the senses of its customers with an astonishing array of luxury brands juxtaposed in enticing and intoxicating ways.
Inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris
Sounds inside La Grande Épicerie de Paris:
Personally, I find the department store with its luxury brand boutiques and obscenely expensive prices not to my taste. But the food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, is an absolute delight. With over 5,000 products from around the world they cater for every imaginable taste. If you can’t find it anywhere else, you’ll most likely find it here.
This year marks the 160th anniversary of Le Bon Marché.
In Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her brothers and begins working at the store as a saleswoman. We follow her progress amidst the many conflicts that spring from the struggles for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff. But the novel is also about the symbols of capitalism, the rise of the modern city, class relations and, above all, the changes in consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth-century.
It’s fascinating to think that Emile Zola, with his characteristic eye for detail, must have walked through the vast expanse of Au Bon Marché collecting material for his novel just as I did collecting the sounds for this post. I wonder what he would make of the sights and sounds of Au Bon Marché today?
Reading Zola’s novel certainly adds an extra dimension to a visit to today’s Au Bon Marché. I thoroughly recommend it.