At the far end of the hall, around one of the small cast-iron columns which supported the glass roof, material was streaming down like a bubbling sheet of water, falling from above and spreading out on to the floor. First, pale satins and soft silks were gushing out: royal satins and renaissance satins, with the pearly shades of spring water; light silks as transparent as crystal – Nile green, turquoise, blossom pink, Danube blue. Next came the thicker fabrics, the marvellous satins and the duchess silks, in warm shades, rolling out in great waves. And at the bottom, as if in a fountain-basin, the heavy materials, the damasks, the brocades, the silver and gold silks, were sleeping on a deep bed of velvets – velvets of all kinds, black, white, coloured, embossed on a background of silk or satin, their shimmering flecks forming a still lake in which reflections of the sky and of the countryside seemed to dance. Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with this wild cataract, they all remained standing there, filled with the secret fear of being caught up in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistible desire to throw themselves into it and be lost. 104
Octave Mouret, creator of The Ladies’ Paradise, wants to “intoxicate” his female customers: he certainly succeeds with me. It’s far more than a store; it’s a kind of pleasure palace in which women can wander unimpeded by their husbands and give themselves over to the kind of seduction society doesn’t frown on. The gigantic palatial façade, the huge display windows and the interiors blazing with light throw all the surrounding shops into murk and shabbiness and irresistibly suck up all their customers. It’s a picture of relentless progress displacing the traditional little family shops and the people who depend on them for their living, and you might think on the evidence of his other books that Zola would disapprove. But no:
What I want to do … is write the poem of modern activity… express the century, which is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction he wrote in his notes for the book. He too, it seems, is intoxicated by the energy of men like Mouret, though Denise, the humble heroine, does convince Mouret in the end that this energy should be tempered by some sort of social responsibility.
It’s a great read, full of sensuous charm and historical interest, and it has a lot of resonance with today, as old ways of doing business are swept aside and the question becomes more and more pressing – what sort of life can people have if the production and consumption machine doesn’t need them any more?