Book Review: The Ladies’ Paradise

The details:

Title: The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur Des Dames)
Author: Émile Zola
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1883)
Pages: 480
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

After the death of her parents, Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two brothers, Jean, who will be starting an unpaid apprenticeship, and Pépé, who is very young and dependent on Denise. She goes to her uncle, who wrote to her that he would help her if she ever needed it merely as a matter of form, not because he truly meant it. Business is not going well with him, and he cannot afford to support his niece and nephews. With no place to stay, Denise gets a job at the Ladies’ Paradise, a department store, as a salesperson in the ladieswear department. Her uncle is unhappy about this; the department store threatens to put him and the other small shops out of business.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola is a novel about business and change. The setting is Paris during the mid-19th century, the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, as buildings are being torn down and wide boulevards are being paved. Baron Haussmann is reconstructing the city with his plans for urban renewal, which is still responsible for much of what is considered iconic Parisian architecture today. The small shop owners see change as a hindrance. They see it as the thing which will destroy them. But the owner of the Ladies’ Paradise, Octave Mouret, takes advantage of all of this social change to grow his store into twenty-eight departments and thousands of employees and even more as the novel progresses. He recognizes that, by selling a larger volume of goods, he can sell them more cheaply. The small shop owners specialize and cannot keep up with his pricing, and the customers will go where they can find the least expensive items. Chapter nine particularly has a good description of the way the store is set up, in such a way that it always looks very crowded and so that customers have to walk through other departments to get what they need. Further, Mouret would sell at a loss to get rid of slow-selling inventory and offered returns, so that shoppers wouldn’t hesitate to buy something, thinking they could always bring it back later, concepts still very familiar to modern shoppers.

Denise agrees with Mouret’s business practices and does not hesitate to tell her uncle and his neighbors so. She feels compassion for them and their situations, as their businesses slowly fail, as their shops are taken over by the noise of construction, and as they fall more deeply into debt. However, she thinks that it is only rational for the larger businesses to be successful and for people to buy cheaper goods. She understands business strategy and has ideas of her own. Denise is clever and hardworking. She is thwarted at times by jealous coworkers, rivalries between departments, and by her brother, Jean, who is always getting into scrapes involving women and asking her for money. Perhaps her biggest challenge is that Mouret, who believes that anyone can be bought, is pursuing her. Refusing to be commodified, Denise turns away his advances. Although she loves him, she will not share his affection with others.

I have to admit that I watched the TV series before reading the novel. The characters in the TV series, The Paradise, are kinder and not quite as desperate, the store is smaller, and Denise is more modern and less hesitant to form a relationship with the British Moray/Mouret. The TV series also changes Moray/Mouret by making him largely faithful to his dead wife (a plot point which mysteriously disappears in the second season) and less of a womanizer. Unlike his novel counterpart, he doesn’t view women as merely a group that can be manipulated to buy anything and who can be bought in turn. In that way, the TV series had more likable characters, but the novel was more compelling and complex. It has much to say about business practices, which makes it a fascinating read even today. Denise’s personal courage, her determination to stay true to herself even as others are urging her to accept Mouret, make this a novel that is not just about business but about the importance of differentiating between personal worth and the cost of goods. As parasols and ready-made coats are being sold and the salespeople collect their commissions, Denise refuses to make herself into a commodity. She is not a trinket to be bought with promises of wealth. Instead, she stays true to herself, and that is what I most enjoyed about this novel.

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Book Review: South Riding

The details:

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1936)
Pages: 502
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

Sarah Burton moves back to the fictional South Riding, in Yorkshire, with an ambitious plan. Having just been appointed the headmistress of the local girl’s high school, she wants to remake it into something spectacular. She was originally from the area, but had moved away, eventually attending university and taking a teaching position in London. But she’s determined not to settle into what might seem inevitable. Sarah wants to form the world for herself. As she arrives back in South Riding, suitcase in hand, she thinks: “I was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I’m going to spin.”

This is a novel about how local government can affect the citizens of a small English town, but it is also about being resolved to make the most of life. While the great institutions are spinning about us, as politicians make plans out of altruism or self-interest, there is Sarah, manipulating the school’s governors into improving the school building. There is Sarah guiding the young girls at her school and teaching them how to go from giggling adolescents to purposeful women. She is adored by the schoolgirls, including Lydia Holly, whose home situation threatens to throw her promising academic career off track, and Midge Carne, daughter of the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, the only one of the school’s governors to vote against appointing Sarah as headmistress.

When she arrives in South Riding, Sarah holds a grudge against the gruff, handsome, reserved Robert Carne. Their first one-on-one meeting takes place on a lonely, snowy road with him on horseback, a setting reminiscent of the first meeting between Rochester and his governess in Jane Eyre. Their relationship remains fraught, gradually thawing with each meeting. He has problems of his own; his wife is unwell and has to be kept in a mental hospital at great expense. He fears Midge might be going the same way. Other local politicians are scheming against him, ruining his chances of becoming an alderman in the opening chapter. And the great estate, Maythorpe Hall, is not bringing in the sort of money that will support running it from year-to-year. He is tormented by his past, by the memory of his wife and his behavior towards her.

The cast of characters is large and seems to expand with each chapter. There is the man, a socialist named Joe Astell, who is named alderman instead of Carne. He becomes an ally of Sarah’s, sharing many idealistic beliefs with her. There is also the Alderman Mrs. Beddows, the first woman alderman in South Riding, an indefatigable woman prone to bon mots. She is vocal about her opinions, well-respected by all in the community, and privately nurses disappointments in her personal life. One of Sarah’s favorite quotes is: “‘Take what you want,’ says God. ‘Take it and pay for it.'” Mrs. Beddows wonders, “But who pays?” A note by Holtby at the beginning of the novel serves as an apology to her mother, an alderman very much like Mrs. Beddows, explaining that the character is purely fictional.

South Riding was published posthumously, written by Winifred Holtby while she knew that she was dying. And yet it has a spirit of idealism that I rarely find in literature. Around the middle of the novel, Sarah’s can-do attitude is sharply contrasted with that of a science teacher at the school, Miss Sigglesthwaite. The girls don’t respect her, and she is not capable of inspiring them to learn. She is not unsympathetic, I really felt for her, but she is fighting against life and her personality, in completely the wrong role. Sarah tries to manipulate her into quitting her job. When Miss Sigglesthwaite was younger, she thought about becoming a researcher, but financial circumstances forced her to take a teaching post. She looks at the edge of a cliff as an easy way out–it would look like an accident, as if the ground gave way–but then she reconsiders and decides to go on teaching. She has a pessimistic acceptance of the way things are. Sarah, on the other hand, refuses to accept that the way things are now is the way they must continue to be. She can change the world around her. She takes responsibility for her choices and for the consequences of her actions.

We’re so busy resigning ourselves to the inevitable that we don’t even ask if it is inevitable. We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

And that is the message the reader should take from this extraordinary novel. The world is ours to shape, if we would but make the effort.

Book Review: The Light Years

The details:

Title: The Light Years (Cazalet Chronicle #1)
Author: Elizabeth Jane Howard
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1990)
Pages: 448
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

This is another review it has taken me a long time to write. I felt like I should have loved this book, but I was mostly ambivalent about it. The various subplots read like very short stories following one character and then another. The large cast of characters will probably serve the author well in the coming books in the series, but The Light Years seemed like the setup to something else. The end of the book was anticlimactic; it had been building up to World War II, but instead ended with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. There’s no big event to center the novel, no pivot to connect all of the various threads of the story.

The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, begins with a very useful list of members of the Cazalet Family and their households. The elder Cazalets, dubbed The Brigg and Duchy, live in the countryside with their unmarried daughter, Rachel. Hugh, the eldest son, is married to Sybil; Edward, the middle son, is married to Villy; and Rupert, the youngest, is now married to Zoe after the death of his first wife. Zoe isn’t very fond of her step-children, and it remains a mystery for most of the book why they married. He loves her because she is beautiful. She isn’t very fulfilled in her married life. Edward and Villy play the part of a happily married couple to the outside world, but Edward is having an affair and does something so unforgivable during the course of the novel that I can only call him a creep and hope that he doesn’t play a large role in the next book. My favorites were Hugh and Sybil, the only seemingly happy couple.

Between the three brothers, there are a large number of children populating this novel. Describing each of their plot lines would make this an unwieldy review, so just suffice to say that Howard is extremely talented at giving each child a distinct personality and at using the child’s perspective for comedic effect. One of my favorite characters was Miss Milliment, one time governess to Villy and now teacher to the younger generation of girls. She has excellent taste in literature and was one of the most sympathetic characters.

Some plots don’t go anywhere, such as a brief interlude involving Hugh’s maid being fired and conducting a heartless deed on her way out of the house. I suppose the point was that there are some very awful people in the world, but it seemed pointless and unnecessary. I think it’s a sign of how I felt about the book that, months after finishing, the points I can remember most vividly are when the characters behave particularly badly. I liked this book, but I’m not in a rush to read the second book. I will, eventually, but at the moment there are many other books I feel more enthusiastic about in my to-read pile.

Review Fridays: Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

The details:

Title: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life
Author: Jonathan Bate
Genre: Biography
Pages: 672
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble 

I spent what seemed like a long time reading this biography, on and off, for the past few months. Jonathan Bate started researching it with the blessing of the late Ted Hughes’s estate, but, before it could be published, his widow didn’t like the direction it was going and decided to withdraw her support. For that reason, it lacks in-depth quotations from Hughes’s work. Bate published a letter in The Guardian newspaper outlining how this changed his finished work. I really wanted to like this biography, in the same way that I really wanted to like Hughes, but failed.

Bate eschews a linear biography in favor of telling the story in an order that he thinks makes sense as it lines up with literary criticism. What comes across, even amid the more lurid details of Hughes’s life, was the immense respect Bate had for Hughes as a poet. However much criticism this biography has received, Bate obviously admires Hughes’s work and has an excellent understanding of it. What was less apparent was what bearing Hughes’s personal life had on the literary parts of the biography. I understood that Bate wanted to tell the full story as he saw it from all of the primary sources he reviewed, but I never could rid myself of the feeling that I was reading two entirely separate works that had been smashed together. Part of it was literary (the best part, in my opinion), and part of it was very disorganized biography.

Hughes was born in Yorkshire, England, and, despite living in other parts of England for the majority of his adult life, seemed to identify most closely with his working-class roots. I think at one point Bate remarks that Hughes’s Yorkshire accent became thicker the more removed he was from his birthplace. Bate portrays him as a child with a deep interest in the natural world around him, the animals and the landscape, and whose passion for nature manifested itself as an adult in fishing trips and in a deep interest in environmental causes. I would have liked to have read details about the latter particularly, and how his interest in the environment impacted his poetry, but this biography focuses much more on Hughes’s other great passion: women.

There are other, better sources to read about Hughes’s tempestuous marriage to Sylvia Plath. Although I am a big fan of Plath, I don’t have a vendetta against Hughes or feel the need to wipe his name off of her gravestone. I hadn’t read much about Hughes before this, beyond what is written in Plath biographies, but Bate’s account gave me the impression that Hughes was merely an extremely handsome (and knew it), indecisive man who never had a problem getting the attention of women. As Bate tells it, Hughes lived very much in the moment, so while he was telling one woman he wanted to set up a life with her one day, and telling another woman the same thing the next week, he was merely living in the moment and really and truly believed what he said to each woman in the moment he said it. One of the positives of this biography is that Bate avoids judging. He presents the facts and lets the reader decide. He doesn’t pontificate on Hughes’s womanizing or offer opinions on the way Hughes handled Plath’s posthumous literary estate.

The closest literary comparison I could think of was Percy Shelley, a biography of whom I reviewed here. Shelley was talented, devoted to political causes, but was inconstant to the women in his life and often treated them poorly. In a sort of reversal of Hughes’s story, he died young and left the job of editing his work to his also very talented wife, Mary Shelley. I wonder if the distance of time will be kind to Hughes, if in a few generations his poetry will be more widely read and appreciated and his personal life overlooked. I do have a better appreciation of Hughes and his poetry after reading this unauthorized biography, but I couldn’t tell you if there are better Hughes biographies to read first. If nothing else, I learned how to pronounce Hughes’s birthplace, Mytholmroyd, correctly.