Properly Au Bonheur des Dames; one of Zola's net of novels about the development of modernity in France. I alternated surprise at how modern it was with surprise at how French.
Modernity in this is the development of the department store; which depended on the expansion of credit, on zoning deals, on the aggravation of consumerism, and on quantites of clerking to make any of us grateful to the nearest DBA:
Some opened the letters, others read them, sitting at both sides of the same table; still others sorted them, giving each one a serial number which was repeated on a pigeon-hole; then, when the letters had been distributed to the different deprtments and the departments had sent up the articles, the articles were put into the pigeon-holes according to the serial number.
This careful accounting allows new pay-scale incentives:
Then came yet another office, the clearing-house: there six young men, bent over black desks, with piles of registers behing them, drew up accounts of the salemen's commissions by collating the sales bills. This section, which was quite new, was not running well. [...] Mouret, without reprimanding them, explained the system of the small bonus he had thought of paying them for every eror they discovered in the sales bills; and when had left the clerks, no longer laughing, and with a cowed air, set to work with a vengeance, hunting for mistakes.
'why were six pairs of sheets which a lady bought yesterday at two o'clock not delivered in the evening?' [...] Finally, Campion discovered the error: the cash-desk had given a wrong number, and the parcel had come back.
I was also astonished at the explicit connections Zola makes between consumerism, and the objectification of women, and shoplifting -- the department store advertises more and more effectively and to poorer people than old shops had, and makes every scrap of female beauty a commodity; it is selling women back to themselves. It's hard to believe female beauty could be more for sale than it was in eighteenth century France, but maybe the sale here is applying to all classes? And Zola cites someone else for evidence that shoplifting, even by women with money, is partly the attempt to steal back the taken body. This is practically.
The Frenchness of it all is partly in the materials -- lengths of silk, velvets of so many kinds, details of soap and lace... but mostly in the relations between the sexes. It really doesn't strike me as a commonplace that two men will make better business deals if they share a mistress. And the young woman who is triumphantly Good is so for reasons of bourgeois prudence, not religious or social obedience, let alone any shyness of the flesh. (That's modern now, but I'm counting it as particularly French then.)
Find in a Library: The Ladies' Paradise