French fashion of the late 1800s, vintage costume, hats, Parisian women, France in the Victorian AgeJust as the illustrator of these Parisian women of the late 1800s wearing fashionable hats did a brilliant job of capturing the nuanced variety of the attire, Émile Zola did a brilliant job of capturing nuances of the nineteenth-century female experience in his novel The Ladies’ Paradise.

Moreover, as in his descriptions of large versus small businesses, the themes he describes are universal—and astoundingly applicable to the world today. Take, for example, this description:

“She could not go downstairs to buy a candle . . . without feeling a warm breath behind her, and hearing crude, insulting remarks; and the men pursued her to the very end of the dark passage . . .”

Replace “candle” with “pizza” or another modern consumable, and . . . #MeToo, anyone?

Oddly, the description on the back of my paperback copy pretends that the male big business owner is the protagonist. The description does not mention the actual protagonist—a woman—at all! This, along with the omission of the word “Ladies'” from the title, makes me suspect that the marketer of this edition was trying to scrub it of its female-oriented qualities. Do books about men sell better than books about women? At least the photo on the cover accurately depicts the content: a young woman in a fancy dress stands behind a counter, assisting two female customers in even fancier attire.

In any case, without a doubt, this is a book about women. It’s a book about women and consumerism; women and beauty; and women and manipulation, sex, and power. It’s a book about relations between women and men and between women and women. It’s a book about intelligent women and frivolous women; about women who abide by the dictates of society and women who abide by their hearts and minds.

Somehow, through the amazing and very human powers of observation and imagination, Zola, though a man himself, has captured some important truths about womankind. I won’t give them away here. I will note, however, that the protagonist is wonderful. She has her faults, as do we all, but she also has many admirable qualities. On the whole, I think you will love her. I hope you get the opportunity to meet her one day!

What different metaphorical hats have you noticed twenty-first-century women wearing?

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