Quite a while ago I wrote about attending a conference in which one of the novels we were discussing was Emil Zola's terrific novel, Au Bonheur Des Dames (The Ladies Delight.) The novel, set in the late 1860's, centers on the invention of the department store (based on the historical store Bon Marché in Paris). The owner Mouret -- a scoundrel and womanizer -- is also a creative genius, gathering together all the different trades under one roof, creating "departments" and then using price incentives, advertising, and spectacular displays (worthy of Alexander McQueen) to draw women from all the classes ("democratizing luxury") into the store to shop in a sensual frenzy. The novel lingers on some of the most sensual and textural imagery -- with sumptuous passages -- which can be read here in my previous post.
I love the novel -- and so you can imagine my utter astonishment when I discovered this bit of family connection to Bon Marché -- which could have easily, easily been one of the narrative threads of Zola's novel! This was written in a memoir by my great-great uncle, the Rev. Francois Marie Menager, S. J. in the summer of 1964 about his grandfather Alcindor Parfait Le Provost, the father of his mother Henriette Provost.
"Grandpere Provost came from a wealthy family of Normandy. Most of his male relative were lawyers or teachers. His parents had eleven children and Mme Le Provost was provided for as his father was a successful lawyer and notary. His father was very generous to his friends and always ready to help them. He lent them quite a deal of money without being too careful about promissory notes. When he was about 50, he died suddenly. His widow and children found themselves practically ruined. All the debts were paid by the valiant widow, but the little money that was left was hardly enough to support the family. Then, the oldest of the children, my grandfather (Alcindor) Le Provost who was then about twenty years old, decided to go to Paris to make his fortune. He was bent on pulling his mother, brothers, and sisters out of their misery.
"When he got to Paris, he took a humble job as a clerk at the famous and original Bon Marché, a very successful store of general merchandise and of clothing. Grandpere Le Provost got interested in different sorts of cloth fabric. He studied and experimented a great deal for two to three years until one day he brought out a special cloth of his own invention calling it "English Broad Cloth." I believe that through the help of some of the kind officials of the Bon Marche, his cloth was brought to the attention of the public and it became a great success. Within a few years, he became a millionaire. He generously provided for his mother and his brothers and sisters. Through clever speculation he managed not only to keep his money but also increased his fortune substantially. He was a keen business man, making excellent deals and became one of the most successful Capitalists in Paris. When about 27 years of age, he married Mlle Menard -- one of the loveliest women in Paris. Their marriage was blessed with four children: two boys, Edouard and Ernest and two girls, Marie and Henriette."
How perfectly wonderful, and what serendipity it is to learn, that after spending three days steeped in discussing Zola's novel -- everything from the style of writing, to its ideas on commerce, money, business, luxury, the cloth industry, the rise and fall of fortunes, speculation, and the opportunity in a world that had not previously seen such -- to acquire wealth through hard work and entrepreneurial verve. Cool.