BBC Radio 4, 25 September - 2 October 2010
A cross-class love story about a love-affair between a wealthy store-owner Mouret (Lee Williams) and shopgirl Denise (Georgia King), The Ladies Delight refers to a department store catering to the passions of nineteenth century Parisian bourgeois females. In Mouret's view the store should offer a fantasy, encouraging customers to buy while experiencing the pleasures of a dream-world. This spirit pervades Mouret's love-affair; he believes, quite wrongly, that because he has money he can buy Denise's love. However she resists all his blandishments - not because of his morality, but because she actually loves him.
The story is a Madame Bovaryesque tale, but this time it ends happily, as Denise declares her love for Mouret, and the two resolve to get married in spite of the opprobrium from their peers, gossip from citizens around them, and the potential social consequences of a cross-class alliance. The story is a wish-fulfilment fantasy, yet in Stefan Escreet's production this was offset by a strong sense of social realism: the experience of loss felt by small shopkeepers unable to compete with the behemoth that is the Ladies Delight; Denise's experience of starvation, allied to her desire to keep up appearances; and the sheer weight of hate stirred up amongst the bourgeois classes when Denise becomes Mouret's lover. The production created a highly stratified world in which everyone is expected to know their place and observe certain behavioural standards.
However the production contained a fundamental contradiction: Denise and Mouret's love-affair actually challenges the social distinctions, implying that anything is possible, so long as individuals remain true to themselves. Despite the criticisms around them, the two lovers eventually discover their own sense of morality. Zola offers some hope for the future, if this sense of morality can be sustained - even if, in Denise's case, that morality is influenced less by her own feelings than by her concern for Mouret's welfare.