The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.
Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:
It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….
You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!
The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.
While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.
The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”
Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”
Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.