“Bette is a wronged soul; and when her passion does break, it is, as Balzac says, sublime and terrifying,” wrote V. S. Pritchett. A late masterpiece in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette is the story of a Vosges peasant who rebels against her scornful upper-class relatives, skillfully turning their selfish obsessions against them. The novel exemplifies what Henry James described as Balzac’s “huge, all-compassing, all-desiring, all-devouring love of reality.”
About the Author
Kathleen Raine, the renowned British translator, poet, critic, and editor, was recently awarded the distinguished title of Comman-deur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Francine Prose’s most recent novel, Blue Angel, was a 2000 National Book Award finalist. A contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, she writes for many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Read an Excerpt
Toward the middle of the month of July, in the year 1838, one of those vehicles called milords that had lately made their appearance in Paris drove along the Rue de l’Université, carrying a heavily built man of middle height in the uniform of a captain of the National Guard.
Among Parisians, of whose intelligence we hear so much, there are some who think themselves infinitely better men in uniform than in their ordinary clothes, and who imagine that the taste of women is so depraved that they will be favorably impressed—so they fancy—by the sight of a busby and military trappings.
The features of this captain of the second company expressed a self-satisfaction that gave a positive radiance to his ruddy complexion and his rather chubby face. This halo, bestowed upon the brows of retired tradesmen by money made in business, marked him out as one of the elect of Paris—an ex–deputy mayor of his district at least. And, needless to say, the ribbon of the Legion of Honor adorned his chest, which was dashingly padded out in the Prussian style.
Proudly ensconced in the corner of the milord, this decorated gentleman allowed his attention to stray over the passers-by—who, in Paris, often in this way come in for pleasant smiles meant for beautiful eyes that are not present.
The milord stopped in the part of the road between the Rue de Bellechasse and the Rue de Bourgogne, at the door of a large house that had recently been built on part of the court of an old mansion standing in its own garden. The mansion had been preserved, and remained in its original condition at the end of the court, whose size had been reduced by half.
The way in which the captain accepted the help of the driver as he got down from the milord was enough in itself to betray a man in his fifties. There are certain movements whose manifest heaviness is as indiscreet as a birth certificate.
The captain drew his yellow glove on to his right hand again, and without consulting the concierge, made his way toward the flight of steps leading to the ground floor of the mansion, with an air that meant “She is mine!”
Paris porters take things in at a glance; they never stop decorated gentlemen of heavy gait who wear blue uniforms. In other words, they recognize money when they see it.
This whole ground floor was occupied by the Baron Hulot d’Ervy, Commissary-General under the Republic, late officer-in-charge of the Army Commissariat, and now head of one of the principal departments of the War Ministry, Councilor of State, a senior officer of the Legion of Honor, and so on and so forth.
Baron Hulot had himself taken the name of d’Ervy, his birthplace, in order to distinguish himself from his brother, the celebrated General Hulot, colonel of the grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, created Count de Forzheim by the Emperor after the campaign of 1809.
The elder brother, the Count, to whose charge the younger brother had been committed, had, with paternal prudence, placed him in military administration, in which, thanks to the services of both brothers, the Baron had won, and indeed deserved, the favor of Napoleon. From the year 1807 Baron Hulot had been Commissary General of the armies in Spain.
After ringing, the bourgeois captain made desperate efforts to straighten his coat, which had wrinkled up both in front and behind—the result of a prominent corporation. Admitted on sight by a manservant in uniform, this important and imposing man followed the maid, who announced, as she opened the door of the drawing room, “Monsieur Crevel!”
On hearing this name, so admirably suited to the figure of its bearer, a tall, fair, well-preserved woman rose as if she had received an electric shock.
“Hortense, my angel, go into the garden with your cousin Bette,” she said quietly to her daughter, who was working at her embroidery a little distance away.
After making a gracious bow to the captain, Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot went out by a French window, taking with her a dried-up spinster who looked older than the Baroness, although she was five years younger.
“It is about your marriage,” Cousin Bette whispered in the ear of her young cousin Hortense, without seeming to be in the least offended by the way in which the Baroness had sent them away, treating her as of almost no consequence.
This cousin’s style of dress would, if need be, have accounted for this lack of ceremony.
The old maid was dressed in a maroon-colored merino dress, whose cut and trimmings suggested the Restoration,an embroidered collar worth about three francs, and a stitched straw hat with blue satin bows edged with straw, of the kind worn by old-clothes women in the market. At the sight of her kid slippers, whose style suggested a fourth-rate shoe shop, a stranger would have hesitated before greeting Cousin Bette as a relation of the family, for she looked just like a daily sewing woman. Nevertheless, the old maid gave a little friendly nod to Monsieur Crevel as she went out, a greeting to which that personage replied with a look of mutual understanding.
Reading Group Guide
by Honoré de Balzac
In Balzac's La Comedie Humaine we see the beginnings of history treated as a serious novelistic subject, a subject that would dominate much of 19th-century literature and find masterful expression in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Knowledge of historical context is crucial to an understanding of Balzac's thematic concerns as an artist, as well as to a basic understanding of his characters' motives and fortunes. The Napoleonic Wars, Restoration, and 1830 Revolution, all events experienced by the young Balzac, were defining moments in the nation's history and were readily invoked by intellectuals to explain the circumstances, national or domestic, of Balzac's time.
After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, France restored the Bourbon regime under Louis XVIII and Charles X. The Restoration had managed to absorb the republican changes of the Revolution and Napoleon, but, when in 1829, King Charles X revoked the charter which guaranteed a free press among other things, the people, led by the middle class, staged a successful revolution. Charles abdicated, and, under the new King Louis-Philippe a constitutional monarchy was established which had to answer to the Chamber of Deputies, an institution equivalent to the British House of Commons. Composed mainly of wealthy middle class entrepreneurs, the Chamber of Deputies moved rapidly to divide the large family estates that dominated the nation's feudal past and to base France's economy on the principles of finance. This was the political and economic system under which Balzac labored as an artist, and one in which he saw the seeds of destruction for the glories of Napoleonic and dynastic France.
Much of this history can be deduced from the details of Cousin Bette, and we can gather Balzac's attitude about these historical changes in the novel's nostalgic and apprehensive tone. Balzac, whose father was a supplier to Napoleon's army, laments the Empire's military defeat, but, more significantly, he mourns what he felt to be the loss of the noble values of its past. He believed France had become a nation of shopkeepers upholding the morality of self-interest and survival. The heroic past is remembered in as a period of conjugal, social, and professional harmony. Baroness Adeline Hulot recalls that her husband's infidelities began with the dissolution of the empire; and her daughter Hortense is said to be the product of "true love." Throughout the novel, the narrator, along with Hulot and other personages of the old guard, lament the changing times, the loss of the great hereditary estates, and, with them, the proper patrons of art. "Every-thing bears the stamp of personal interest," in a nation where the men are judged by the shrewdness of their speech not the bravery of their deeds; they are but "walking coffins containing the Frenchmen of former France." At the novel's conclusion, Dr. Bianchon offers diagnoses not only of the ailing Baroness and Bette, but of the state itself. "Lack of religion and the encroachment of everything of finance" is to blame for all the social evils. "Noble disinterestedness, and talent, and service to the state, were thought worthy of esteem; but nowadays the law makes money the measure of everything."
While Cousin Bette is an astute, and, at times, propagandistic, analysis of French social history, the novel is also a compelling portrayal of human, ahistorical passions, particularly of desire and vengeance. Hulot is the consummate slave to Eros, responsible for all the woe his family and comrades endure. Humiliated professionally and socially, he persists like some abstract figure of desire, taking on pseudonyms (all anagrams of his real name), attaching himself to one then another teenage mistress in ever more squalid corners of the city, reduced to nothing but his desire. Hulot is certainly repulsive as a human being, but there is something magnificent about his undeviating devotion to a single passion: sexual passion untarnished and undeterred by sentiment, by social life, by anything outside itself. In Bette, Balzac has added another masterful portrait to his gallery of human souls tyrannized by singular passions. Lisbeth Fischer, whose physical and moral ugliness is the antithesis to the saintly grace and beauty of her cousin Adeline, concentrates all her talents and energies onto the secret vengeance of the Hulot family. As she succeeds with her intricate machinations, the discrepancy between her humble status (despite her kinship to the Hulot family, she is referred to, like a servant, by her nickname "Bette") and the actual power she wields becomes almost grotesque. While there is something formulaic about this character driven by revenge, Balzac spends ample time on the causes of her hatred and jealousy; and in discussing her childhood, he anticipates Freud's theories on early trauma and unresolved emotions, and the manifestation of these traumas as adult neuroses.
Despite Balzac's overt aims of discrediting the administration of King Louis-Philippe and the Chamber of Deputies in favor of a centralized monarchy and reinvigorated national church, Cousin Bette, in its series of well-drawn portraits, never fails to honor the infinite complexity of the human soul regardless of historical context. Balzac's fidelity to the truth of his own manifold experience of life, fortunately, prevents him from furnishing simple political solutions to the crises of his time, and enables him to write with the moral courage and earnestness found only in his century's finest works of literature.
ABOUT HONORÉ DE BALZAC
Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 at Tours, to Bernard-Francois Balzac, a servant, and Anne-Charlotte Sallambier. Put out to nurse at the age of four and later sent to boarding school, he had little contact with home. In 1814 the family moved to Paris, where Honoré continued his boarding-school education for two years, and then studied law at the Sorbonne. Balzac became a Bachelor of Law in 1819 but decided to begin a writing career, choosing to remain in Paris with the meager financial contributions of his family. The complete failure of his first literary effort, the play Cromwell, did not deter but redirected his artistic ambitions toward fiction. During the 1820s Balzac wrote various novels, both under different pen names and in collaboration; spent time in journalism; and tried to make money in printing and publishing ventures, whose lack of success laid the foundation for debts that plagued him for the rest of his life.
In 1829 Balzac published his first novel under his own name, Le Dernier Chouan (later Les Chouans), which was to become the first of those novels to be incorporated in his magnus opus, La Comedie Humaine. With the critical acclaim of Les Chouans and his collection of six stories called Scenes de la Vie Privee in 1830, Balzac entered the fashionable world of literary Paris, responding to it by adding the honorific "de" to his family name and adopting a luxurious life-style. Over the next twenty years Balzac remained a fixture of the Parisian social world, writing plays and articles and more than ninety novels and stories. In 1842 many of these were published in seventeen volumes as La Comedie Humaine, a monumental work containing more than 2000 characters, which forms the most comprehensive and brilliant social history of post Napoleonic France. Important works were still to come following the European revolutions of 1848, but after the publication of the magnificent paired novels Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons in 1847, Balzac's health and creative talents quickly deteriorated.
In 1832, in his extensive fan-mail, Balzac received a letter from a Polish countess, whose elderly husband owned a vast estate in the Ukraine. The next year he met Countess Hanska in Switzerland, and in 1835 the couple agreed to marry after her husband's death. For seventeen years, with intermissions, they conducted a voluminous correspondence, until their marriage finally took place in March 1850. Balzac died three months later in Paris.
- Some critics have claimed that Baroness Hulot's patient response to her husband's infidelities is a flat portrayal of the ideal wife, and have charged Balzac with an implicit endorsement of her passive, selfless stance. Given the circumstances of the novel, do you think her course of action, or inaction, is repugnant and totally inappropriate; and do you think that Balzac is approving or critical of her behavior?
- Though Balzac had very ambivalent feelings about Napoleon, he is partly responsible for the creation of the Napoleonic myth. Do you think Balzac presents the members of the imperial army, particularly Baron Hulst, Marshal Hulot, and Uncle Johann Fischer, as the embodiment of noble values standing honorably against the changing times, or are they faulted for inflexibility and for idealizing a past founded on aggression and tyranny?
- At the very center of the novel when Balzac philosophizes on art, he concludes that "constant labor is the law of art as well as the law of life." Cousin Bette obviously provides many negative examples of this proverbial statement, but are there any positive cases in which this applies?
- When Balzac narrates the changing artistic and romantic fortunes of Count Wenceslas Steinbock, he implies that Bette's relationship with the sculptor was important, even indispensable to his early success. How does this episode, and the professional failures Steinbock encounters after leaving Bette, problematize our interpretation of her?
- Although Balzac poignantly shows how the older generation is morally destroyed by the market economy of Post Napoleonic France, is Cousin Bette a convincing demonstration that the rule of money is inherently incompatible with the rule of morality?
- Baron Hulot's son Victorin, who is clearly meant to represent the new bureaucracy, is vital to the survival of the Hulot family. What, if anything, does Balzac value in Victorin and his generation?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the rare books that I've read with a good plot that kept me guessing. To be a soap opera, it had many good life lessons. I highly recommend.
This book is one good classi that everyone should admire. Not to say Read!
there was a slight problem with the e-book. Some sentences were missing from the bottom of one page to the top of the next and caused some little bit of confusion at some points in the story.
I thought I would like this book more than I did; kind of tedious and boring, unlike his other works
*SPOILERS* I am surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I now wish I had read it (like I was supposed to) in History 103 or whatever it was. I guess I was just too busy reading the 1300 page course book we were assigned. :P For the whole book, I had been rooting for Cousin Bette. Her reasons might have seemed petty for some but the Hulot deserved ever speck of her vengeance. He was a dirty old man. I was disappointed that of all those she had focused her energy for revenge on, only one truly received the results of years of hard work. In the end, I felt for Madame Marneffe. I quickly got over the virtuous Madame Hulot. The Hulot women and Crevel’s daughter seemed weak. Cousin Bette and Madame Marneffe were clever, though Marneffe shallow. The young Hulot was the redeemer of the family. And Hulot, the dirty old man, deserved so much worse. Honore de Balzac was racist, weirdly sexist (changed from feminist to douche once or twice), but extremely observant of the human condition, particularly of Paris in the early 1800s. He also seemed to have a deep respect for the arts but little for the artists. He also seemed to sometimes respect the tenacity of peasants while as once condemning them in disdain.
I have to go into the store and buy a copy of this book. The nook edition is atrocious, so many misspellings I couldn't get through the first chapter. This was very disappointing.
Boring book. Also hard to read when you have to decipher all the typos.