Reviewed in the United States on January 2, 2018
‘Cousin Bette’, published in 1846, is generally regarded as Honore de Balzac’s last major novel, even though he died four years later. It is one of his longest and the writing of it strained even Balzac’s relentless work schedule, as it was the first of his novels to be serialized and, therefore, delivered to the publishers piecemeal. In many respects it seems to crystallize many of his recurrent themes: pursuit of money and the gratification of sexual passion as two of the predominant appetites of most humans; the role of one’s physical environment in determining one’s behavior.
The titular character is a poor relation of the Hulot family. Lisbeth (or ‘Bette’) Fischer is the homely, less privileged cousin of Adeline Hulot. Adeline was always the beautiful cousin, more apt to land an affluent husband, while Bette has become an old maid, primarily by choice.
“Lisbeth Fischer had the sort of strangeness in her ideas which is often noticeable in characters that have developed late, in savages, who think much and speak little. Her peasant’s wit had acquired a good deal of Parisian asperity from hearing the talk of workshops and mixing with workmen and workwomen. She…would have liked to be the protectress of a weak man; but as a result of living in the capital, the capital had altered her superficially. Parisian polish became rust on this coarsely tempered soul. Gifted with a cunning which had become unfathomable, as it always does in those whose celibacy is genuine, with the originality and sharpness with which she clothed her ideas, in any other position she would have been formidable. Full of spite, she was capable of bringing discord into the most united family.”
Adeline’s husband, Baron Hector Hulot is a War Department official who would indeed be affluent if he had been able to prevent his sensual appetites from ruling his reason. He borrows, spends, borrows more, spends more, and has wrangled Adeline’s uncle into embezzling funds from an outpost in Algiers. Most of the money is spent on one of his many mistresses.
Hulot has fallen into a rivalry with the perfumer, Celestin Crevel. Hulot’s son is married to Crevel’s daughter and they were once friends before passion for the same woman drove a wedge between them. Crevel feels that Hulot has stolen one mistress from him and, at the start of the novel, in an attempt to ‘even the score’ visits saintly Adeline with the offer of a large sum of money if in return she will become his mistress. Adeline is aghast and spurns him immediately.
Meanwhile, Bette has taken a young Polish sculptor, Wenceslas Steinbock, under her wing. He lives in an upstairs apartment in her building and she nurtures him and prods him into being productive. This is easier said than done as Wenceslas would much rather talk about his art than actually put in the disciplined, consistent effort of creating it. Bette has indulged in idle chatter with Adeline and her daughter Hortense about her string of suitors, indicating that there is one in her life presently. Although there is nothing sexual between Bette and Wenceslas (it is more of a mother/son relationship), she is insulted and injured when she sees Hortense make the acquaintance of Wenceslas and become romantically involved with him. When she hears of their impending engagement she vows revenge on the entire family.
Although Bette is a skillful schemer, her campaign is aided by the fact that Hulot and Crevel are both lecherous old fools that have never lost the habits of their youthful lusts and continue to act like they are much younger men. Continuing their habit of fixating on the same feminine object of desire they both make the acquaintance of Madame Valerie Marneffe, the wife of a junior clerk (although as old as Hulot) in Hulot’s office who is angling for a promotion after another officer’s impending retirement. Valerie is the latest in a long line of temptresses for Hulot and Crevel. She uses her beauty and her seductive wiles to ensnare multiple males simultaneously. The multiple males grow to include not only her husband, Hulot, Crevel, and Wenceslas, but a hot blooded Brazilian count named Montes de Montejanos.
Bette and Valerie develop a mutual affection and Bette tells Valerie about her family and the wrong she feels has been done to her. They then become partners in crime or in Balzac’s words, “Lisbeth planned, Madame Marneffe acted. Madame Marneffe was the axe, Lisbeth was the hand that wielded it.”
Bette becomes the trusted confidant of all of the Hulots and even becomes the housekeeper and, eventually fiancée of Hector’s older brother, the Marshall, an elderly government official. Being so centrally positioned, she can play all sides against one another.
As part of Balzac’s massive, multi-volume ‘Human Comedy’, many of the characters have appeared in earlier novels, often at earlier points in their lives. Crevel talks of being the foreman to Cesar Birotteau, who had an earlier novel named after him. The old Marshall participated in episodes that appeared in one of Balzac’s earliest novels, ‘The Chouans’. There is quite a bit of discussion of money and how much things cost, matters of loans and interest, how homes and apartments are decorated, what people are wearing. In this earlier age, not only was Balzac self-consciously taking an anthropologist’s approach toward his characters and their habitats but he was describing these characters and their environments in visual detail that in the 20th century and beyond would be presented through the immediacy of motion picture photography.
Although Balzac and Dickens were contemporaries, I am not sure to what extent they were aware of each other’s work. Each writer is a product of his native culture. Balzac is not constrained by the modes of Victorian taste and propriety that Dickens is. He is not hesitant to call a prostitute a prostitute or even a polished, respectable married woman such as Valerie Marneffe a high-class prostitute. Being the scientist, Balzac remains somewhat detached from his characters. Even when depicting saintly characters such as Adeline Hulot, her eternally forgiving nature is not presented as an indisputable virtue. Perhaps if she had been less forgiving, Hulot would have respected her a bit more or at least found her more interesting and desirable. She is happy to stay on the elevated, immaculate pedestal that he keeps placing her on.
Necessary spoiler alert: Bette’s revenge works too well while looping back on itself into impotence. Yes, she does wreak havoc in many people’s lives, but ‘all’s well that ends well’ with the Hulots, despite extreme setback, pain, struggle, and decrepitude.
“She kept the secret of her hatred even through a painful death from pulmonary consumption. And, indeed, she had the supreme satisfaction of seeing Adeline, Hortense, Hulot, Victorin, Steinbock, Celestine, and their children standing in tears round her bed and mourning for her as the angel of the family.”
Indeed, Bette’s is an invisible revenge and her revenge illustrates one of Balzac’s primary characteristics: irony. For Balzac depicts characters whose plans usually backfire and whose appetites turn sour. One of the important precepts to keep in mind when reading Balzac is to expect the unexpected. Humans, as much as they might hate to admit it, are extremely predictable which means, in the world of Balzac, that their actions will almost always render unpredictable results.