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La Cousine Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

April 6, 2011 20 comments

La Cousine Bette by Balzac. Translated into English by James Warin (Cousin Betty)

La Cousine Bette is included in La Comédie Humaine, in the section Scènes de la vie parisienne. It was first published as a roman-feuilleton in a newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. I read the kindle version from Gutenberg Project. The book is divided in 132 chapters, each chapter having a specific title. It appears that not all editions have this chapter subdivision and it may be a good thing for the modern reader as it breaks the flow.

La Cousine Bette is the story of an implacable vengeance fomented by Lisbeth Fischer, the poor relative of the extended Hulot family. Lisbeth and Adeline Fischer are cousins, and both women come from a remote village of Lorraine, in the Vosges. Lisbeth is ugly while Adeline is beyond lovely. Here’s Balzac’s idea of an ugly woman:

Paysanne des Vosges, dans toute l’extension du mot, maigre, brune, les cheveux d’un noir luisant, les sourcils épais et réunis par un bouquet, les bras longs et forts, les pieds épais, quelques verrues dans sa face longue et simiesque, tel est le portrait concis de cette vierge. A native of the Vosges, a peasant in the fullest sense of the word, lean, brown, with shining black hair and thick eyebrows joining in a tuft, with long, strong arms, thick feet, and some moles on her narrow simian face–such is a brief description of the elderly virgin.

The peasant family wants to make the best money out of their two assets:

La famille, qui vivait en commun, avait immolé la fille vulgaire à la jolie fille, le fruit âpre à la fleur éclatante. Lisbeth travaillait à la terre, quand sa cousine était dorlotée. The family, living all under one roof, had sacrificed the common- looking girl to the beauty, the bitter fruit to the splendid flower. Lisbeth worked in the fields, while her cousin was indulged

Lisbeth has more value in the fields or later as a worker than on the marriage market and Adeline’s value lays in her beauty as she can expect a rich marriage, which is what happens when she meets Hulot. The injustice of the situation plants in Lisbeth an entrenched hatred towards her spoiled and beautiful cousin. In her eyes, Adeline has everything: beauty, money and family.

At the beginning of the book, Adeline is married to Le Baron Hulot and has two children, Hortense and Victorin. Her son is married to Célestine, M. Crevel’s daughter. Lisbeth, nicknamed Bette, lives in Paris in a poor neighbourhood and weekly visits her cousin Adeline. Lisbeth’s hatred is under good check until she reveals to her cousin Hortense that she has a secret lover. Indeed, she has a secret relationship with a Polish immigrant named Wenceslas, but it isn’t a love affair. He’s a handsome, poor and unknown artist. She supports him financially, encourages him in his work and loves him. He’s younger than her but her love is half-motherly, half-tender. When the beautiful Hortense steals Wencelas from her and marries him, Bette’s hatred is set on fire. She decides to avenge herself on Adeline and her family.

Meanwhile, we learn more about the Baron Hulot, who became rich during the Empire and now works for the War Office. He was handsome and took advantage of it. He is a pathological womanizer and as coquettish as a courtesan. Crevel, Victorin’s father-in-law and Hulot have known each other for a long time as they have been companions in debauchery. When Hulot steals the courtesan Josepha from him, Crevel wants to avenge himself by seducing Adeline. The virtuous Adeline resists and Crevel needs to find a new way out to his fierce resentment.

The tool will be Valérie Marneffe.

She’s a bourgeois, living poorly in the same filthy building as Lisbeth. She’s beautiful and knows how to make the better of it. Her husband gives her free rein and she’s absolutely decided to bet on her charms to enrich but without being a courtesan.

Lisbeth and Valérie befriend and share their secret. Lisbeth wants the financial and social death of Hulot to reach Adeline. Valérie wants to find a rich lover. They realize they can achieve their respective goal if Hulot fall madly in love with Valérie and if she withdraw from him as much money as possible. In the meantime, Valérie also resolves to seduce Crevel, whose rivalry with Hulot is known and who has even more money. Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be completed until Valérie has also Wenceslas at her feet and thus ruins Hortense’s happiness.

Lisbeth has a one track mind and is an accomplished actress. She has an incredible talent to disguise her feelings and deceive her relatives, who rely blindly on her to protect their interests while she’s the one who sets in motion the machine that will ruin and dishonour them. She looks like a dull and devoted spinster when she’s consumed by hatred.

Hulot is a perfect imbecile, totally led by passion. He’s not very strong-willed and is solely driven by his libido. He needs to make himself attractive to women. I loved the description of the ageing Hulot with dyed hair wearing a corset to look younger. He looks so ridiculous.

Crevel is a more interesting character, as he’s a womanizer but he keeps some control over himself and doesn’t make reckless decisions about money. He’s more a libertine than passionate. He’s also interested in climbing the social ladder and leans on Valérie’s knowledge of worldly manners to improve. He’s a former shopkeeper and he doesn’t speak very well.

Wenceslas is weak too, easily turned away from art to flirt in Valérie’s salon. He could have been a great artist but lacked the perseverance.

Victorin is the most interesting man. Lacking of personality at the beginning, he improves as the novel progresses. He’s actually utterly honest and good and behaves gentlemanly. He’s the most reliable man in the family. His marriage with Célestine happens to be a good match.

The women are charming and deceitful (Valérie), ugly and evil (Lisbeth), good but not without pride (Hortense) or generous to imbecility (Adeline). All correspond to a stereotype of women. I read on Wikipedia that Lisbeth and Valérie have a lesbian relationship, I hadn’t noticed it but thinking about it, it’s quite right. (There were also lesbians in La Fille aux Yeux d’Or). All in all, the courtesan Josepha looks less evil than Valérie. At least she doesn’t hide that she lives on sex when Valérie plays the virtuous bourgeoise. (I wonder if Valérie inspired Nana. I don’t remember Nana well enough, I read it such a long time ago.)

Among all the events, descriptions and thoughts left by Balzac in this dense novel, I want point out specific elements that stayed with me.  

There is a great emphasis on the Lorraine origins of Lisbeth, especially at the beginning of the book. Coming from there, I can’t imagine why such dark features could be representative of a Lorraine girl, especially before the immigration waves from Southern Europe. Lisbeth Fischer is a German name, and her nickname Bette is German too. Though Balzac doesn’t mention it, she must have had a strong German accent, as French must have been a learnt language for a Lorraine peasant of that time. Dialects were eradicated in France in the 20thC through zealous school teachers who forbid pupils to speak in dialects at school. But at that time, in that region, she probably spoke a German dialect. Balzac enforces the origin from this country by using “la Bette” when referring to her. This locution has two impacts: it’s a regionalism, people in Lorraine use “la/le” (the) before first names, like authorized in German but grammatically wrong in French. It’s less frequent now but it still exists. It’s also a way to show the animal nature of Lisbeth, because “la bette” sounds like “la bête” which means “the beast”. In addition, as Lorraine was ruled by a Polish prince, Stanislas Leszczyński in the 18thC, it is quite ironic to put Lisbeth’s heart in the power of a Polish immigrant. I don’t know if Balzac did it on purpose or if the Polish character was fashionable at the time, as it also appears in La Fausse Maîtresse.

I was hugely interested in the picture of Paris during the Restauration. I was amused to read that the neighbourhood in which Lisbeth and Valérie first live and meet, near Le Louvre was a place of ill repute. Now, it’s one of the neatest places of the capital. I also enjoyed the descriptions of pre-Haussmanian Paris. Political references were fascinating too such as the place of heroes of the Napoleonic wars in the society, the war to conquer Algeria, the construction of a new civilian society based on the remains of the Ancien Régime and the Révolution. There would also be a lot to say about religion and how Catholic faith was at work to gain the masses after the Revolution.

I wondered if Hulot could be medically considered as suffering from hyper-sexuality. It’s the medical term for abnormal sexual needs. He is quite an addict and would need a therapy. I can’t compare him to Don Juan, he’s not excited by the thrill of the chase. He’s more what we call in colloquial French a “chaud lapin” (a “randy devil” according to the dictionary).

I was also really fascinated by the means people use to get cash money. I was puzzled by the financial instruments and the pledge of pensions and future income. Balzac speaks naturally of all this, I can only think it was very common. At a moment, Crevel says:

Pour avoir deux cent mille francs d’argent vivant, il faut vendre environ sept mille francs de rente trois pour cent.

To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs’ worth of stock at three per cent.

I was intrigued by this. I wondered how many later payments of 7000 francs were needed to get 200 000 francs in hard cash with a 3% interest rate. An Excel spreadsheet later – you can’t shut up the accountant for a long time, *sigh*– I could tell that 66 periods were needed. Obviously, these periods weren’t years and could only be months. That leaves us with a monthly 3% interest rate, roughly equivalent to 36% a year. Ruinous, especially with an inflation rate inferior to 5%.

I really enjoyed Balzac’s wits. He’s an example of sharp French eloquence. For pure pleasure, here are excerpts:

Et, en effet, à quarante-sept ans passés, la baronne pouvait être préférée à sa fille par les amateurs de couchers de soleil And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty.
Elle saisit son adorateur dans une de ces stupéfactions où les oreilles tintent si bien, qu’on n’entend rien que le glas du désastre. [She] came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement–in the stupid amazement when a man’s ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
Mme Crevel, femme assez laide, très vulgaire et sotte, morte à temps, n’avait pas donné d’autres plaisirs à son mari que ceux de la paternité. Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young.

The first quote sounds better in French, I’m afraid as it’s more elliptic and I don’t know why the “glas du désastre” wasn’t translated by “the knell of disaster”, I suppose that “fatal knell” sounds more English.  

There has been two moments for me with this novel. The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to the how: how Bette takes revenge on her relatives and how Le Baron Hulot carries away the whole family in his fall. I thought this part particularly theatrical and melodramatic. I could see a stage, with doors slamming from people entering and going out. I could imagine the settings changing between each chapter according to the house in which the scene took place. The vocabulary and Balzac’s constant references to Molière didn’t help me disregard this impression, but this will be developed in another post. I expected something like Eugénie Grandet or La Femme de 30 ans and not theatre in prose. I almost stopped reading it. I persevered because it was Balzac and because this book came highly recommended. I enjoyed the last third of the book better. The impression of theatre dispelled. I didn’t read the last chapters but heard them in an audio version. (I was in one of those cooking week-ends and wanted to know the ending, so I opted for the audio version. Cousin Bette’s revenge must have broken through into my life as it has been the worst cake of my history as a cook.)

Though I can tell it’s a great novel, I didn’t love it. It sure deserves to be read. Theatre filtering through the novel really bothered me. That may have been avoided with a paper edition without the short chapters sounding like scenes in a play. In addition, I found the characters too simple, lacking of subtlety. Bette is all vengeance. Adeline is all saintly acceptance, virtue and resignation. The old opposition between a devilish ugly brunette vs angelic beautiful blonde, vice against virtue annoyed me as life isn’t so simple. I prefer books where the nasty have redeeming qualities and the good have flaws because life isn’t black and white, or brunette and blonde, I should say. I loved the ending though, so typically French that it made me smile.

For another review, read Lisa’s from ANZ LitLovers.

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