Lucinda Elliot

Review of Balazac’s ‘Cousin Bette’.

I enjoyed Balzac’s ‘Pére Goriot’ overall, despite – maybe because of – the melodramatic scenes. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which dealt with the villain Vautrin, and the sordid lodging Parisian house where he is in hiding.

I expected to enjoy ‘Cousin Bette’, too, especially as it is considered to be one of Balzac’s masterpieces.

Sadly, I was to some extent disappointed.

Nevertheless, as reviews in fairness ought to emphasize the positive along with the negative aspects of a novel, I would like to stress that I did find it an intriguing and original piece of writing, and well worth reading.

In its depiction of Baron Hulot, it is certainly as dismal a depiction of an aging man addicted to lechery as you are likely to meet with. Whenever he appears to be cured – even by the advancing years – he relapses.

There are some fascinating character portrayals in it. For instance, Wenceslas, the Polish Count Steinbok, the talented sculptor who is only able to be creative when he is living a miserable existence under the tyranny of Cousin Bette. Then there is Hortense, his wife, who seems at first merely a romantic and heedless young girl, but who on learning of his unfaithfulness with Madame Marneffe, refuses to live with him on the grounds that she might commit murder. Particularly interesting is Cousin Bette herself, who is a strangely strong and pitiless woman.

I learnt a lot about the Parisian society of this era. This novel was written in 1846, only two years before revolution broke out throughout Europe. Certainly, there is something odd and transitory about the security of the society it evokes – a bit like Chekov’s Russia.

I found it highly instructive regarding the role of women in the patriarchal world in which they lived, the consumerism, decadence, hypocrisy, etc.

I also learnt a lot about the city’s physical structure. For instance, in this era there was an impoverished, muddy quarter really near the Louvre (unimaginable today). There is a vivid depiction of the sordid conditions in which the Marneffes live in their rented rooms before Valérie is able to amass a fortune by selling herself.

By contrast, the sort of luxurious buildings occupied by supremely successful courtesans – and later, Valérie herself –are vividly described. It is for such patrons that Wenceslas will be designing his works of art.

The plot is certainly a melancholy one: it involves the ruinous career of Baron Hulot, a former army officer and war hero under Napoleon, who is married to the lovely Adeline, who is wholly virtuous and self-sacrificing, almost a caricature of a devoted wife.

The baroness is perhaps lucky, in that at nearly fifty, her golden hair has no silver in it (mine started getting silver threads in my late thirties): this despite the outrageously neglectful treatment of her chronically unfaithful husband. She is however, extremely unlucky in having her self-sacrificing temperament exploited by this monsterously selfish man.

I think even Samuel Richardson would say that Adeline takes what was then seen as ‘wifely obedience’ too far, and that is saying something (In the boring sequel to Pamela, when Pamela mistakely thinks that Mr B has fallen for another woman, she suggests that they live apart and she retains custody of the child). To me, Baroness Hulot is not a credible character: in her worship of her husband, whatever his faults of character, and in her lack of resentment against him, she is frankly unbelievable.
She is, I think, depicted as takeing wifely devotion too far – partly, I suppose, because such indulgence encourages her husband’s weaknesses.

They have a son, Victorin, now married to the successful merchant Crevel’s daughter, and a young daughter Hortense. Due to Baron Hulot’s squandering his fortune on such courtesans as Josépha and Jenny Cadine, there have been problems with her dowry.

Cousin Bette, who is a few years younger than Baroness Hulot, lives with the family. She is jealous of her cousin, who originally came from the same peasant background as herself, but who has always been spoilt and indulged compared to herself. She has always been treated as a poor relative and general dogsbody. She has rejected proposals by nondescript suitors who are clearly only interested in her because of her relationship with the Hulot family.

One day, she saves the young, handsome, unsuccessful Polish sculptor, Count Wenceslas Steinbok, from killing himself through despair, and nurses him back to health. She becomes obsessed with him and devotes her life to encouraging him to find success. She lends him money, and forces him to live a frugal, isolated life while he develops his talent. Though her feelings for him are partly romantic, she realises that she is too old for him, and is described as loving him too well to marry him, but not well enough to let him go.

Hortense teases Bette about this admirer she claims to have. She doesn’t quite believe in him, but when she meets him, she and Steinbok fall in love. She has few scruples about stealing Bette’s supposed admirer from her, pointing out the age difference.

Hortense and Steinbok marry as Steinbok begins to become successful. Bette, devastated, swears a merciless revenge on the whole family.

The story is more or less about her revenge, but to me, there is a piece of dues ex machina in the plot working in Bette’s favour.

Normally, the only revenge that Bette could take would be to have Steinbok arrested for debt – which she does at one point, though for various reasons he is later released. However, living in the shabby rooming house is a very pretty woman called Valérie Marneffe, married to a clerk in the war office eager for promotion, whom she despises and who has seemingly ‘ruined his health’ through his excesses. She has already taken up work as a courtesan. Bette sees how useful this woman could be to her in ruining the Hulot family. This is the dues ex machina which is just too conventient for Bette’s plan for revenge.

During a frank discussion together, Valérie Marneffe admits to being infatuated with Steinbok herself. Bette encourages her to take Baron Hulot as a lover – he soon becomes obsessed by her – and also the fat merchant Creval, Victorin’s father-in-law – whom she enslaves likewise. Then a Brazilian count who is likewise obsessed with her returns from some voyage of discovery.

When she takes Steinbok – who since parting company with Cousin Bette has failed to produce much in the way of sculpture – as a lover, his wife Hortense is so outraged that she moves back in with her parents. Steinbok is soon obsessed with Madame Marneffe as well.

Valérie Marneffe is able, in fact, somehow to manipulate all four of her lovers – the three counts and one merchant –meanwhile swearing eternal devotion to each – so that they do not suspect her duplicity. Each falls sentimentally inm love with her and  believes he is her one true love.

No doubt Balzac is quite realistic in depicting many men as motivated by vanity in their relations with women – but there is something preposterous in the reader being asked to believe that a courtesan could enslave and dupe quite so many victims at the same time.

In fact, Balzac seems to be rather obsessed with Madame Marneffe himself, in that he loses sight of her original character – that of a pretty woman disgusted with her husband and her sordid comparative poverty – in depicting her as a siren devoid of all human feelings and with endless powers of enchantment.

While Wenceslas Steinbok is depicted as being indolent and vain, to me it is still rather improbable that he would make no effort to reconcile with Hortense when she leaves him, taking their son, merely because of his infatuation with Valérie Marneffe. To me, it makes more sense that such a weak character would vacillate between the two women.

Then again, the Brazilian Count Montés and his blinkered belief in his beloved Madame Marneffe’s (comparative) virtue seems to be wholly ridiculous. It is only after three years, when Monsieur Marneffe is finally dead and scheming to marry Crevel, that another courtesan arranges for Valérie to be surprised with Steinbok.  

The scene of this confrontation is so ambiguously depicted that it is unclear if the Brazilian count is taken in by his mistress’ lies, as she swears eternal love for him in front of her other lover, or merely pretends to be. What is particularly odd, and surely wholly unrealistic, is that the Polish one says nothing at all while this confrontation takes place. 

After this, we are told that he starts to despise Valérie, and the way is paved for his reconciliation with Hortense, who at last forgives him. It seems as if Balzac was hardly interested in portraying this, which is reported at second hand.

Cousin Bette, of course, is outraged, and this disappointment that she was unable permanently to ruin Hortenses’ happiness is one of the factors which leads to her final illness and death. Again, the confrontation between the disappointed Cousin Bette and Valérie Marneffe is only sketchily depicted. She is put off, and then  her accomplice is show to be dying, poisoned by Count Montés.

Of course, the dread term ‘character development’ was not held as a whip over the head of mid nineteenth century authors on either side of the channel. The writers of this age seem often to leave out scenes important for the emotional impact of a novel, while depicting other, less necessary ones, in detail.  

Generally, I increasingly felt that this novel should have been called ‘Valérie Marneffe’ rather than ‘Cousin Bette’.  Too much of the middle of the novel is devoted to her, her lies and manipulations; in fact, she virtually takes it over.  As I said above, Bette’s revenge would have been impossible without the co-incidence that she happens to be living in the same house, is totally unscrupuluous, has a complacement husband, suddenly seems to transform into a siren, etc, besides the convenient fact that every single one of Madame Marneffe’s lovers, however jaundiced or debauched, fallsin love with her and schemes to marry her when her husband duly dies of his excesses.

Balzac also, of course, must have been hampered by the censorship of his age about what could and could not be written about sexual relations with courtesans, even  in ‘French novels’ regarded as so scandalous and improper in the Victorian UK.

There is also the fact that any work must suffer from being a translation.

Overall, then, despite the potentially fascinating characters in this story, there were problems with balance in the structure. I would have to re-read ‘Pére Goriot’ to see if that too, suffered from similar drawbacks which I only vaguely noted at the time. I will no doubt read some more by Balzac in the future, but not for a while.