by Honoré de Balzac
In Paris, when a woman has made up her mind to use her beauty as her livelihood and merchandise, it does not necessarily follow that she will make her fortune.
- Balzac, Cousin Bette, p 155
Cousin Bette by French author Honoré de Balzac is set in mid-19th century Paris, telling the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots the destruction of her extended family. Bette works with Valérie Marneffe, an unhappily married young lady, to seduce and torment a series of men. One of these is Baron Hector Hulot, husband to Bette's cousin Adeline. He sacrifices his family's fortune and good name to please Valérie, who leaves him for a tradesman named Crevel. The book is part of the Scènes de la vie parisienne section of Balzac's novel sequence La Comédie humaine ("The Human Comedy"). Writing quickly and with intense focus, Balzac produced La Cousine Bette, one of his longest novels, in two months. It was published in Le Constitutionnel at the end of 1846, then collected with a companion work, Le Cousin Pons, the following year. The novel's characters represent polarities of contrasting morality. The vengeful Bette and disingenuous Valérie stand on one side, with the merciful Adeline and her patient daughter Hortense on the other. The patriarch of the Hulot family, meanwhile, is consumed by his own sexual desire. Hortense's husband, the Polish exile Wenceslas Steinbock, represents artistic genius, though he succumbs to uncertainty and lack of motivation.
La Cousine Bette is considered Balzac's last great work. His trademark use of realist detail combines with a panorama of characters returning from earlier novels. While I do not admire it as much as some critics, it has been compared to works by Shakespeare and Tolstoy. It is considered both a turning point in the author's career and a prototypical naturalist text. The novel explores themes of vice and virtue, as well as the influence of money on French society. Bette's relationship with Valérie is also seen as an important exploration of homoerotic themes. I would compare it with Dickens although it lacks his humor and overall seems more bitter. The best of Dickens, by contrast, usually focuses more on a positive character.
Cousin Bette: Part One of Poor Relations by Honore de Balzac. Penguin Classics, New York. 1965 (1846).
View all my reviews
View all my reviews