Balzac’s brilliant commentary on the newly born French republic and the struggle for power underneath Napoleon as the old order was guillotined and enterprise had free reign is a marvellous expose of a society in flux. Opening with subtle alacrity the novo homo Monsieur Crevel pays a visit to his son-in-law’s mother, the aristocratic Baroness Hulot d’Ervy to explain that his reason (as a tied member of their family now through her son) behind his hindrance of supplying the Baroness’ daughter, Hortense, with financial surety is due to two reasons: The first due to the vast debts his son-in-law has run up which he must cover, the second, in an delightfully narrated scene of wickedly humorous selfishness, because the Baroness’ husband (his libertine comrade-in-arms) has `stolen’ away Monsieur Crevel’s mistress, the now infamous singer, Josepha.
Monsieur Crevel insists that he must have the Baroness himself to avenge himself on her husband and, if she agrees, he will act as financial surety for her daughter Hortense. So, in true Balzac style, in the space of a few pages, we have a marvellously huge dilemma for the cuckolded Baroness for whom, within this society, social standing is everything. It is this sense of stolen love, echoing Moliere whom Balzac constantly refers to, that permeates the novel of revenge that is Cousin Bette.
What unfolds is a perfidy to subtle and over such a long period of time that its eventual terrible denouement is a tragic tale of requited love, treacherous money motivated mistresses and selflessly loving wives.
Cousin Bette has saved from suicide one Wencelas Steinbock, a Polish refugee, and has secreted him away in her tiny home for a few months financially caring for him whilst he begins to exercise his professed enormous artistic talent. Eventually she leaks her secret to her niece, Hortense who promptly falls in love with Wencelas and steals him away to marry her. In the interim, Josepha spurns Baron Hulot, who promptly turns his attentions to Madame Marneffe who lives next door to Cousin Bette. It is with Madame Marneffe that Cousin Bette finds the terrible instrument of he revenge as she inserts her into the Hulot social circle, Baron Hulot taking up with her and his lavish spending on his innocent mistress driving then entire family to penury. Madame Marneffe then comes to an agreement with Crevel to become his mistress thus stealing her from Baron Hulot and gaining his revenge on Hulot’s stealing of Josepha. In the meantime the bewitching Marneffe secures herself more and more money from the slavering old men whilst carrying on with her returned Brazilian lover. Cousin Bette then gets Wencelas to obtain a loan from Madame Marneffe, knowing full well that he would fall in love with her causing Hortense’s misery (and her mother’s) to be absolute. By midpoint of the novel the plot is well in motion, the Hulot family is torn apart through husbands betrayals, their money is gone, wasted on a treacherous mistress who holds them all her thrall. A better siren there could not be all the time controlled by the wicked Cousin Bette.
Having reached the pinnacle of her revenge the tables begin to turn with further disgrace on Baron Hulot’s part as he is founding guilty of defrauding the government in Algiers of two hundred thousand francs. His uncle and brother commit suicide and he is forced to hide in Paris (with Josepha’s help). His brother’s death, the Marshal, to whom Cousin Bette has secured a marriage – and hence an income – to means she begins to be revealed as a `sword of Damocles’ over the Hulot family. Victorin Hulot, the son, commences to rebuild the family fortunes. Determined to restore the family fortune, Victorin sanctions the downfall of Madame Marneffe and her new husband, Crevel, through the enigmatic Madame Nourrison firstly through revealing her relationship with Crevel to Baron Montes whose rage knows no bounds, then lastly through a debilitating disease that claims the life of the Mayor and his lover. As Cousin Bette watches her evil machinations fall apart with the death of her instrument of despair and then with Victorin restoring the family fortunes and the prodigal father’s return she eventually dies, though not without some minor satisfaction at their mourning of her passing.
This is probably Balzac’s most accomplished novel, a story of jealousy and envy spiraling into bitterness and a perfidious desire. Cousin Bette invents multiple reasons to hate her Hulot family and unerring hits the week points of their personalities in an attempt to ruin them and thence be seen as their saviour. The insatiably wandering eye of Baron Hulot, the vainglorious ineptitude of Wencelas, coupled with their wives who seek to retain the family dignity bring this once proud family to their knees until the son realizes that by simply revealing the truths behind the lies will break apart Cousin Bette’s tenuous web of despair and set them on the road to happiness again. Halfway through there is a pointed aside as Balzac gives his definition of what creates a great artist – namely hard work and fires a single shot across this reviewer by aptly pointing out that those who cannot themselves achieve greatness in their art end up being a critic of those who can. Still…this is one Balzac novel that is well worth the time.
Categories: Honore De Balzac