Friday, November 18, 2016

Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

Love, money, and revenge
Cousin Bette, published in 1846, is one of Honoré de Balzac’s lengthiest and most substantial works. In addition to being included in Balzac’s large collection of writings known as the Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette is paired in a literary diptych with the author’s 1847 novel Cousin Pons, under the heading of Poor Relations. Though both Cousin novels deal with the less fortunate relatives of wealthy families, the stories are unrelated and share no common characters (except perhaps for some cameo appearances in the supporting cast). Of the two, Cousin Bette is a vastly superior book to Cousin Pons. In fact, Cousin Bette may be Balzac’s greatest work, vying for that title with such excellent books as Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, and Eugénie Grandet.

The ensemble cast is large and the plot is quite complicated. The web of relationships between the myriad characters isn’t quite as byzantine as The Count of Monte Cristo, but close. Lisbeth “Bette” Fischer has always envied and resented her wealthier, more attractive cousin Adeline. The two grew up together, and Adeline was always treated like a princess while Bette was regarded as little more than a servant. Now in their forties, Bette is a spinster and embroidery entrepreneur while Adeline is a beautiful baroness. Bette is always welcome for dinner in the Hulot house, and she keeps her ill feelings well hidden. However, when a young man that Bette has had her eye on is stolen by Adeline’s lovely daughter Hortense, Bette resolves to have her revenge on the family that has always looked down upon her. Meanwhile Adeline’s husband, the Baron Hulot, has set his sights on a new mistress, Valérie Marneffe, a married woman whose husband is happy to act as her pimp if it brings him profit. Bette befriends Valérie, and together the two scheme to bring the Hulot family to misery and ruin.

For a man who wrote many cynical books, Cousin Bette may be his most cynical. Everyone is out for money, depravity and corruption are commonplace, and love is just another commodity to be traded. Balzac discusses sexuality with surprising openness, particularly when compared to the puritanical and prudish American literature of the same time period. Valérie is a lot like Emile Zola’s strumpet heroine Nana, but a lot smarter. She juggles multiple lovers, pitting them against one another as competitive bidders for her affection, sucking them dry of funds. Zola clearly read Cousin Bette before writing Nana, and the book may in fact have been an important influence on Zola’s development of literary naturalism.

All this vindictive backstabbing may sound depressing, but it’s not. It’s actually a whole lot of fun. As in Wuthering Heights, the reader derives pleasure from this dysfunctional family’s misfortunes. Balzac strikes the perfect balance of lighthearted naughtiness and serious moral melodrama throughout. Amidst all the sin and degradation, there are nonetheless glimmers of righteousness and hope in humanity. Adeline, for example, demonstrates saintly devotion to her husband, despite his selfish waywardness. There are some truly memorable moments of pathos and poignancy interspersed amid all the ribald humor. The book makes some valid points about how money has eroded spiritual dignity and tainted the purity of love and family, yet Balzac never succumbs to preachiness. Despite its length and complexity, Cousin Bette is so enjoyable it feels like a breezy read, at least by 19th century standards. It is the perfectly satisfying product of a master novelist operating at the top of his game.
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