I really don’t think there’s much point in me writing a review of Cousin Bette. It’s Balzac’s most famous work and there are already plenty of reader reviews at GoodReads and what’s on Wikipedia pretty much says it all anyway.
The most notable thing for me was that yet again Balzac has drawn attention to how degraded the position of women was in this period. He didn’t much like women anyway (he had issues with his mother) and his characterisation is nearly always negative, one way or another. But whether he meant to be so churlish or not, by the time you’ve read a few of the stories in La Comedie Humaine, you realise that Balzac’s females can be little other than they are because of the society they live in and the compromised roles that limited what women could do.
In a nutshell, Cousin Bette traces the story of a woman who fails to make an advantageous marriage and takes out her resentment at being a poor relation on her wealthy relatives in a spectacular way. (Such intricate plots and plans! Such patience in enacting them! The woman should have been in politics!!) Her conspirator, Valerie, is a wily soulmate who has married unwisely and hopes for better things. As always in Balzac’s stories, money and the want of it is the root of all evil.
Cousin Bette is a spiteful, vengeful old exemplar of vice but her character was moulded by the way she was despised for being a spinster. Not married, she was scorned as worthless and an object of fun. By contrast, pretty little Valerie has a superfluity of men who are after her, including the aging libertine Baron Hulot but she is a manipulative, selfish and very greedy woman who just uses men and their money to get what she wants. She has dispensed with morality for much the same reason as Balzac’s corrupt bankers and merchants, it’s just that the only currency she has at her disposal is her looks, and the vanity of men. In this turbulent period of French history, the smart people looked out for themselves, adapting to whichever form of government was in place at the time and taking advantage of any opportunities to restore or make fortunes, legitimate or not. But for women, such opportunities were few.
As Delilah in triumph over Samson, Valerie might think she exemplifies ‘the power of woman’ when she models for the artist Wenceslas, (one of her lovers and the husband of Hortense Hulot). But in reality she only has the power to seduce foolish men and play them off against each other to marry the wealthiest among them. In the end her greed makes her vulnerable and she definitely doesn’t get a happy-ever-after ending. (You have to read the story to discover her melodramatic comeuppance, it’s one of Balzac’s best!)
In contrast, the Baroness Adeline Hulot is a saintly innocent-on-a-pedestal, resigned to her wretched husband’s affairs even when the money he’s wasted on his mistresses bankrupts the family and worse. To modern eyes she is too good to be true, and also unbelievably stupid for allowing herself to be treated like a doormat. ‘I am your possession’, she says to Hulot – and the hackles of a modern woman rise against an author who writes such exasperating rubbish. But Balzac was writing in the 19th century about a society that he felt had lost its way, and he was chafing against the loss of traditional values after the Revolution. In this context Adeline represents a noble refusal to adapt to the morally bankrupt values of her society. She is a bulwark against shallowness, corruption and vice. (On the other hand, Balzac also seems to have had a fantasy about Perfect Women: compliant, endlessly forgiving, pining away with broken hearts and always willing to sacrifice anything for love).
In La Comedie Humaine, women could sometimes exercise power by having beauty, brains and money but that power was always circumscribed by their subservient role. Good women were wives and mothers; and the leftover females on the fringes of society could expect no respect, no financial security and no genuine friendships either.
By the way, if you’re interested in Balzac, do visit the La Comedie Humaine blog - there’s a wonderful team of people summarising the stories and it’s becoming a very useful resource.
© Lisa Hill
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Title: La Cousine Bette, translated as Cousin Bette or Cousin Betty
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Source: Personal copy on the Kindle, downloaded from ManyBooks.net