Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2011

Cousin Bette, by Honoré de Balzac

 I really like this bookcover that Penguin have chosen for Cousin Bette (a.k.a. Cousin Betty) because it’s perfect for the resentful Poor Relations theme of the story.

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

Availability:
Project Gutenberg (free) Cousin Betty
ManyBooks.net (free) Cousin Betty


Responses

  1. You capture the essence of the book very well.
    You probably liked it better than I did.

    • Hi Emma, thanks for dropping by. I like this story for what it reveals about the way women had to create space for themselves at that time. Some years ago an Australian author called Anne Summers wrote a book called Damned Whores and God’s Police, which cystalised this idea that women had to choose between being one or the other, or else had the choice foisted oin them.

      • In France, there’s a feminist movement aimed at defending the rights of women in poor suburbs. It is named : Ni Putes, ni soumises, literally Neither Whores nor Submissive. It fights (among other things and especially for a right to be respected as a person) for the right not to wear the hijab and to wear mini-skirts without being assaulted. It’s terrible to think that such a movement is still needed.

        • Yes, there was a similar movement here calling themselves ‘sluts’. Women my age fought for the right to wear whatever we liked without being assaulted or insulted, we thought we had that battle won many years ago…
          BTW I have just started reading Wandering Star by France’s Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clezio. I don’t think the translation is brilliant but the story is gripping. I wonder where I will be able to buy books like this now that Amazon has bought the Book Depository??

      • Hi Lisa, I meet you at the Miles Franklin Literary Awards. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Australian book industry and why readers are buying their books online.

  2. Hi Lisa.

    There was every point in you writing a review! I was fascinated by the way in which you take the unpalatable treatment of women and turn it into a virtue of sorts, by means of historical context. Those kind of literary… paradoxes?… make rewarding mental exercises.

    I haven’t read any Balzac but it’s only a matter of getting around to it. This sounds like a good place to start?

    • Hello Sarah, thank you for your kind remakrs:)
      I think I’d suggest Pere Goriot first. It has a sort of King Lear plot and IMO is a masterpiece.


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