Poor Relations: Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac

Les Parents pauvres: Le Cousin Pons
Poor Relations: Cousin Pons


It is October 1844, and a sixty-year old man in respectable but threadbare and extremely out of fashion clothes is hurrying down the Boulevard des Italiens in Paris. He has a pleasant look on his face and is in a good humor. The man is, shall we say, ugly, but not so that anyone would laugh at him. But too ugly to gain the love of a woman, alas. People give him odd smiles as he passes as they see his 1806 clothing and his pleasant demeanor. One of his most outrageous articles of clothing is a spencer, a short coat which has been out of fashion for many years. “It was as if Napoleon himself had vouchsafed to come to life again for a couple of hours.” And, as the reader has guessed by now, we learn that this is…Cousin Pons, full name Sylvain Pons. He gives the appearance of a gentlemen by birth fallen onto hard times. He is a musician and songwriter and back in his youth was a popular composer. As fashions pass, so has he, and he now makes his living as a conductor of an orchestra in a small theatre and as a music teacher in several ladies’ boarding-schools.

In his youth M. Pons traveled at government expense to Rome for musical education, and it was there he acquired a taste for antiques and works of art. He’s spent a lifetime of rooting out treasures for little money -, real treasures of impeccable taste that are or will soon be valuable. He is a man of knowledge and taste who finds the pleasure of collecting (never giving over 100 francs for any purchase) even greater than those of his talented musicianship. He is poor but wouldn’t think of selling his treasures and spends all he can get on his collection, which has grown to museum quality. He recognizes the true artistry of his works but really is unaware of their commercial value as he doesn’t go to the shops of well-known dealers. “Pons’ museum was for his own delight at every hour; for the soul created to know and feel all the beauty of a masterpiece has this in common with the lover – today’s joy is as great as the joy of yesterday; possession never palls; and a masterpiece, happily, never grows old.”

But Pons has a weakness: he is a glutton. That is, he acquired a taste for fine food in his days of fame, and he expects and simply must have fine dining every day. “…he grew accustomed to see his hosts taking pains over the dinner, procuring the first and best of everything, bringing out their choicest vintages, seeing carefully to the desert…” However, Pons is no longer a drawing room regular and must nevertheless feed his educated stomach. It is a tyranny that has such a hold of him that Pons will do anything to gain entry night after night where gastronomic delights are available. He’s been in a downward spiral of dining opportunities for well over 10 years, and now he is reduced to becoming a pseudo-family hanger-on. His circle doesn’t understand his worth, doesn’t value his music or his collections, and they use him as an object of derision. It is a big price, but Pons has made the decision to pay it to support his gastronomic addiction.

In 1835, nine years before the start of our narrative, Pons finds himself a friend, a life partner of sorts. His name is Schmucke, a German pianist. Schmucke has a similar musical background and values as Pons, and they become fast friends and eventually move in to rooms together in order to spend more time together and to stretch their financial resources. Schmucke too is talented but lacking in the aggressiveness needed to claw his way to the top. Schmucke is good-hearted and simple. “In this city of Paris he lived as a nightingale lives among the thickets; and for twenty years he sang on, mateless, till he met with a second self in Pons.” When he learned of Pons gastronomic addiction he went out of his way to find delicacies he could ill-afford for the breakfast table and encouraged Pons to give up his miserable social life for a simpler dinner fare. Their landlady Mme Cibot takes complete care of Schmucke’s housekeeping and meals, and she is an excellent cook and a bit of a mother hen. But Pons holds out and continues to exchange social misery for fine dining in the evenings.

Pons and Schmucke now work together at a theatre of Gaudissart, sponsored by the house of Popinot, which has a distant connection with Pons. They work for modest wages and expanding roles of musicianship and composition. Pons conducts, composes upon occasion and Schmucke transposes and is a copyist. They begin to collaborate as Schmucke is strong on harmony and Pons is not. Schmucke begins also playing a variety of instruments. Though not paid what they are worth, they are esteemed and fulfilled by their work and are happy. Except for the problem of Pons’ gluttony.

Now we pause to construct Pons’ ‘family tree’, important for understanding the story. At present Pons’ gastronomic social life is centered on what he calls ‘the family’, and yet it is quite a stretch to call them his family as there is only a single cousin relationship to this extended group. He was the cousin of a Mlle Pons, a daughter of owners of the Pons Brothers. She married M. Camusot, a silk merchant and member of the Board of Trade. They had a son, M. Camusot de Marville, who is thus Pons’ second cousin. M. Camusot de Marville while not really very talented has worked his way up to the president of a chamber court of appeal (one of the divisions of the Court Royal of Paris). He married the daughter of Sieur Thirion, a king’s usher, and they have a daughter Cecile, age 23 and as yet unmarried. Pons’ Cousin Mme Camusot nee Pons has died, so M. Camusot de Marville is Pons’ only relative in ‘the family’. M. Camusot has remarried to a Mlle Cardot, and they have a son. Mme Camusot nee Cardot has a brother M. Cardot, a retired notary and a mayor, and he married a Mlle Chiffreville of a chemist family. Their daughter is married to the current notary M. Berthier. The Chiffrevilles are associated with M. Popinot, the head of a prominent wholesale drug trade and peer of France, and he has a marriageable son. There is a circle of influence of Camusots, Cardots, Chiffrevilles, Berthiers, and Popinots which Pons uses as his dinner ticket as a poor relation and a cousin of a cousin – though he’s related to almost none of them.

On this fine day Pons is on the way to the house of Mme Camusot de Marville, where he should be received well as a true cousin. But he isn’t – Mme Camusot de Marville is a bit of a snob worried about her unattractive and unmarried daughter Cecile, whom Pons has failed in teaching the piano. The maid to Mme Camusot de Marville, Madeleine Vivet, undermines Pons’ presence in the house – it seems she wanted to marry Pons and he snubbed her. The household is not particularly happy – although M Camusot de Marville has a good income, money is still tight as he’s living as befits his position and not saving. Plus there’s the problem of getting Cecil married: Popinot’s son isn’t interested in marrying Cecile and other possible arrangements have fallen through.

The household is used to treating Pons with flagrant disrespect, and today is no exception. Pons carries a recent treasure, an exquisite cherry-wood box, as a rare and beautiful gift to Mme Camusot de Marville. He’s very excited about his find and proud to present it, perhaps having an idea that it is compensation for all the fine dining. However, Cecile and Mme Camusot de Marville know nothing of art and disparage both the gift and Pons – even making fun of him in his hearing and making up a story so they won’t have to dine with him.

Pons leaves in embarrassment, shame, and disappointment. He probably sees this as the end of fine dining in ‘the family’. He swears to himself that he will not go anywhere unless he is explicitly asked. He goes home to Schmucke, who comforts him and proposes they have Mme Cibot cook their dinners from this time forward with Schmucke funding added fine foods.

Mme Cibot jumps at the chance to earn a little more money from her ‘gentlemen’, often referred to as ‘the nutcrackers’. She even hopes to be remembered in their wills as she and her husband have not been wise in saving their fairly substantial earnings. Pons agrees, they dine well and repair to the theatre for their work.

Pons and Schmucke dine together nightly for several months. Schmucke is elated to have his friend’s company, but Pons cannot throw off the desire to dine finely in company. He misses the elegance and the surprise delicacies. While Mme Cibot is an excellent cook, there are no gastronomical surprises. He dreams of certain white sauces, truffled chickens, and of the famous Rhine carp. He also has fewer funds for his art purchases since he has to fund his own dinners. “The conductor of the orchestra, living on memories of past dinners, grew visibly leaner; he was pining away, a victim to gastric nostalgia.” His condition is noted by the orchestra flutist, Wilhelm Schwab. Wilhelm speaks to Schmucke with concern of Pons’ condition and asks the two men to his wedding.

Pons and Schmucke thus become acquainted with Wilhelm’s friend Fritz Brunner, a German with a checkered past. Left money by his mother’s untimely death, he was unpopular with his young stepmother, who was a spoiled only child. She persecuted Wilhelm and encouraged him to lead a life of dissipation in hopes that he would die young. Fritz spent his last penny in a dissolute life, but instead his stepmother ironically died young herself. His father wouldn’t take him in, his friends were friends no more, and somehow he was expelled from the city. He walked on foot to Strasbourg to see his friend Wilhelm, who took him in and shared the 100,000 francs he had just inherited after the death of his parents. The two proceeded to spend down that fortune too, and when down to their last thousand francs they traveled to Paris, got modest rooms in the property of Graff, who was Fritz’ father’s head waiter. Graff helped set them up with clerical jobs earning about 600 francs a year. Eventually Wilhelm took on work with Pons’ orchestra to supplement his income, and Fritz worked his way up in the bank business from 600 to 2,000 francs. Through experience they discovered the value of money and vowed if they ever regained wealth they would not squander it.

Wealth soon came their way as Fritz’ father died and left four million francs, money made mostly in railways as an original shareholder. Fritz bestowed five times the amount squandered on Wilhelm, which enables him to marry and go into the banking business with the Graffs (his finance is a Graff daughter) and Wilhelm.

Soon after meeting Wilhelm’s friends, Pons encounters Count Popinot, who asks him why he has been absent from the family households for the past few months. Pons confesses the insult he received at the Camusot de Marville house. The Count relates the story to his wife, who subsequently relates it to M. Camusot de Marville. M. Camusot de Marville is outraged at this treatment of his cousin without his knowledge and forces his wife, his daughter, and the servants to make amends to Pons. The servants simper and grovel, the maid Madeline even promising to make him her heir in her will. Pons graciously accepts their apology; and, being the good-hearted man he is, wants to do the family a good service. In his naivety Pons does not realize that the has caused Mme Camusot de Marville to be put in the wrong for the first time in her life and in front of her husband, whom she usually controls.

To this end of doing a good deed for the family Pons thinks of a making a match between the now wealthy banker Fritz Brunner and Cecile de Marville. He proposes such to M. Berthier, who tells him that it has been difficult to make a match for Cecile as her parents are determined to provide her only the interest on 100,000 francs up front. Cecile would eventually inherit Marville and other assets, but her parents are young and thus this inheritance might likely take 20 or 30 years to come about. It doesn’t help that Cecile is a bit spoiled and not all that attractive. Fritz is agreeable in principle to the match, and the family is ecstatic at the prospect of acquiring a rich banker for their aging daughter. Pons hopes this good work will cause the family to “lie under immense obligations to their parasite.”

The marriage looks promising as the couple meet for the first time at Pons’ art collection, where Wilhelm surprises the family with his estimate of the value of Pons’ collection. M. Berthier begins negotiating contract conditions, and the family cannot resist bragging about their upcoming catch for Cecile. Mme Camusot declares that Fritz is madly in love with Cecile, whom he has seen only once. At a subsequent dinner of important relatives everyone waits for M Brunner to formerly make an offer for Cecile. Pons gets into the spirit of the occasion by declaring that Cecile will be his heir.

But M Brunner balks when he learns that Cecile is an only daughter. He remembers how his young stepmother was an only daughter and how she changed from a charming betrothed woman to a tyrant after marriage. He is unwilling to risk it.

The Camusots are stunned. Quick action must follow to preserve the family reputation and save Cecile’s future. Mme Camusot de Marville quickly devises a strategy of blaming Pons – surely the whole Fritz Brunner proposal was Pons’ revenge on the family! She declares that Fritz is undoubtedly a fraud, even Wilhelm’s claim that Pons’ art is worth a considerable fortune is part of the fraud. All turn on Pons and he flees to his bed. “To so childlike a nature, the recent scene took the proportions of a catastrophe. He had meant to make everyone happy and he had aroused a terrible slumbering feeling of hate.”

The next day the Camusot de Marville family contracts a marriage with the Popinot son by promising the entire Marville estate and the family home to be delivered immediately upon the marriage of Cecile, all together worth over 1,150,000 francs. Popinot will also have the use of the de Marville appellation. It is such a great fortune that it cannot be refused, and Cecile has made a match. The family comes together to smear Fritz and Pons to protect the family name, saying that Fritz does not have the money he said he did, his banking investments are unstable, he is ugly and has bad teeth – and worst of all, he has shopkeeper relatives – a wine shop owner father and a seller of rabbit skins uncle. No family member can back Pons and save face for the family.

After a month Pons rises from his bed and walks with Schmucke on the boulevard, where he meets first M. Popinot and then M. Camusot, who will not talk to him or listen to his explanations. Even his old friend Mme Felicie Berthier, who has some empathy because of scandal in her own past, tearfully tells Pons he is no more of the family. Pons will never take another walk.

Pons is prostrate with grief and illness after his rejection by the family. Dr. Pulain feels he may not pull through, though with careful nursing he might just make it. Mme Cibot worries out loud about how he will afford his illness, and iron dealer Remonencq informs her that Pons’ collection is worth a fortune. Remonencq knows this because he overheard Fritz Brunner’s comments on the value of the collection.

Remonencq is scheming how he might profit from this information and thus takes Mme Cibot into his confidence to the point where she turns to him for advice. Remonencq is crafty – he’s even taken the charity of Mme Cibot for himself and his sister (who runs his store) for years, having convinced her with his ragged clothes and minimal lifestyle that he is poor and owns nothing. But instead he’s accumulated 60,000 francs and his store and aspires to be an uptown art dealer.

After Dr. Pulain and Mme Cibot learn that Pons’ collection is valuable, things change. Mme Cibot declares she will give up everything including a savings of 2,000 francs to nurse Pons, and Dr. Pulain promises to call first thing every morning. Balzac comments that though Mme Cibot has been honest up to now, she has had ‘negative honesty’. That is, when a fortune appears before her eyes she cannot resist. This is sort of like a virtuous woman who has never attracted the attention of men – it’s not too hard to be virtuous without temptation. Mme Cibot did take care of Pons and Schmucke for years very well with only a minimal profit though.

Mme Cibot goes to her fortuneteller Mme Fontaine to find out if she will make her fortune through Pons. Mme Fontaine tells her she will, though in an unexpected fashion. However, in the end she will die repentant after she retires to the country with her second husband and is murdered by two escaped convicts for her money. Mme Cibot is frightened at the thought of the death of M. Cibot, whom she loves, but in the end ignores the ominous predictions and returns to her abode ready to do battle for part of Pons’ fortune. She continues to nurse Pons, who indeed is very weak and hasn’t had any solid food for two weeks. She prods him and Schmucke to make sure there aren’t any hidden offspring that might be heirs. The two men are so naïve and so innocent about women they don’t even know what she is talking about. Then Mme Cibot hints every way she knows how to be left something in Pons’ will, but Pons doesn’t seem to take the hint.

Mme Cibot, determined to make her fortune, calls on Remonencq and asks him to help her value Pons’ collection. Remonencq takes her to Elie Magus, a famous art dealer. He lives above an exquisite collection in poverty, caring nothing except for his art and the daughter who resides next to his gallery. And in fact M. Magus is very much like Pons, but he started on his quest for collecting 20 years after Pons and thus is missing a few treasure Pons owns. He’s enormously excited to be able to get in to view Pons’ collection, though he doesn’t show it to Remonencq and Mme Cibot. Mme Cibot lets them in the gallery while Pons is too sick to be in the gallery, and M. Magus is awe-struck at four rare and perfect works. He offers 40,000 francs for each work with a commission to Mme Cibot of 2,000 each if she can procure the sale. Remonencq follows up offering her commissions on four other works. Pons discovers their presence, demands they leave, and collapses. Mme Cibot tells M. Magus she must have 4,000 francs per picture, and he agrees.

They leave, and Mme Cibot picks up the fainted Pons and returns him to bed and revives him. She threatens to quit nursing him when he comes to, and he is frightened into submission. Schmucke, who has been working extra to try to help pay for Pons’ illness, comes home exhausted only to hear about Pons’ fainting and the hardships of Mme Cibot.

Mme Cibot has declared she wrenched her back picking up Cousin Pons. She crawls downstairs, dramatically writhing and groaning so all the neighbors will hear. All the neighborhood hears of her devotion and her heroism, and Schmucke, poor dupe, tells Pons of her efforts on his behalf. They have become convinced they simply cannot make it without her care.

Mme Cibot sends for Dr. Poulain. Dr. Poulain lives with his windowed mother, who has sacrificed everything to further the career of her son. After many years of their struggle, he is finally making a living but he and his mother are still financially on the edge. He dreams of waiting on a rich and influential patient and as a result securing a post as head surgeon in an important hospital. He’s a decent doctor with experience and feels frustrated that he is poor while a doctor such as Horace Bianchon, who has no better skills, is wealthy. Dr. Poulain, seeing that Mme Cibot wants a dramatic illness and cure, ‘miraculously’ cures her and she resumes her nursing a week later. They both become local heroes, Mme Cibot for her sacrifice and Dr. Poulain for the miracle cure, complete with sham operation.

Mme Cibot pays some debts of Schmucke and Pons and gets a receipt for two thousand francs from Schmucke – she claims she has lent this much to the two men. Despite her care and the obvious gratefulness of the two men, she cannot quite maneuver Pons into writing her into his will. Mme Cibot goes to Dr. Poulain for advice on how to further her cause. She tells Dr. Poulain and his mother of her dutiful care of the two men Pons and Schmucke for the past 10 years, of how she’s drained herself financially, and throws in any other lies she can think of. She wants Poulain to help her get an annuity of a thousand francs. Any time Mme Cibot asks Pons about future financial help, she refers him to Schmucke, but she doesn’t trust Schmucke to help her.

Dr. Poulain at first refuses to get involved, saying he cannot receive a legacy from a patient, cannot speak to M. Pons of his possible death, etc. Mme Cibot hints that if Dr. Poulain will encourage Pons to get his arrangements in order she will share her future riches with him. She tries to hint blackmail because Dr. Poulain went along with her sham illness. “The doctor felt that the devil had him by a hair…and that the hair was being twisted round the pitiless red claw.” He wants something more definite. He refers Mme Cibot to his friend the lawyer Fraisier, another poor and down and out professional. Dr. Poulain with the aid of lawyer Fraisier wants to run some sort of sting on Pons that will result in their getting their dream appointments, his as the head surgeon of a hospital and Fraisier’s as justice of the peace of an arrondissement.

Fraisier advises Mme Cibot that she must get Pons’ collection appraised and that he will help negotiate her a cut in selling some choice objects to Remonencq and Magus. When he learns that Pons is related to President Camusot de Marville, he pays particular attention. He frightens Mme Cibot with the idea that Camusot might interfere with the inheritance and he or his especially vengeful wife might press trumped-up charges against Mme Cibot. Fraisier uses a combination of threats and persuasion to take control. He convinces her that Mme Camusot will fight her to the death, perhaps get her sent to jail or execution on false charges However, with his involvement he can procure a finder’s fee for her of 30,000 or so francs. Mme Cibot “had walked into his study as a fly walks into a spider’s web; there she was doomed to remained, entangled in the toils of the little lawyer who meant to feed upon her.”

Mme Cibot and Fraisier make a pact to include Dr. Poulain in their schemes. Mme Cibot is to encourage Pons to call Fraisier in, and in the meantime to keep Dr. Poulain close by Pons’ side. She returns home, tells Schmucke she’s pawning her silver to provide funds so Schmucke can quit work and help nurse Pons. They agree to split up nursing duties in shifts. Mme Cibot goes to the theatre to tell management that neither Pons nor Schmucke will be in and manages to extract 1,000 francs of sympathy funds from owner Gaudissart. Her work is done – she’s cut off means of income to the two men, leaving them without means of subsistence.

Mme Cibot then visits Remonencq, who covets some of the objects in the collection and is also interested in Mme Cibot – he could see that she’d make a fine wife and front-woman for his business, especially if she comes with a commission of 30,000 or so francs. Of course, she is married, but husbands often die. Mme Cibot tells Remonencq she thinks she can get Schmucke to sell a few pictures from Pons’ collection if Remonencq will not reveal where he got them – his heirs won’t know exactly how many pictures were in the collection. Of course, she is charging a hefty commission for her part in the transaction. She’s planning on a similar strategy with Magus, who also agrees to a commission. They also agree to evaluate the entire collection for Fraisier after their private sales.

Fraisier uses funds cobbled together by himself and Dr. Poulain to buy himself a decent suit. He wants to call on Mme Camusot de Marville in order to execute his part in the greedy swindle. The Camusots need money. They were forced to settle almost their whole fortune on their daughter’s marriage, and Mme Camusot wants fund to advance her husband to the Chamber of Deputies. Urgently she needs funds to buy some Marville property so that her husband can meet the land qualification for reelection since he no longer owns the family Marville property given to his daughter upon marriage.

Fraisier makes his proposal to help her gain the inheritance in return for securing Dr. Poulain and himself their desired positions. Mme Camusot at first thinks she has made a mistake in quarreling with Pons since he has such assets, but Fraisier coldly assures her she has done the right thing as otherwise Pons would live until a very old age. He has promised Mme Camusot a hefty inheritance without getting her own hands dirty by the combined work of Mme Cibot, Dr. Poulain, and himself worrying Pons into the grave and getting an inside hold on his assets. Fraisier secures his hold on Mme Camusot by implying that it is only the tormenting presence of Mme Cibot that is causing Pons to die – and he can have her withdrawn easily through the influence of Dr. Poulain.

Mme Cibot continues to nurse Pons and uses every opportunity to further his path to dying short of actually murdering him. She feeds him forbidden food, she tells him she’s handed in his notice of resignation at the theatre, and even describes his successor which she knows will particularly upset Pons. She takes Schmucke to court for funds she claims he owes so that he will be forced to sell some of Pons’ collection. It works, and Magus and Remonencq acquire eight of the best paintings for very little money. Mme Cibot gets a hefty commission of 68,000 francs from all these efforts. Meanwhile Remonencq begins dropping by M Cibot’s shop and slipping poison in his herbal drink to hasten his plan to marry Mme Cibot and her money. Frasier takes better quarters to provide the proper appearance to be nominated as justice of peace.

Magnus, Remonencq, and Fraisier come to complete an evaluation of the collection, but Pons catches them in the act. He recognizes Magus and begins yelling that he is betrayed. He kicks them out and collapses. Later Mme Cibot tries to persuade him that he had dreamed of the appraisers’ appearance, but he doesn’t buy it. He notices the pictures the men recently bought are gone from his collection, and he begins to see what is happening.

Pons fights to gain control so that his legacy to Schmucke can be protected. First, he uses Mme Cibot’s recommended notary to make a holographic will in which he leaves much of his collection to the State with an annuity of 200 francs a year to Mme Cibot and 2,400 francs a year to Schmucke. Then he sends for Heloise, a friend from the theatre, and asks her to find him a notary of integrity.

That night he asks Schmucke to hide out and watch Mme Cibot, who is caught in the act of returning the envelope of the will after showing it to Fraisier. Fraisier replaces the will with a blank paper when he sees that the will went against the interests of the Camusots, but he did not tell Mme Cibot of this. When Mme Cibot goes back to tell Fraisier she has been thrown out for stealing the will, he controls her for his future wishes through an implication she might be prosecuted for stealing the will.

Mme Cibot’s stealing the will proves to both Pons and Schmucke that Mme Cibot is their enemy. The next morning Pons makes a new will with the notary of integrity and leaves everything to Schmucke. The plotters don’t notice this as M Cibot is dying and there is a lot of commotion in the house. Schmucke doesn’t care very much about money; he would like to die with his beloved Pons.

When Pons kicked Mme Cibot from his room, she stole a small painting. Now she goes to Remonencq to figure out how to dispose of it. He tells her he can sell it for a lot of money shielded by his business, but she must promise to be his wife after M. Cibot dies. She won’t discuss it while M. Cibot is on his deathbed, but we can be assured she will marry him to protect her profit.

Frasier takes the appraisal of Pons’ collection to Mme Camusot, and they make final arrangements for securing the inheritance. Mme Camusot asks Frasier to purchase the desired Marville property for her because he can get it cheaper than if it is known she wants it.

Pons is near dying. The conspirators arrange for the beadle’s wife Mme Cantinet to wait on Pons and use Mme Sauvage, the housekeeper of Frasier, as her helper. The vultures are closing in. Mme Sauvage is to be rewarded with a tobacconist’s license for her role as watch-dog. Pons dies, and Schmucke is beside himself. He only wants to die and join his friend, and whenever he is left alone with Pons’ body, he holds it clasped in a close embrace.

Mme Cantinet and Mme Sauvage take over to prepare the body, buy food and basic furniture for the funeral and visitation, and get Schmucke some decent funeral clothes. Mme Sauvage finds the 1250 francs cash left from the sale of the pictures to Magus and Remonencq and uses that for expenses and more. Funeral merchants swarm around to bilk Schmucke, who is child-like and has no idea what is going on. Eventually they persuade him to call in their notary Tabareau, and thus the stealing of Pons’ inheritance to Schmucke is on schedule.

Pons’ funeral is the same time as Cibot’s funeral, but Pons is poorly attended as no one at the theatre has been told of his death. It’s hard to even find sufficient pallbearers. At the last minute, Topinard, a theatre friend of Pons to whom Pons always gave 5 francs each month for his family, arrives and is pressed into service as a pallbearer. He befriends Schmucke and senses those around Schmucke are about to swindle him. However, his watchful eye ceases when his theatre owner Gaudissart tells him to cease – Gaudissart has a connection to the Popinots and thus supports the swindle of Pons’ money by the conspirators in favor of the Camusots.

Officials arrive the next day to affix seals on the rooms of Pons and Schmucke thanks to the machinations of Fraisier on behalf of the Camusots. Schmucke leaves with nothing but the clothes on his back and asks Topinard to take him in his humble abode. Topinard does, and Schmucke is grateful to this poor family for their kindness to him. They can only give him a poor garret room, but Schmucke declares it to be fine as he only wants a place to die in. Schmucke goes to Gaudissart for funds to help the Topinard family and learns that Cibot took 1000 francs from Gaudissart supposedly for him. Gaudissart feels some sympathy for Schmucke, but then his own greed takes over and he decides to help the Camusots swindle him. He promises Schmucke some support for Topinard’s family, a promotion for Topinard to head cashier, and a small annuity for Schmucke if only he will settle the inheritance with the Camusots. Schmucke is so naïve he is satisfied. He signs the papers and doesn’t notice that in doing so he is admitting he improperly influenced Pons to leave his fortune to him.

Just after the formalities are complete, Topinard runs in and tells Schmucke about the suit for which he has just received the summons on Pons’ behalf: “Oh! My dear M. Schmucke, you have given away your wealth to inhuman wretches, to people who are trying to take away your good name.” Schmucke reads the document and at this last blow collapses. Ten days later after having been nursed by the Topinard family, Schmucke is dead. Topinard is the only mourner at his funeral.

Mostly the conspirators are rewarded. Fraisier is a justice of the peace and an intimate friend of the president’s family. Mme Camusot de Marville has her Marville land and her husband is in the Deputy of Chambers. She talks affectionately of her dear cousin who left his priceless collection to the family, who sold it intact to Count Popinot so that it would all stay together. Now Cecile by inheritance is the owner. Mme Cibot, kept in check by Fraisier with his discovery that she stole a priceless picture, marries Remonescq but refuses to move to the country for fear of the prediction of the fortuneteller. She manages a fine shop on the Boulevard de la Madeleine. She is a widow again because Remonencq accidentally drank a glass of vitriol he left about hoping his wife would drink it. It is suspected she rearranged it so it would be near him. “The rascal’s appropriate end vindicates Providence, as well as the chronicler of manners, who is sometimes accused of neglect on this head, perhaps because Providence has been so overworked by playwrights of late.” Indeed, it would seem to me that there is little justice in this story.


Read it here

Summary by Pamela, July 2011


4 comments on “Poor Relations: Cousin Pons by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    In looking back over our Balzac group’s reading of his complete works, I find that Cousin Pons may be my favorite character. He’s so naive, so sweet, so full of zest for his passions. Schmucke is even more saintly, of course, but Pons tugs at my heart strings. Pons offers his love to the world, which largely steps on it, but even with his untimely end he embraced life more fully than those who treated him so shabbily. It is too bad that Pons had the need to associate with that world, a fatal flaw that ended his life.

    I wish Balzac had considered writing the story in a manner which would have allowed Pons to survive and rise above the vultures. Good does happen occasionally, and it would have been easy enough to have the vultures trip over their own greed. What a story that would have been.

    I have often wondered if I would have liked Balzac the man, a person of many flaws and obsessions – not unlike Pons in many ways. Since I feel great affection for Pons, there is probably my answer.


    • Oh, if only Pons could have survived over the vultures. Love your description of his relatives. Another naive and tragic character that I loved is Abbe Birotteau (The Vicar of Tours).


  2. Charles Brown says:

    This book strikes me as if it were two inconsistent stories mashed together. In one Pons is a poor relation shabbily treated by his relatives ( Cousin Bette in reverse). In the other, Pons is a wealthy collector surrounded by con men hoping to profit by his illness and death. The two stories even have a separate set of characters, with only Pons and Schmucke being in both.

    Balzac tries to rationalize the poor/rich contradiction by saying that Pons doesn’t know the worth of his own collection — even though Magus, Fritz, and everybody else seem to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      I have a feeling that even if Pons did know the worth of his collection, he wouldn’t have wanted to part with any of the pieces. A true collector who valued his pieces for themselves and wasn’t in it for a profit.


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