Poor Relations: Cousin Betty (Les Parents pauvres: La Cousine Bette)
La Cousine Bette was perhaps the last really great thing that Balzac did – for Le Cousin Pons, which now follows it, was actually written before – and it is beyond all question one of the very greatest of his works. It was written at the highest possible pressure and (contrary to the author’s more usual system) in parts, without even seeing a proof, for the Constitutionnel in the autumn, winter, and early spring of 1846-47, before his departure from Vierzschovnia, the object being to secure a certain sum of ready money to clear off indebtedness. And it has been sometimes asserted that this labor, coming on the top of many years of scarcely less hard work, was almost the last straw which broke down Balzac’s gigantic strength. Of these things it is never possible to be certain; as to the greatness of La Cousine Bette, there is no uncertainty.
In the first place, it is a very long book for Balzac; it is, I think, putting aside books like Les Illusions Perdues, and Les Célibataires, and Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, which are really groups of work written at different times, the longest of all his novels, if we except the still later and rather doubtful Petits Bourgeois. In the second place, this length is not obtained – as length with him is too often obtained – by digressions, by long retrospective narrations, or even by the insertion of such “padding” as the collection business in Le Cousin Pons. The whole stuff and substance of La Cousine Bette is honestly woven novel-stuff, of one piece and one tenor and texture, with for constant subject the subterranean malignity of the heroine, the erotomania of Hulot and Crevel, the sufferings of Adeline, and the pieuvre operations of Marneffe and his wife, – all of which fit in and work together with each other as exactly as the cogs and gear of a harmonious piece of machinery do. Even such much simpler and shorter books as Le Père Goriot by no means possess this seamless unity of construction, this even march, shoulder to shoulder, of all the personages of the story.
In the second place, this story itself strikes hold on the reader with a force not less irresistible than that of the older and simpler stories just referred to. As compared even with its companion, this force of grasp is remarkable. It is not absolutely criminal or contemptible to feel that Le Cousin Pons sometimes languishes and loses itself; this can never be said of the history of the evil destiny, partly personified in Elizabeth Fischer, which hovers over the house of Hulot.
Some, I believe, have felt inclined to question the propriety of the title of the book, and to assign the true heroineship to Valérie Marneffe, whom also the same and other persons are fond of comparing with her contemporary Becky Sharp, not to the advantage of the latter. This is no place for a detailed examination of the comparison, as to which I shall only say that I do not think Thackeray has anything to fear from it. Valérie herself is, beyond all doubt, a powerful study of the “strange woman,” enforcing the Biblical view of that personage with singular force and effectiveness. But her methods are coarser and more commonplace than Becky’s; she never could have long sustained such an ordeal as the tenure of the house in Curzon Street without losing even an equivocal position in decent English society; and it must always be remembered that she was under the orders, so to speak, of Lisbeth, and inspired by her.
Lisbeth herself, on the other hand is not one of a class; she stands alone as much as Becky herself does. It is, no doubt, an arduous and, some milky-veined critics would say, a doubtfully healthy or praiseworthy task to depict almost pure wickedness; it is excessively hard to render it human; and if the difficulty is not increased, it is certainly not much lessened by the artist’s determination to represent the malefactress as undiscovered and even unsuspected throughout. Balzac, however, has surmounted these difficulties with almost complete success. The only advantage – it is no doubt a considerable one – which he has taken over Shakespeare, when Shakespeare devised Iago, is that of making Mademoiselle Fischer a person of low birth, narrow education, and intellectual faculties narrower still, for all their keenness and intensity. The largeness of brain with which Shakespeare endows his human devil, and the largeness of heart of which he does not seem to wish us to imagine him as in certain circumstances incapable, contrast sharply enough with the peasant meanness of Lisbeth. Indeed, Balzac, whose seldom erring instinct in fixing on the viler parts of human nature may have been somewhat too much dwelt on, but is undeniable, has here and elsewhere hit the fault of the lower class generally very well. It does not appear that the Hulots, though they treated her without much ceremony, gave Bette any real cause of complaint, or that there was anything in their conduct corresponding to that of the Camusots to the luckless Pons. That her cousin Adeline had been prettier than herself in childhood, and was richer and more highly placed in middle life, was enough for Lisbeth – the incarnation of the Radical hatred of superiority of any kind. And so she set to work to ruin and degrade the unhappy family, to set it at variance, and make it miserable, as best she could.
The way of her doing this is wonderfully told, and the various characters, minor as well as major, muster in wonderful strength. I do not know that Balzac has made quite the most of Hector Hulot’s vice – in fact, here, as elsewhere, I think the novelist not happy in treating this particular deadly sin. The man is a rather disgusting and wholly idiotic old fribble rather than a tragic victim of Libitina. So also his wife is too angelic. But Crevel, the very pattern and model of the vicious bourgeois who has made his fortune; and Wenceslas Steinbock, pattern again and model of the foibles of Polen aus der Polackei; and Hortense, with the better energy of the Hulots in her; and the loathsome reptile Marneffe, and Victoria, and Célestine, and the Brazilian (though he, to be sure, is rather a transpontine rastaqouère), and all the rest are capital, and do their work capitally. But they would not be half so fine as they are if, behind them, there were not the savage Pagan naturalism of Lisbeth Fischer, the “angel of the family” – and a black angel indeed.
The bibliography of the two divisions of Les Parents Pauvres is so closely connected, that it is difficult to extricate the separate histories, and they will be given together here. Originally the author had intended to begin with Le Cousin Pons (which then bore the title of Les Deux Musiciens), and to make it the more important of the two; but La Cousine Bette grew under his hands, and became, in more than one sense, the leader. Both appeared in the Constitutionnel; the first between October 8th and December 3rd, 1846, the second between March 18th and May of next year. In the winter of 1847-48 the two were published as a book in twelve volumes by Chlendowski and Petion. In the newspaper (where Balzac received – a rarely exact detail – 12,836 francs for the Cousine, and 9,238 for the Cousin) the first-named had thirty-eight headed chapter-divisions, which in book form became a hundred and thirty-two. Le Cousin Pons had two parts in feuilleton, and thirty-one chapters, which in book form became no parts and seventy-eight chapters. All divisions were swept away when, at the end of 1848, the books were added together to the Comédie.
From The Works of Honoré de Balzac, Avil Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1901, University Edition.