Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life by Honoré de Balzac

Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes
Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life – Complete
Also translated as Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans and A Harlot High and Low

 Includes four parts:
Esther Happy/How Girls Love
What Love Costs an Old Man
The End of Evil Ways
Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of Two Poets, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and Eve and David. The action in Scenes From A Courtesan’s Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David.


Esther Happy/How Girls Love

It is 1824, a few months have passed since Lucien left Eve’s house with the intention of committing suicide and met the Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, who hired him as a secretary and gave him money to send Eve and David. Lucien is wandering around at an Opera Ball as if expecting to meet someone and his handsome appearance is causing much comment. He is being shadowed by a man wearing a domino to hide his identity.

When Chatelet mentions Lucien to Rastignac, the latter answers, “If I were half as good looking as he is, I should be twice as rich.” At that instant, the heavy-set masked man who was following Lucien, mutters “No” in Rastignac’s ear, grasps him with a grip of steel and leads the stunned Rastignac to a window recess where he mentions Madame Vauquer’s boarding house and the Taillefer millions. He then threatens Rastignac, telling him to treat Lucien as a beloved brother, ending with, “Choose between life and death–Answer.” Rastignac now knows the identity of the masked man. It is Jacques Collin aka Vautrin!

Lucien lacks the courage to cut Blondet and Finot as he remembers how they gave him a bed when he was penniless. Instead he “compromised his character by shaking Finot’s hand, and not rejecting Blondet’s affection.” Upon seeing a certain woman approaching, Lucien rushes to meet her.

The masked woman causing such a stir among the journalists is Esther Van Gobseck, the daughter of Sarah Van Gobseck. Vautrin starts upon hearing her name. Bixiou calls her name when she and Lucien pass nearby. She turns quickly and faints into Lucien’s arms.

As Rastignac turns to go, Vautrin says that he will prove that Rastignac can never have seen him anywhere and removes his mask. His face is different, prompting Eugene to say, “The devil has enabled you to change in every particular, excepting your eyes, which it is impossible to forget.” Vautrin tightens his grip on Rastignac’s arm, reminding him that he must keep the secret of his identity.

The portress of an ignoble house on the Rue de Langlade, saw Esther “brought home half dead by a young man” thirteen hours earlier. A cloaked man arrives inquiring for Esther and as he begins climbing the staircase, the portress notices the silver buckles on his shoes and catches sight the black fringed sash of a cassock. Upstairs, receiving no answer to his knock, Carlos Herrera easily forces the door and finds Esther near death by suicide from charcoal fumes. The room is a study in poor furnishings and elegant clothing down to a Ternaux shawl plugging a crack in the window and pawn tickets cluttering the shelves of the hideous and otherwise empty wardrobe.

As Esther begins to regain consciousness, she smiles on recognizing the clothing of a priest. She is excited to think that Lucien suspected she might try to commit suicide and sent the priest to save her. Esther relates how she met Lucien, left the house of ill repute for this small apartment loaned to her by a friend and was trying to make herself a better person in order to be worthy of Lucien. Herrera tells Esther that her future depends on her being able to forget her past. He wants to send her away secretly to be educated and tells her where to meet a carriage in a week, using the time to furnish herself with an appropriate wardrobe. She is not to see Lucien or tell anyone of this plan. Herrera places a purse on her mantle. Esther agrees saying that she would like to become a Catholic.

When Esther first arrives at the religious institution, her fellow students are jealous of her beauty. But they soon become very attached to her sweet, simple ways and since she can neither read nor write, they were able to feel superior in that regard. Esther is a quick learner and Herrera is surprised during his first visit. A few of the customs, such as wearing all white for her baptism and first communion, are upsetting to her because they are so different from the Jewish customs.

After a couple of months, although happy, Esther’s health begins to fail and the doctor feels she could die within a month. Herrera concludes that she “is dying of love for Lucien.” Finally, when Herrera determines that Esther is about to break, he tells her that she may see Lucien on the day after her baptism and that if she feels she can live in virtue while living for him, then they will not have to be parted again.

Lucien is living near Saint Sulpice with Herrera. Lucien’s wing is luxurious and Herrera’s is sparce and simple as befits his station. It is fifteen months after the night at the Opera and Herrera’s sending away of Esther. Lucien is also failing as Esther did. Herrera tells him that he should have a mistress befitting his station. Lucien replies that he would give up his ambition and everything for Esther and attacks Herrera when told that he sent her away. Herrera explains it was to be educated.

Herrera purchases a house in the rue Taitbout and installs Esther in it. Lucien rushes off to see her. He spends the night with Esther and Herrera arrives the next morning. Herrera is emphatic that Lucien’s relationship with Esther be kept secret as it would his prospects for a good marriage. Herrera gives orders that this home is to be Esther’s prison. She is only to go out late at night when she won’t be seen. Esther is threatened with death if she doesn’t obey Herrera and she pales when Lucien agrees that this is the way it must be.

Lucien is very happy with Esther and in Society and four years pass. His novel and his poems have become successful. It is now 1829 and the possibility has arisen of a marriage for Lucien to the oldest daughter of the Duchesse de Grandlieu which should restore the title of Marquis and assure Lucien’s political future.

The Baron de Nucingen dined in the country, as did his driver and footman. Everyone has fallen into a drunken sleep on the way home in the carriage and the horses stop by another carriage at a crossroads. The Baron awakens to the sight of Esther, who has been out for one of her usual late night drives. Esther’s carriage takes off at top speed. Nucingen is so enchanted with Esther that he promises his driver one hundred francs if they catch the carriage and curses their incompetence when they don’t.

The Baron has never known true love or been a fool over any woman but the mere sight of Esther makes such an impression that when he hasn’t found her in two weeks, he loses his appetite. Two months pass and the Baron is “astonished at the powerlessness of his millions.”

At one of Delphine’s receptions, De Marsay mentions Nucingen’s poor look to him and the banker describes his almost encounter one midnight. Lucien recognizes that the mystery woman was Esther. This brings a smile to Lucien’s face which doesn’t go unnoticed. Nucingen offers a million francs to know the woman’s identity. When Lucien informs Herrera of this, Herrera realizes that he might be able to sell Esther to Nucingen for a million francs. Lucien is appalled. Herrera informs him that not only are they broke, but they owe and the creditors are becoming impatient.

The events since Vautrin’s escape after being arrested in Pere Goriot are related. He did not just assume an identity of a priest, but cruelly murdered the real Abbe Carlos Herrera as he was on his way to France on a diplomatic mission. Lucien knows all and is an accomplice by virtue of going along with everything, unlike Rastignac.

A brief history of both branches of the Grandlieus follows. Ajuda-Pinto is now married to one of the Grandlieu daughters. One of the Grandlieu daughters, Clotilde, is madly in love with Lucien who, although he loves Esther, sees an advantageous alliance.

When Lucien finally arrives at Esther’s he finds her very upset because Herrera has ordered her to go into hiding early the next morning and have no contact with Lucien until further notice. Lucien assures her that it is only for a few days and it is a matter of his life. Esther swoons on the couch. Her replacement arrived in the same carriage which took Esther away.

Contenson tells Nucingen that Corentin’s right hand and Fouche’s strong arm could find the mystery woman for him and arranges a meeting.

It is Peyrade under a disguise as Father des Canquoelles! He now has a daughter, Lydia whom he nearly worships. He would like to find her a husband and thinks he needs money for a dowry and perhaps a better, more presentable home. When Peyrade mentions marriage again to Lydia, se tells him she saw the handsomest man in the Tuileries with Countess Serisy. It was Lucien! Peyrade has numerous nephews and thinks that one of them might be worthy of his daughter. Just at that moment, a poor nephew named Theodosius arrivs in Paris on foot. It is believed in Peyrade’s home town that Peyrade made millions in India.

Peyrade uses De Saint-Germain as his professional name. He tells Nucingen that for part of his payment he would like Nucingen to use his influence to get him a position at the Prefecture of Police. As he leaves the meeting, Peyrade reflects on the coincidence of his now being paid to investigate the very man who caught his daughter’s eye when she saw him at Tuileries.

Meanwhile, Herrera and Lucien are discussing Esther’s “substitute” who is a beautiful woman from London who was sent to France after killing her lover in a fit of jealousy. As the daughter of a clergyman, she was well brought up and can speak French like a native.

Five days later Corentin tells Nucingen the mystery woman has been located and is, as suspected, Lucien’s mistress. Nucingen tarts himself up, even dying his hair which causes Delphine to remark that he looks like a ridiculous fool and give him a few fashion tips. After paying thirty thousand francs for a meeting, Nucingen is astounded to discover a fair woman, the very opposite of the dark beauty he was expecting. When Georges hears that his master was done out of thirty thousand francs, he remarks that his toilette was for nothing.

Lucien has been taken to the forester’s house for another visit with Esther and as the visit comes to an end, Herrera tells them that they will never meet again. Esther cries out that she will die and Herrera sends the ever compliant Lucien off to pick flowers while he tells Esther that she has had four years of happiness and now has the chance to be the rich mistress of an old man, Nucingen. Esther is to return to Paris that evening.

What Love Costs an Old Man

Asia now extorts an additional one hundred thousand francs from Nucingen and he finally gets to meet and speak with Esther. Nucingen takes Esther to his carriage where he promises her a carriage of her own and other luxuries. Contenson, Louchard and armed guards arrive at rue Taitbout demanding three hundred twelve thousand francs. Nucingen sends Contenson to his cashier for the funds and requests everyone to keep this a secret. The cost is escalating! Fake bills and pawn tickets account for another hundred and fifty thousand francs.

Europe’s name is Prudence Servien. She came to Paris at age seventeen to escape the vengence of a man against whom she had testified. Herrera has not only given her protection, but has now arranged the convict’s death. Europe will be able to return home and set up a business for herself with funds obtained in service to Herrera.

Herrera visits Lucien and tells him to visit Eve and David and have them lie that they gave him six hundred thousand francs. Lucien cries that he is saved, but Herrera is concerned for his own safety as he knows he is being watched. Now he must act like a priest.

Esther loves Lucien so much that the thought of tainting that love brings thoughts of suicide with it. She extracts a promise from Nucingen that for forty days they will only have a father/daughter relationship. Ever the businessman, Nucingen writes a letter to Esther detailing that their father/daughter relationship will end the day she moves into the new home he is purchasing for her. Esther writes three letters to Nucingen. The third one tells Nucingen that if they continue the father/daughter relationship, he will have the pleasure of her company and, although it may be a smaller pleasure, it will last. But should he persist in forcing her to comply with the terms of the bargain, he will only mourn her. Asia convinces Nucingen to install her at Esther’s establishment as cook and gives him tips on how to win Esther which cost him a few more hundred thousand francs.

Nucingen takes Esther to her “little palace” which was formerly the home of Madame du Val-Noble (Suzanne). It is marvelously decorated and furnished and Asia has prepared dinner. She sneakily spiced it to give the Baron indigestion which would send him home early, relieving Esther of any obligation on the first night.

Madame du Val-Noble (Suzanne) is down on her luck and plans to meet Esther “accidentally” on the Champs Elysees. Esther is friendly and offers to help her, mentioning that it’s only fair as it was Nucingen who ruined Val-Noble’s protector. We learn in an aside that Nucingen has still been unsuccessful in making his way to Esther’s bed.

The master of disguise Peyrade, who has even fooled Contenson at times, has been shadowing the events of the Champs Elysees disguised as a weathy Englishman accompanied by his mulatto servant who is none other than Contenson. Peyrade is looking forward to enjoying the debauchery he will enjoy while portraying a wealthy Englishman. While he is eating and drinking heartily, he is ordered by a gendarme to accompany him to the Prefecture in the carriage waiting outside the hotel. Inside the coach, we discover that it is Herrera! It is Herrera’s driver and not only will he not notice if Herrera leaves the coach but no fuss will be made should he arrive at the destination with a dead body in the carriage.

Corentin appears unexpectedly. After Herrera leaves, Corentin tells Peyrade that he has been fooled and the magistrate is none other than Father Carlos Herrera. Corentin calls out the window, “Monsieur l’Abbe!” Vautrin turns his head and realizes he has been recognized and must complete the scam fast. Contenson now recognizes Herrera as the man to whom he gave the three hundred thousand francs. Peyrade is in agony to think that he won’t be able to provide his daughter, Lydia, with the hundred thousand franc dowry but Corentin tells him they will still succeed in obtaining it.

The next morning as Lucien and Herrera are smoking after breakfast, Corentin arrives using the name of M. de Saint-Esteve! Herrera is supposedly on his way to Spain and hides in the next room. Corentin says he is acting on behalf of blackmailers who want one hundred thousand francs to keep the secret of Lucien, Esther and the plot against Nucingen in order that Lucien’s marriage with Clotilde may proceed. Lucien’s reply is that it may or may not be true, but there are plenty of other aristocratic daughters available.

Esther is now in full courtesan mode, although she still plans that the day she gives herself to Nucingen will be her last. At the Italiens, she nags Nucingen for chattering, saying she can’t hear the music. He says she never listens to him and they quarrel but Esther’s wiles bring him back to her on his knees.

Lucien went to the Grandlieu Mansion earlier and, although there were five equipages in the yard, was told they were “not at home.” The Duke had received an anonymous letter about Lucien and is going to have him investigated further. He knows a a spy who will be perfect for this case. It is Corentin!

Esther has ordered Nucingen to bring Lucien to her box. As Esther and Lucien speak privately, they plan a dinner party that evening and Madame du Val-Noble and her English nabob (Peyrade) will be invited so that Herrera can deal with him. Peyrade is very impressed by the splendour, the food and the beautiful women at Esther’s impromptu dinner party. Bixiou, designated to drink Peyrade into oblivion, is successful. Peyrade awakens at six o’clock the next evening in Esther’s attic and is told that Lydia has been kidnapped and will be held until the day after Lucien is married to Clotilde. Should he fail to remedy the upset he caused, he will be killed and Lydia will be forced into prostitution. Peyrade rushes to Contenson’s to change into his Papa Canquoelle disguise. At home he discovers that Lydia left in response to a message supposedly from him. Crying that he and Corentin have met their match, he hurries to consult Corentin and is told he is away for ten days.

Corentin, in his guise of M de Saint Denis, met with Derville at the Grandlieu home and they left Paris to investigate Lucien and his past, including the Sechards. When Corentin mentions that Lucien had lived with a woman using the name Esther van Bogseck, Derville remarks on the coincidence of his seeking the heiress of a Dutchman named Gobseck. Corentin tells him he will check into it as soon as they return to Paris.

When Derville and Corentin arrive to speak with David and Eve. Derville takes Eve aside and tells her of Lucien’s claim to have received over one million francs from them. Eve, with tears in her eyes, wonders how Lucien could have obtained that kind of money.

The two Parisians discover there is only one seat available on the coach to Paris. Derville, pleading business appointments, persuades Corentin to allow him to take the seat. In reality, Derville doesn’t entirely trust Corentin who is forced to remain three more days awaiting a coach bound for Paris.

Although receiving the assistance of over a dozen spies, Contenson and Peyrade are unable to locate Lydia.

Lucien, Rastignac and Nucingen attend a dinner at the home of Madame du Val-Noble where Peyrade is continuing his nabob portrayal. Unknown to Peyrade, Asia has been asked to assist with the cooking. As the dinner begins, Peyrade finds a note in his napkin: “The ten days are up at the moment when you sit down to supper.”

Contenson, who is still attending Peyrade as his mulatto servant, is called out to pay the bill of the local restaurant. He returns with the news that Lydia has returned home in very bad shape and Peyrade should see her immediately. In his upset at this, Peyrade curses in French, exposing his disguise.

When Corentin finally arrived home, he found the note left by the panic-stricken Peyrade. Later as he is setting about starting an investigation, he happens to see Lydia on the street in a nightgown. She has escaped and has been walking five hours trying to make her way home. When pressed for details of her ordeal, Lydia can only say that she is ruined, dishonored and lost and wants to spend the rest of her days in a convent if one will take her.

A breathless Peyrade arrives and, as Lydia begs her father’s forgiveness, collapses muttering, “I am dying!–the villains!” Corentin realizes his friend was poisoned at dinner. Contenson has arrived sans disguise and as he attempts to lay Peyrade on the bed, Corentin says they must remove him from the room or Lydia will think she is the cause of his death. As Corentin swears vengeance, Contenson pledges his aid. Corentin sends for the police and orders an autopsy. Nothing is discovered. Desplein says he knows of one very dangerous poison which might have been used. He advises that Lydia be placed in a clinic. When Katt advises Corentin that Lydia does nothing but sing and dance, he tells the woman to take her to Charenton.

Esther had offered Madame du Val-Noble fifty thousand francs in return for two doses of a fast-acting poison. Esther tested one of them on her pet greyhound, Romeo, who instantly fell over dead.

It is the evening of the expensive house-warming party and Esther is closeted along in her room. Lucien is secretly brought to her upon his arrival. He tells her that if he can’t marry Clotilde, then he will give up all his ambitions and have no other wife but Esther. She tells him to sneak out carefully without compromising himself. Esther’s entrance to the party causes a sensation. She is not only stunningly beautiful, but witty and shines in the company. Everyone except Nucingen got roaring drunk, even Bixiou, and at last Nucingen gives Esther his hand to lead her upstairs.

Nucingen arrives home on Monday and his stock-broker informs him that Esther sold her bond on Friday and has just collected her money. The broker also mentions that Derville’s head clerk said Esther has inherited seven million francs as the only heir of her great-uncle Gobseck. When Nucingen arrives at Esther’s to tell her the good news, he is told she is sleeping. When Esther is discovered dead, Nucingen thinks of theft and murder and inquires about the seven hundred fifty thousand francs. As soon as he leaves, Europe finds the money under Esther’s pillow. When Europe tells Asia to go for Vautrin/Collin, Paccard suggests to Europe that they take the money and run. Upstairs, Collin writes a will leaving everything to Lucien. When Asia returns from placing it under Esther’s pillow, she advises him that authorities have arrived and also that she believes Europe and Paccard have stolen the money and left. Collin exclaims, “The low villains! They have done for us by their swindling game.”

Nucingen rushed to the Prefecture of Police after recognizing that Esther had died of poison. Collin pulls himself through the skylight of his attic room up onto the roof to see if there is an escape route. Contenson was on lookout on the roof–to his detriment as Collin throws him to the ground. As Contenson lays dead in the gutter, Collin calmly reenters his attic and goes to bed. He asks Asia to give him something to make him too sick to answer questions.

Meanwhile, Lucien had traveled overnight to meet Clotilde at a spot where the carriage would stop prior to descending a steep hill. As Clotilde is telling Lucien she will never marry anyone but him and for him to dispel the prejudices against him, a party of gendarmes arrive with a warrant for his arrest. The charge is accessory to theft and murder. Clotilde faints. By midnight, Lucien is in solitary confinement at La Force. “Father Carlos Herrera” is also at La Force. He was arrested earlier that evening.

The End of Evil Ways

At six a.m. Lucien and Collin are being transported in “salad baskets” to the Conciergerie. Lucien shrinks back so no one can see him. Jacques Collin presses his face against the grill and listens to the guards chatting. Jacques Collin is in the first of the two “salad baskets” and just as it reaches a dark and narrow passage, it is required to stop because the way is blocked. Asia had engineered the obstruction in order to pass a message to Collin: “Your poor boy has been arrested; but I shall be there to look after you both. You will see me again.”

Jacques Collin is assisted to the registry where he continues to call for the Spanish ambassador, a breviary and a doctor since he is dying. He is taken through the underground labyrinth to a dark cell whose only light is received from the narrow inner yard in which the women prisoners exercise. Collin paces and then sits in a corner where he cannot be seen through the peephole. He retrieves paper and a tiny piece of lead which were glued under his wig.

Lucien, when brought in, mechanically does as requested as he tries to think of a method of accomplishing suicide in order to escape the upcoming ignominies. He is shattered and cries for hours.

Camusot was President of a provincial court and, through the influence of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse for whom he performed a small service, was appointed to a coveted magistracy in Paris. An incident in Lucien’s caused a severe hatred of him by Madame d’Espard, cousin of the former Madame de Bargeton with whom Lucian traveled from Angouleme. As soon as Madame d’Espard heard that Lucien had been arrested, she sent for Camusot’s wife and told Amelie to influence her husband to “secure his condemnation”.

Just when Camusot is telling Amelie not to get mixed up in the matters of the Law Courts, she is sent for by the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who tells her she would like Lucien to have a private visitor and to be released within twenty-four hours. This will oblige the Attorney General and Madame de Serisy among others. When Amelie returns home she tells her husband, “We are caught between two fires,” and asks him which is the most powerful. He shows Amelie the notes sent to him by the Prefet. Of “Father Carlos Herrera” they say that he is assuredly Jacques Collin/Vautrin nicknamed Dodgedeath/Trompe-la-Mort. Lucien’s history is also related and his relationships with Coralie and Esther and that the source of his funds is probably Nucingen. Camusot then mentions that he shall see what the information is worth, but he can know nothing about it–but that Lucien is guilty. Amelie comes up with the great idea of letting Father Carlos “put his finger on somebody who can get you out of this”.

As Camusot walks to work, he wonders how to set about his work with someone as sharp as Jacques Collin. Looking in shop windows, his eye is caught by a Boule clock. Inside the curiosity shop, he encounters Count Granville who is Attorney General. Through their conversation, Camusot learns that Count Granville also wants Lucien to be saved.

Once at the Conciergerie, Camusot finds out that the doctor says Collin was not really ill. Bibi-Lupin tells Camusot that the convicts will be happy to turn in Collin because he embezzled their funds which were entrusted to him and used them for Lucien’s benefit.

Collin writes two letters on his scrap of paper. One is to Asie in code telling her to contact the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse or Madame de Serisy and have them pass the other note to Lucien. He also tells her to have Rastignac and Bianchon testify that Father Carlos Herrera “bears no resemblance to the Jacques Collin arrested at Ma Vauquer’s”. In Lucien’s note he writes that Lucien is not to admit knowing anything except that he is Father Carlos. He rolls the two notes into a tiny ball.

After Asie managed to communicate with Collin as he was being transported, she rushed by cab to her shop and where she was dressed as a Baroness of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. She arrives at the magistrates’ office and inquires for Monsieur Camusot fifteen minutes before his arrival. She chooses a young lawyer reading the Gazette des Tribunaux and cosies up to him. Massol is very flattered and dreams of getting rich from such a client.

As Massol shows Asie around the building, she spies the Conciergerie through the window and inquires about it. When told what it is, she replies that she has always dreamed of seeing Marie-Antoinette’s dungeon. After dropping the name of Granville the Attorney General and a few society names, it seems she will be allowed to be shown the Conciergerie without a permit.

Asie and Massol chat with the constables until they see a prisoner being brought up, at which time the constables tell her she must leave. Recognizing Collin, Asie calls out loudly, “Oh! where am I?” Collin swoons and as he leaves, allows the small ball of paper to fall from his sleeve. After he is gone, Asie drops her purse and adroitly scoops up the paper while retrieving her purse. She then loudly laments about her lost dog, calls out that she sees him and dashes off.

Following Collin’s instructions, Asie goes to see the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who quickly recognizes that she isn’t a baroness. Nevertheless, in order to save Lucien, the Duchesse agrees to go with Asie to see Madame de Serisy.

Madame de Serisy had been attached to the Marquis d’Aiglemont for ten years but when he left for the colonies, she doted on Lucien and fell in love for the first time in her life and was crushed to learn about Esther. But she nearly died when she heard he had been arrested and in a delirium said to her husband, “Save Lucien, and I will live henceforth for you alone.” Asie told Madame de Serisy that to save Lucien she must give him the note, adding added that it was her fault he was in that scrape because she hadn’t given him any money but Esther had given him a million at the cost of her body and soul. Poor Madame de Serisy blessed Esther on hearing this.

Jacques Collin is brought into Camusot’s office where he continues to say he is Don Carlos Herrera, canon of Toledo and secret envoy from Spain. When asked by Camusot why he happened to be at the home of Lucien’s mistress, a prostitute, Collin comes up with the answer that Lucien is his son and then swoons from having to reveal this deep, dark secret.

The doctor and infimary attendant arrive and after a ten minute examination, the doctor states that the prisoner has been ill but is now strong. Once Collin’s shirt is removed, he is struck with the rod. When no letters are visible, Collin insists they try the other shoulder and down his back. The doctor declares that the back has been too severely scarred to allow the mark of a convict to show.

Camusot abruptly says, “You have an aunt.” When Collin denies it, Camusot continues: ” . . . Mademoiselle Jacqueline Collin, whom you placed in Esther’s service under the eccentric name of Asie.” Camusot relates a history of Jacqueline Collin and Jacques Collin, but Collin doesn’t reveal anything by his expression. An usher arrives and announces in a low voice to Camusot that Bibi-Lupin has arrived.

As Jacques Collin took considerable pains to change his appearance, Bibi-Lupin is taken aback upon seeing Collin and can only recognize him by certain characteristics.

The next witness is Madame Poiret–the former Mlle Michonneau who was responsible for his getting caught at Ma Vauquer’s boarding house. When other possible witnesses are mentioned, Collin is thrilled to hear Eugene de Rastignac’s name and says he has met him several times at Lucien’s and was never mistaken for a convict.

Just when Camusot was thinking of sending Collin back to the Conciergerie, a woman arrives who has a letter which was sent to Lucien. She had stuck it in a drawer to await reimbursement of ten sous for the postage. Camusot inspects the postmark and determines it arrived for Lucien the day after Esther’s death. It is her beautiful final letter to Lucien. Camusot tells Collin that if he can prove he is really Don Carlos Herrera that he will be released as it is no longer as case of murder but suicide.

Lucien is finally brought into Camusot’s office. After he is allowed to read Esther’s final letter to him, he sobs for a quarter hour before Camusot is able to begin questioning him. Collin was right to be afraid of Lucien’s being questioned as he admitted everything which Camusot mentioned. Lucien was horrified to learn that Collin was passing himself off as Lucien’s father and cried, “Oh! my poor mother.” When Lucien finally realizes his mistake, drops of sweat break out and mingle with tears. Camusot relishes his triumph. When Lucien asks if he will be released, Camusot says tomorrow after his confrontation with Jacques Collin. For tonight he will be given the best cell in the pistole and whatever he wishes. Lucien requests writing materials.

Count Octave de Bauvan enters bringing Countess Serisy. Camusot confesses that her letter arrived too late to stop his interrogation of Lucien. She suggests destroying the reports and when Camusot tells her it would be a crime against society, she replies that it is a greater crime against her to have written them in the first place. Camusot is told to have a new interrogation of the “Spanish diplomate” and that Rastignac and Bianchon will not identify him as Jacques Collin.

Unable to bear a confrontation with Collin and thinking of Esther’s letter, Lucien pens his Last Will and Testament as soon as he is brought writing materials. He encloses it with a letter to Collin and a retraction for Camusot in an envelope with a note to Comte de Granville. The irony of Lucien’s plan to commit suicide is that he couldn’t have accomplished it in the barren cell, but here in a pistole, he sees a way and when Madame de Serisy arrives at his cell, she sees Lucien hanging like clothes on a peg. A news article says that Lucien was innocent and died from a ruptured aneurism.

The Last Incarnation of Vautrin/Vautrin’s Last Avatar

Amelia thinks and tells Camusot that she will turn this to his advantage. She tells him to make sure Collin’s real identity is exposed by the other prisoners.

Dr. Lebrun tells Collin that Lucien hanged himself and gives him the letter Lucien left for him. Collin is assisted to the pistole and falls upon Lucien’s body asking for a lock of his hair. The next morning when Collin arrives in the prison yard, although his face is different, he is soon recognized by former associates. Bibi-Lupin’s plan to have the prisoners murder Collin fails as three prisoners play along with Collin’s impersonation and even call for a chair for the good priest.

Another prisoner currently in the Conciergerie is an earlier protegee of Collin’s, a young Corsican criminal named Theodore Calvi. When Bibi-Lupin hears that Collin has asked to make a priestly visit to this man who is condemned to death, he feels he has another chance to get something on Collin and plans to be present disguised as a constable. But there’s no fooling Jacques Collin! He immediately recognizes Bibi-Lupin and quickly speaks to Theodore in Italian telling him he is there to save him from death and will later arrange a jail break for him.

Aunt Jacqueline (Asie) arrives in full magnificent force including two lackeys, one of which is the wayward Paccard, and waving an official paper. Speaking in their slang, Collin gives her orders to hide the letters to Lucien which might compromise Madame de Serisy or the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.

Back in the prison yard, Collin works on La Pouraille, totally gains his trust, and intimates he will avenge him on those who squealed on him. Collin finds out where La Pouraille hid his proceeds and also where his two co-horts hid theirs. He now proceeds to talk La Pouraille into confessing to Theodore’s crime in addition to the ones he is in for, saying that he can then get him off the murder charges and consideration for the thefts if the money is returned. The two men then talk the incredibly naive Biffon into confessing to crimes and involving his girl friend, Biffe, by telling him she will then be locked up for a year and thus unable to cheat on him. Biffon believes they will both be released in a year but Collin plans to pin murders on him.

Amelie’s first call is at Mme d’Espard who outwardly pretends to be concerned about Mme de Serisy but shows that she is secretly pleased, thinking that woman being out of her mind is vengeance for a past event. She promises to help advance Camusot’s career.

Amelie’s next call is on the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who had a restless night worrying about her letters to Lucien becoming public because they were compromising in the extreme. They go together to the Grandlieu Mansion. The Duchesse de Grandlieu rapidly sends for her husband who takes charge, sends for a couple of people and dismisses Amelie. As Amelie is leaving, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse mentions helping Camusot’s career and the Duke agreed.

One of the men summoned by the Duke de Grandlieu was M de Saint Denis aka Corentin! The fear is that if Collin is imprisoned or dies that the letters may get into someone else’s hands. Corentin now feels that since Collin has murdered both Peyrade and Contenson, Collin is actually the only person qualified be Corentin’s successor. He plans to recruit Collin to the other side of the law.

At Granville’s office, Camusot mentions prosecuting Jacques Collin and Granville cries out that they will be lost if his identity is revealed. Jacques Collin arrives and announces: “Monsieur le Comte, I am Jacques Collin. I surrender!”Collin also confesses that the woman was his aunt, Jacqueline Collin. He is glad when Comusot is sent out of the room, saying that he considers him Lucien’s murderer and hates him with an unrelenting passion. Jacques Collin thinks that he has Justice on the ropes because they will care more about the honor of three families than the life of three convicts. Collin says that a beggarwoman in rags can be found in the hall and should be brought to him. He is astounded when Granville sends the constables away and tells Collin that he can go meet the woman himself. As Collin is leaving Granville’s office, Corentin arrives disguised as a sickly-looking old man.

Collins goes with his aunt in a cab and returns to Granville’s office with three sample letters. Collin recognizes the grubby old man as Corentin. Collin and Corentin play word games back and forth and Corentin offers Collin the position with the police. Collin tells Granville that the only crime of which he has been convicted is forgery and that he has served over five years total, so has paid his legal debt.

When Collin is granted permission to freely attend Lucien’s funeral, he tells de Granville that while he was out earlier he questioned his servants and they believe that Esther’s bond money was not stolen because she had a habit of hiding things. He adds that he will find the money stolen from the Crottats. Outside, Collin feels self-satisfied and ready to embark on a new life. One of the few people that follow the procession to the cemetery is Rastignac. Collin is grateful and tells him that he will always be at his service if needed. Rastignac tries to distance himself. Lucien is buried beside Esther and Collin remarks that he will be buried here also. As the gravediggers begin to throw dirt into the grave, Collin faints. Two men of the security brigade lift him into a cab.

Collin is taken to de Granville’s office where he finds Count Bauvan who reminds him of his promise to save Mme de Serisy. Collin goes to his room where he changes into the costume of Father Herrera and picks up a letter which Lucien had written but neglected to mail. It was to Mme de Serisy and written after she had banished him upon seeing him at the Italiens with Esther. Collin suspects that Mme de Serisy feels guilty about Lucien’s suicide and this letter professes Lucien’s love for her. After half an hour alone with Collin, Mme de Serisy is calm and reconciled. M de Granville tells Collin that Theodore will be released and can go into Collin’s service. Collin is to serve a six month probation under Bibi-Lupin before replacing him. Jacques Collin does all he promised within the first week. Lucien and Esther have a magnificent monument at Pere Lachaise. Collin works for around fifteen years and retires in 1845.

Read it here

Summarized by Dagny, September – November 2008


One comment on “Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This book is really four works written across ten years of Balzac’s life. However, it is one continuous story and thus can be grouped together. My head swirls from Balzac’s large cast of characters – albeit virtually all of them from other earlier works – and from a maize of intrigues. Even reading Dagny’s excellent summaries again didn’t quite straighten me out on some of the intricacies. Golda claims no work of Balzac offers such a complicated story – I’d put several up with this one myself (“The Chouans” comes immediately to mind), but indeed it is complex. Saintsbury says the work is in the “forefront of his average work”. However “it affords Balzac…opportunities of indulging a very large number of his extensive assortment of fancies, not to say fad, and of bringing in a great number of the personages of his stock company. Indeed. I liked finding out ‘what happened’ to the stock company, enjoyed the continuation of the development of the personalities, but found bringing in so many characters a bit of an indulgence that weakened the flow of the work. On the other hand, even after having recently completing reading the entire “Human Comedy”, I am so far from an expert that it would behoove me to start at the beginning again, LOL.


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