Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Vautrin’s Last Avatar, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by ‘James Waring’

Vautrin’s Last Avatar, by Honoré de Balzac

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

Vautrin’s Last Avatar is fourth and last in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life:

  • Esther Happy/How Girls Love
  • What Love Costs an Old Man
  • The End of Evil Ways, and
  • 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, with Esther Happy/How Girls Love.

This translation by James Waring (who is really Ellen Marriage, but she published risqué stories like this one under a male pseudonym).

This story begins with Amelia, the wife of Monsieur Camusot, consoling him for the blunders he has made in the case of Lucien and Jacques Collin.  As things stand, Lucien is dead, and he retracted  his statement that the Abbé Carlos Herrera is really Jacques Collin just before he killed himself.  Camusot feels guilt-stricken that his questioning may have led to the suicide, and he is very worried about the ‘very great people involved in this deplorable business.‘  Undaunted, Amelia reminds him that events are to his advantage:

“Why despair?” she went on, with a shrug that sufficiently expressed her indifference as to the prisoner’s end. “This suicide will delight Lucien’s two enemies, Madame d’Espard and her cousin, the Comtesse du Chatelet. Madame d’Espard is on the best terms with the Keeper of the Seals; through her you can get an audience of His Excellency and tell him all the secrets of this business. Then, if the head of the law is on your side, what have you to fear from the president of your Court or the public prosecutor?”


“If the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Serizy are compromised, you will find them both ready to patronize you,” said Amelie. “Madame de Serizy will get you admission to the Keeper of the Seals, and you will tell him the secret history of the affair; then he will amuse the King with the story, for sovereigns always wish to see the wrong side of the tapestry and to know the real meaning of the events the public stare at open-mouthed. Henceforth there will be no cause to fear either the public prosecutor or Monsieur de Serizy.”

“What a treasure such a wife is!” cried the lawyer, plucking up courage.

He almost blunders again with his plans to use all these persons in high places to convict Collin, but Amelia sets him straight: he must use the other prisoners to expose Collin.  They will be only too willing to do this because Collin embezzled their winnings from gambling.

[Even Balzac must have wondered why women like Amelie were restricted to manoeuvres like this instead of having an equal role in public affairs.  But I digress.]

Meanwhile back at the Conciergerie arrangements are being made to whisk Lucien’s handsome body back to his lodgings so that his death will be certified from there instead of at the prison, thus protecting the honour of the high and mighty persons involved in this mess.  The doctor who is to certify the death is summoned, however, to Cell No 2, because the incumbent (Collin, of course) is ‘dying’.  There is scepticism about this but there are orders to mitigate his imprisonment (because Lucien’s evidence is now lost) and so they reluctantly head for the cells.

Balzac now shows us another side of Collin.  In Lucien’s last letter to Collin he invokes Cain and Abel, brothers embodying the duality of man’s nature.  Collin had

sacrificed his own life for seven years past. His vast powers, absorbed in Lucien, acted solely for Lucien; he lived for his progress, his loves, his ambitions. To him, Lucien was his own soul made visible.

For the first time in this sequence of stories, we see Collin as human, and his claim to have been Lucien’s father takes on a different meaning.  Alone in his cell, he knows Lucien’s weakness and that he might betray them both, but he doesn’t blame him for it.  Rather, he dreams of a different life that he might have:

Indeed, a life with Lucien, a youth innocent of all crime, who had only minor sins on his conscience, dawned on him as bright and glorious as a summer sun;

He fakes illness again so that he can plead to see Lucien, but is told instead the truth.  He is given Lucien’s letter of regret and apology, and repeating that Lucien is his son, he is taken to see his body.  He reads the letter, learning that Lucien blames himself for incriminating them both, but that he at last understands how he has been Collin’s patsy

“As you have sometimes said, there is the posterity of Cain and the posterity of Abel. In the great human drama Cain is in opposition. You are descended from Adam through that line, in which the devil still fans the fire of which the first spark was flung on Eve. Among the demons of that pedigree, from time to time we see one of stupendous power, summing up every form of human energy, and resembling the fevered beasts of the desert, whose vitality demands the vast spaces they find there. Such men are as dangerous as lions would be in the heart of Normandy; they must have their prey, and they devour common men and crop the money of fools. Their sport is so dangerous that at last they kill the humble dog whom they have taken for a companion and made an idol of”.

In the early hours of the morning when the authorities come to collect the body, they find Collin collapsed in grief.  [Is it genuine now?]  In the morning he goes meekly to the exercise yard, never guessing that Bibi-Lupin has sent him there so that the other prisoners can murder him.  But (wouldn’t you know it?) three of them are old allies from the Hulks:  there is la Pouraille from La Force, another named Selerier, alias l’Avuergnat, Pere Ralleau, and le Rouleur, and a man called Riganson a.k.a. Biffon.  Broken by grief, Collin is recognisable as Trompe-la-Mort (Dodge-Death) but the trio of crooks suspect his disguise as a priest has something to do with a plan of some sort.   So they go along with the impersonation and they look out for him when he feels faint, calling for a chair for him.   They hope that his skill and inventiveness will be to their advantage, and they are hopeful of laying their hands on the embezzled money (which he had used to benefit Lucien’s quest to marry the Grandlieu heiress).

[This scene is notable for the mostly incomprehensible convict slang that Balzac uses in quest of authenticity.]

Collin sees an opportunity for redemption.  One of his escapes had taken place when he was chained to another convict, a young boy called Theodore Calvi a.k.a. Madeleine.  Theodore, now aged 27, had been recaptured, and now he is awaiting execution.  In his guise as priest Collin feigns innocence of prison proceedings, and begs to be allowed to minister to Theodore. Bibi-Lupin sees an opportunity to get something new on Collin, and although it is unheard for anyone to visit a condemned man the night before the execution, he acquiesces, going along to the cell with Collin but disguised as an ordinary gendarme.  (There are a lot of disguises in this series of stories).

Theodore’s conviction is based solely on circumstantial evidence, and Grandville has been delaying the execution in the hope that Theodore will confess to the mysterious murder of the widow Pigeau and incriminate his accomplice, his girlfriend Manon la Blonde.

Collin begins to convince the sceptical warders when he ‘mistakes’ Sanson the Executioner for a chaplain, but Collin makes no mistake when he sees Bibi-Lupin disguised as a gendarme.  He cautions Theodore to speak only Italian, and Theodore explains how the crime was committed, pretending all the while to be making his confession to the sham priest.  Collin tells him that he will get his sentence commuted to imprisonment, and that he will then arrange his escape to Paris where he can have a fine life.

Collin then demands that there be a stay of execution because Theodore is innocent, and since he doesn’t speak Italian Bibi-Lupin is none the wiser.

Then Asie (Collin’s Aunt Jacqueline) turns up, dressed to the nines and purporting to be a ‘Madame de San-Esteban’ and demanding to see the priest.  It’s all very irregular but with a permit from the Comte de Serizy , she gets her way.  Using their common slang Collin orders her to hide the incriminating love-letters from Lucien to Madame de Serizy and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.   He also tells her to find Europe and Paccard (who had absconded with the 750,000 francs that Lucien was accused of defrauding the banker Nucingen) but she tells him that Paccard is in her carriage.

Meanwhile, back in the prison-yard Collin is buttering up La Pouraille and succeeds in persuading him to confess to Theodore’s crime.  He claims to be able then to get him off the murder and theft charges if the money is paid back.  Between the two of them, they then persuade Riganson (Biffon) to confess and to implicate his girlfriend Biffe so that she’ll be  in prison for a year and therefore not able to cheat on him.  Biffon is not very bright…

Now all this time, Madame Camusot has been busy too.  She calls on Madame d’Espard to fill her in on the gossip and to ask for help in protecting Camusot’s ambitions.  Mme d’Espard pretends to be worried about Madame de Serizy’s mental state, but is actually delighted because she hates her.  She’s not really very fond of Monsieur de Granville either, since

she owed to them her defeat in the disgraceful proceedings by which she had tried to have her husband treated as a lunatic, “I will protect you; I never forget either my foes or my friends.”

Amelie then calls on Duchesse de Maufrigneuse who is also worried about her incriminating letters to Lucien and (to Amelie’s delight, since she’s never been admitted to such an august address before) together they go to see the Duchesse de Grandlieu (yes, the potential mother-in-law of Lucien until the marriage to her daughter Clotilde fell through so spectacularly).   Clotilde wrote letters to Lucien too, and of course he wrote back to her – quel embarrass, n’est-ce pas?  No wonder the duchess says ‘’”We are three daughters of Eve in the coils of the serpent of letter-writing!”  Daddy Grandlieu acts promptly to hush things up and is about to dismiss Madame Camusot, (who is only middle-class and therefore not really welcome) when the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse intervenes and he grudgingly makes vague promises about remembering a service done for them.

Duke de Grandlieu sets Corentin the task to retrieve the letters, but here’s a surprise: Corentin realises that any attempt to prosecute him will be too risky because that would reveal his true identity.  Instead he suggests recruiting Collin to the side of law and order.  (This is based on a somewhat spurious argument that since Collin was responsible for the murder of both Peyrade and Contenson, this makes him an ideal successor for his own job.  This is a daft resolution, but it clears the way for Collin to make an entrance in more episodes of La Comedie Humaine.

Meanwhile, Camusot visits Granville, the Prosecutor, and explains about Collin and the disastrous letters that he knows Collin has secreted somewhere.  They are trying to decide what to do when Collin arrives – and surrenders! He tells them that his mysterious visitor was his Aunt Jacqueline and puts on a convincing show of remorse until he insists that Camusot be sent out of the room because he’s responsible for Lucien’s death, and he starts the negotiations for Theodore’s release, knowing that the authorities care more about the possible scandal than the guilt or innocence of the three convicts.  He bargains hard, and is allowed to go with his aunt to get samples of the letters to prove that he has them.  In his absence Corentin disguised as an old man, arrives accompanied by the Comte des Lupeaulx, Secretary-in-Chief of the President of the Council, and a deputy.  Lupeaulx lets Granville know that the king is taking a personal interest in this matter, and that he will be made Keeper of the Seals when the incumbent becomes Chancellor, if all goes well.

When Lupeaulx leaves, Corentin comes to the point:

“Yes, Monsieur le Comte, it is Jacques Collin, the head of the ‘Ten Thousand Francs Association,’ the banker for three penal settlements, a convict who, for the last five years, has succeeded in concealing himself under the robe of the Abbe Carlos Herrera. How he ever came to be intrusted with a mission to the late King from the King of Spain is a question which we have all puzzled ourselves with trying to answer. I am now expecting information from Madrid, whither I have sent notes and a man. That convict holds the secrets of two kings.”

“He is a man of mettle and temper. We have only two courses open to us,” said the public prosecutor. “We must secure his fidelity, or get him out of the way.”

Indeed, Collin is still outsmarting them.  At the house of his Aunt Jacqueline a.k.a. Asie he summons Europe and Paccard who fortunately for them have already handed over the 750,000 francs or they would be in deep trouble (and although they are not very bright, they know it).  He doesn’t extract revenge for their perfidy but instead sets them up in a shop – where some of his ill-gotten gains lie hidden below the cellar, and it is Paccard’s job to dig it up and also to hide the other packet of money in the mattress of Madame Lucien’s house i.e. Esther’s place. All this money going round and round is very confusing because next we find Asie/Aunt Jacqueline telling Collin that they have no money at all.  She’s not happy about his change of heart but he says

“What was to become of me? Lucien has taken my soul with him, and all my joy in life. I have thirty years before me to be sick of life in, and I have no heart left. Instead of being the boss of the hulks, I shall be a Figaro of the law, and avenge Lucien. I can never be sure of demolishing Corentin excepting in the skin of a police agent. And so long as I have a man to devour, I shall still feel alive.— The profession a man follows in the eyes of the world is a mere sham; the reality is in the idea!”

Anyway, Collin heads back with the three sample letters that Aunt Jacqueline has been hiding in her bosom, and is promptly arrested by Bibi-Lupin.  He escorts Collin into the office of Granville, and is promptly sent packing by his superiors.  Collin recognises Corentin who, after some iron banter,  makes his offer of a position with the police:

“You really offer me a situation?” said Jacques Collin. “A nice situation indeed!— out of the fire into the frying-pan!” “You will be in a sphere where your talents will be highly appreciated and well paid for, and you will act at your ease. The Government police are not free from perils. I, as you see me, have already been imprisoned twice, but I am none the worse for that. And we travel, we are what we choose to appear. We pull the wires of political dramas, and are treated with politeness by very great people.— Come, my dear Jacques Collin, do you say yes?”

Collin talks passionately about the villain of the piece – the banker Nucingen and he barters: the letters for Theodore’s life, and revenge on Bibi-Lupin.  The deal is done, Collin attends Lucien’s funeral (where he exchanges philosophical ideas with Rastignac, who doesn’t want to know him any more) and in a paroxysm of grief he swoons into the grave.  He is taken back to de Granville’s office where he is reminded that he also promised to do something to restore the sanity of Madame de Serizy.  No problem: he resurrects a letter that Lucien has written but never sent to her, leaving her to believe that he died while they were estranged.  This letter is a love-letter, which cheers her up and restores her well-being.  In return, de Granville releases Theodore (who as we know is actually guilty of the Pigeau murder) and (in an unholy alliance indeed) Theodore is to serve under Collin.  In a nice irony, Collin has to serve six months probation under Bibi-Lupin before taking on his job. Which he does, retiring in 1845 after 15 years service!

And the moral of this story is, as the Duchesse de Grandlieu says:

“This is what comes of opening one’s house to people one is not absolutely sure of. Before admitting an acquaintance, one ought to know all about his fortune, his relations, all his previous history——”

Read it here

Summary by Lisa Hill, January 2nd, 2014


Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

The End of Evil Ways, by Honoré de Balzac

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

The End of Evil Ways is third in the series Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life, which Includes four parts:

  • Esther Happy/How Girls Love
  • What Love Costs an Old Man
  • The End of Evil Ways, and
  • 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, with Esther Happy/How Girls Love.

This translation by James Waring (who is really Ellen Marriage, but she published risqué stories like this one under a male pseudonym).

At the end of What Love Costs an Old Man, Lucien de Rubempre is locked up in solitary confinement on charges of theft and attempted murder.  The End of Evil Ways begins with Lucien de Rubempre and Jacques Collin (a.k.a. Vautrin a.k.a. Abbe Carlos Herrera) being taken to Palais de Justice. in two separate ‘salad-baskets’ (paniers a salade), (so-called because the prisoners were shaken around inside. In English we know this conveyance as a paddy-wagon.)  Paris is agog!

It is worth noting how the justice system works:

Observe the word inculpe, incriminated, or suspected of crime. The French Code has created three essential degrees of criminality— inculpe, first degree of suspicion; prevenu, under examination; accuse, fully committed for trial. So long as the warrant for committal remains unsigned, the supposed criminal is regarded as merely under suspicion, inculpe of the crime or felony; when the warrant has been issued, he becomes “the accused” (prevenu), and is regarded as such so long as the inquiry is proceeding; when the inquiry is closed, and as soon as the Court has decided that the accused is to be committed for trial, he becomes “the prisoner at the bar” (accuse) as soon as the superior court, at the instance of the public prosecutor, has pronounced that the charge is so far proved as to be carried to the Assizes.

Thus, persons suspected of crime go through three different stages, three siftings, before coming up for trial before the judges of the upper Court— the High Justice of the realm.

At the first stage, innocent persons have abundant means of exculpating themselves— the public, the town watch, the police. At the second state they appear before a magistrate face to face with the witnesses, and are judged by a tribunal in Paris, or by the Collective Court of the departments. At the third stage they are brought before a bench of twelve councillors, and in case of any error or informality the prisoner committed for trial at the Assizes may appeal for protection to the Supreme court. The jury do not know what a slap in the face they give to popular authority, to administrative and judicial functionaries, when they acquit a prisoner. And so, in my opinion, it is hardly possible that an innocent man should ever find himself at the bar of an Assize Court in Paris— I say nothing of other seats of justice.

This is worth noting too, since it’s probably just as true today as it was in Balzac’s day:

It is impossible to conceive of the sudden isolation in which a suspected criminal is placed. The gendarmes who apprehend him, the commissioner who questions him, those who take him to prison, the warders who lead him to his cell— which is actually called a cachot, a dungeon or hiding-place, those again who take him by the arms to put him into a prison-van— every being that comes near him from the moment of his arrest is either speechless, or takes note of all he says, to be repeated to the police or to the judge. This total severance, so simply effected between the prisoner and the world, gives rise to a complete overthrow of his faculties and a terrible prostration of mind, especially when the man has not been familiarized by his antecedents with the processes of justice.

But this isolation does not apply to the invincible Jacques Collin – en route the passage of the paddy-wagon is blocked by a cost-monger’s cart: lo! it’s loyal Asie, back from her escape with Paccard and the 750,000 francs and she passes on the crushing news that the gendarmes have got Lucien too.

Balzac allows himself a lament for the vulgar intrusion of the Conciergerie prison building into  the  Palace of Saint-Louis, former realm of kings and now entirely buried under the Palais de Justice, and then goes on to describe in detail the layout of the prison that will impinge on the case of Collins and Lucien.   Once inside, the paddy-wagon conveying prisoners to be ‘examined’ turns to the left; those committed for trial like Collins turn to the right.  Nobody has ever escaped from here except for Lavalette, (a French politician under Napoleon who was arrested under the Bourbons, and whose wife visited him the night before his execution and switched clothes with him).

Collin has to be assisted out of the paddy-wagon because at the moment of his arrest Asia had given him a poison to fake illness.  This not only enabled him to give only a garbled and unintelligible response to the first round of questioning, rendering it useless, it also enables him to fake being at death’s door now.  He begs for his case to heard urgently before he dies, because (of course, like every other criminal says Balzac) he is the victim of a mistake.

There are no such histrionics with Lucien.

Lucien’s expression was that of a dejected criminal. He submitted to everything, and obeyed like a machine. All the way from Fontainebleau the poet had been facing his ruin, and telling himself that the hour of expiation had tolled. Pale and exhausted, knowing nothing of what had happened at Esther’s house during his absence, he only knew that he was the intimate ally of an escaped convict, a situation which enabled him to guess at disaster worse than death. When his mind could command a thought, it was that of suicide. He must, at any cost, escape the ignominy that loomed before him like the phantasm of a dreadful dream.

The similarity between his prison cell and his first cheap abode in Paris reduces him to tears

This resemblance between his starting-point, in the days of his innocence, and his goal, the lowest depths of degradation and sham, was so direct an appeal to his last chord of poetic feeling, that the unhappy fellow melted into tears. For four hours he wept, as rigid in appearance as a figure of stone, but enduring the subversion of all his hopes, the crushing of all his social vanity, and the utter overthrow of his pride, smarting in each separate I that exists in an ambitious man— a lover, a success, a dandy, a Parisian, a poet, a libertine, and a favourite. Everything in him was broken by this fall as of Icarus.

Ah yes, we are meant to feel sorry for Lucien because he is a man of the better classes, and not a common rogue like Collin!

Collins has come prepared and he is confident that Monsieur Camusot, the police commissioner and examining judge to the Inferior Court of the Seine,  is no match for him:

He sat down in a corner where the eye of a prying warder at the grating of the peephole could not see him. Then he took off his wig, and hastily ungummed a piece of paper that did duty as lining. The side of the paper next his head was so greasy that it looked like the very texture of the wig. If it had occurred to Bibi-Lupin* to snatch off the wig to establish the identity of the Spaniard with Jacques Collin, he would never have thought twice about the paper, it looked so exactly like part of the wigmaker’s work. The other side was still fairly white, and clean enough to have a few lines written on it. The delicate and tiresome task of unsticking it had been begun in La Force; two hours would not have been long enough; it had taken him half of the day before. The prisoner began by tearing this precious scrap of paper so as to have a strip four or five lines wide, which he divided into several bits; he then replaced his store of paper in the same strange hiding-place, after damping the gummed side so as to make it stick again. He felt in a lock of his hair for one of those pencil leads as thin as a stout pin, then recently invented by Susse, and which he had put in with some gum; he broke off a scrap long enough to write with and small enough to hide in his ear. Having made these preparations with the rapidity and certainty of hand peculiar to old convicts, who are as light-fingered as monkeys, Jacques Collin sat down on the edge of his bed to meditate on his instructions to Asie, in perfect confidence that he should come across her, so entirely did he rely on the woman’s genius.

[* Bibi-Lupin is the head of the “safety” force” i.e. “Head of the brigade of the guardians of public safety”,  and it was he who arrested Jacques Collin long ago at Madame Vauquer’s boarding-house.  He was himself a former a convict, and a comrade of Jacques Collin on the hulks, but they are now enemies.  Bibi-Lupin is jealous of Jacques Collin’s supremacy as a criminal and as chief, adviser, and banker to former prisoners in Paris.  if Balzac explains how he came to be head of the Safety Force, I missed it.]

Collins (correctly assuming that Lucien is beside himself) is also determined to make Lucien pull himself together lest he incriminate them both.

Now, to Lucien’s disadvantage, he happens to be an enemy of the Madame d’Espard, who would like to see the back of him because he had previously successfully intervened in her action against her husband.   Madame d’Espard has influence over Camusot who has previously tried and failed to do her a favour in court (See The Commission in Lunacy) but  when she persuades his wife, Amelie to make sure Lucien gets committed, Camusot tells Amelie to keep out of it.  And just as well, because the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse – whose influence led to Camusot’s much-coveted appointment – sends for Amelie to tell her husband to look after Lucien’s interests because she can vouch for his innocence.  She wants him allowed to have a private visitor in his cell and to be released within 24 hours.  Yes, you guessed it, Madame de Maufrigneuse owed Camusot for a favour, see La Cabinet des Antiques; Scenes de la vie de Province), and she’s in a position to make promises for future preferment from the King.  She also alludes to obliging the Attorney General and Madame Leontine de Serizy (who was a former lover of Lucien (see here and scroll down).  She’s very upset about his arrest.

So now Amelie is in a pickle:

“Now, which of them has the most power?” she said in conclusion. “The Marquise was very near getting you into trouble in the silly business of the commission on her husband, and we owe everything to the Duchess.

The couple sit down to decide what to do.  They go over the evidence which concludes that Abbé Carlos Herrera is assuredly Jacques Collin/Vautrin a.k.a. Trompe-la-Mort (‘Dodge-Death’) and that Lucien – guilty of shabby behaviour with Coralie and Esther i.e. pimping – has probably fleeced Nucingen of the missing money.  Camusot reminds his wife that they are not supposed to know any of this (but in fact, Balzac says, the police have dossiers like this on everyone in Paris).  Amelie comes to the conclusion that they must support Lucien:

“Lucien is guilty,” he went on; “but of what?”

“A man who is the favourite of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, of the Comtesse de Serizy, and loved by Clotilde de Grandlieu, is not guilty,” said Amelie. “The other must be answerable for everything.”

“But Lucien is his accomplice,” cried Camusot.

“Take my advice,” said Amelie. “Restore this priest to the diplomatic career he so greatly adorns, exculpate this little wretch, and find some other criminal——”

“How you run on!” said the magistrate with a smile. “Women go to the point, plunging through the law as birds fly through the air, and find nothing to stop them.”

“But,” said Amelie, “whether he is a diplomat or a convict, the Abbe Carlos will find some one to get him out of the scrape.”

“I am only a considering cap; you are the brain,” said Camusot. “Well, the sitting is closed; give your Melie a kiss; it is one o’clock.”

And Madame Camusot went to bed, leaving her husband to arrange his papers and his ideas in preparation for the task of examining the two prisoners next morning.

But in the cold light of morning Camusot decides that he would rather take vengeance on Lucien, who, it turns out, had ‘stolen’ Coralie from his father.

[This is why it is a good idea to read the stories of La Comedie Humaine in order, and to have The Repertory of La Comedie Humaine handy, so that you can keep track of who did what to whom.  Characters in  La Comedie have better memories of this than most readers do].

But lo! Quite by chance (or so he thinks) Camusot bumps into Count Granville who is Attorney General, and guess what? Granville just happens to mention the case and mounts a convincing set of reasons why Lucien can’t possibly be guilty.  He finishes up by casting doubt on the identity of Abbé Carlos Herrera and mentions his diplomatic status.  [Is this a lie?  Or does Granville believe this?]  Anyway, by the time Camusot gets to the prison there is plenty else to give him pause:

  • The doctors tell him that Collin was shamming illness
  • Bibi-Lupin tells him that Collin’s fellow-convicts will happily turn him in because he embezzled their gambling winnings (to give to Lucien)

Meanwhile Collin is busy writing notes using his bits of paper and lead. He writes to Asie to have the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse or Madame de Serizy get a message to Lucien, and to get Rastignac and Bianchon to testify that he’s not Jacques Collin.  He writes to Lucien telling him to confirm his identity as Abbé Carlos Herrera and to  keep mum.   Asie for her part has rigged herself up as a Baroness of the Faubourg Saint-Germain using swanky second-hand clothes (cast-offs sold by ‘ladies in difficulties’).  So when she turns up at the magistrates’ office, she impresses an obliging young lawyer and soon has him wrapped around her little finger. Pretending that she may need his help with a profitable lawsuit, and is only there at Camusot’s bidding as a witness in Lucien’s case, she drops influential names to further impress Massol and cons him into showing her around the Conciergerie (so that she can see Marie-Antoinette’s dungeon!)  And so it that she creates a disturbance when Collin passes by, Collin swoons and unobtrusively drops his little note rolled up into a little ball, and she gracefully retrieves it with the time-honoured stratagem of dropping her handbag in the same place before departing, ostensibly in pursuit of her lost dog.

Asie is soon wangling admittance to Madame de Maufrigneuse’s where she pretends to be the second-hand clothes-seller, Madame de Saint-Esteve a.k.a. Madame Nourrisson in the trade.  Lucien’s name is enough to persuade the Duchess, and away they go together to Madame Leontine de Serizy.  She’s still prostrate at the fate of her lover Lucien. Asie ticks off Madame Serizy – it’s all her fault, says Asie, for failing to provide Lucien with the money he needed which was why Esther had prostituted herself for him.  Asie hints that since the Grandlieu wedding is off, there is a chance for her with Lucien, but she must act, to save him, pronto.

[Meanwhile, back at the Conciergerie, Balzac has mercifully refrained from further attempts to render bad French, as he did in What Love Costs an Old Man:

It must here be observed that Jacques Collin spoke French like a Spanish trollop, blundering over it in such a way as to make his answers almost unintelligible, and to require them to be repeated. But Monsieur de Nucingen’s German barbarisms have already weighted this Scene too much to allow of the introduction of other sentences no less difficult to read, and hindering the rapid progress of the tale.

Thank goodness for that!]

Anyway, under examination Collin persists in claiming to be “Don Carlos Herrera, canon of the Royal Chapter of Toledo, and secret envoy of His Majesty Ferdinand VII” and comes up with a string of semi-plausible explanations for his behaviour, culminating in the claim that he serves Lucien’s interest because Lucien is his son.  And then he faints away.  (Which is probably what Lucien would do too, if he heard this).

They bring him round to inspect his back for a convict’s brand, but his back has so many marks on it that they are confounded.  (Collin claims that these are wounds from warfare in the Spanish monarch’s service).  Then Camusot reveals that they know about Asie, who is his sister Jacqueline Collin but still Collin doesn’t flinch. Two witnesses turn up to identify him: Bibi-Lupin, Madame Poiret (a.k.a. Mlle Michonneau from Madame Vauquer’s boarding house) but it’s inconclusive because he has disguised himself so well.  Camusot was on the verge of sending Collin back to the cells when a woman turns up with Esther’s suicide letter to Lucien, and Camusot wavers.   Triumphant, Collin makes a mistake, he offers the protection of his Order if Lucien is spared examination – and that’s when Camusot realises that Lucien is the weak link.

Lucien talks: he tells everything and he identifies Abbé Carlos Herrera as Jacques Collin.  He is appalled by Collin’s claim to be his father, and Camusot is delighted because he has snared both of them, holding Lucien overnight so that he can testify against Collin in the morning.  So he is a bit taken aback when he receives a terse note from  Madame de Maufrigneuse telling him not to examine Lucien.  This blunder will affect his career.  With Granville (the public prosecutor who’d advised him to go easy on Lucien) on the way Camusot burns the Duchess’s note, seals other incriminating correspondence, and awaits his fate.

And why is Granville keen to help out Lucien?  He’s a pal of de Serizy, who despite the gossip surrounding his wife’s passion for Lucien, still loves and cares about her reputation. And Comte de Serizy is Minister of State, member of the Privy Council, Vice-President of the State Council, and prospective Chancellor of the Realm, if the incumbent dies.  And Camusot himself knows the joys and perils of illicit romance, (see A Double Marriage.) Enough said?

So he’s not very pleased when he finds out what Camusot has done.  There goes the promotion!

Madame de Serizy arrives next, appalled to discover that she is too late, and that while Lucien is not guilty of murder and theft, he has admitted to being an accessory of the arch-villain Collin instead. When Camusot tactfully gives back her love-letters to Lucien, she burns them – and when he lets his guard down she grabs the evidence documents and burns them too, burning her hands when a struggle ensues.  This gives Granville a chance to put a stop to proceedings but of course Lucien doesn’t know that.  In the cell he had been placed in for his overnight stay he has written not only a Will bequeathing his money to charity but also an apology (of sorts) to Collin and a recantation of his evidence against him.  And he hangs himself.

Everything is nicely hushed up for the papers – but what of Collin’s fate?  More of him in later stories!!

Read it here
Summarised by Lisa Hill, January 1, 2014

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: What Love Costs an Old Man, 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.


Nucingen, the old fool, haggles with  Asie, now pimping for Esther, who is in hiding from the bailiffs.  A (hefty) price is agreed, Asie telling him ‘though you are knowing in arithmetic, you strike me as a muff in other matters’.  Nucingen meets  Esther in a squalid room, working at some embroidery and, totally besotted, offers to be her protector.  He hands over the money which duly goes to Carlos Herrera and he takes her away to Rue Taitbout where she weeps so piteously that he spends the night on the sofa.  Europe a.k.a. Prudence Servien suggests that bad memories are upsetting her and that he ought to buy a nice new hideaway to make her feel better.

But in the morning the bailiffs Contenson and Louchard, accompanied by armed guards, arrive demanding money, so Nucingen has to put his hand in his pocket again to buy them off and keep things quiet.  Contenson is, of course, highly suspicious of the way Nucingen is so ready to pay  such a high price for the girl. Herrera is orchestrating everything behind the scenes at maximum profit.

(BTW I do not know whether it is the translator of Balzac whose rendering of the Baron’s German accent is so painful, but it’s tiresome to read).

It is when Herrera and Europe are discussing all the different ways they have to fleece the Baron that Balzac reveals her back story.  She was born into a poor family in Valenciennes, where she started work in a factory at seven, was corrupted by twelve and a mother at thirteen.  She fled to Paris to escape the threat of vengeance from a murdered she had testified against.  There she met Paccard, a disciple of Jacques Collin i.e. Herrera, and today is the day that he has arranged for Durut, the murderer, to be bumped off. So, with the funds she now has access to, she can return to Valenciennes and make an honest woman of herself.  But in the meantime, Herrera makes sure that any love-nest that the Baron sets up will be staffed by his own creatures.

Next Herrera goes to Lucien and sets up a complicated sting with Eve and David; Nucingen meanwhile is back at his business and behaving like a ruthless banker instead of a lovesick fool. (Here Balzac has another little rant against French bankers and how they are the ruination of the world).  Lucien is relieved that his marriage to Clotilde de Grandlieu is going to be okay, but Herrera knows that someone is watching him and so he reluctantly has to resume his disguise as a priest.

Nucingen then sets out to break the joyful news to Esther that he has acquired a love-nest in Rue Saint-Georges (extorted from a stockbroker called Falleix whose affairs were in a financial mess), but the weeping Magdalene still carries a torch for the worthless Lucien and yes! she manages to persuade Nucingen to leave her alone for a further forty days.

In the interim the love-nest is redecorated into an extravagant palace by the architect Florine – and soon everyone is talking about Nucingen’s passion for this unknown woman.  But when he writes to her in an effort to transform the love she has for him as a ‘father’ into something more befitting the amount of money he has spent, she starts behaving more like a courtesan than a daughter, sending him three contradictory letters but ultimately promising future joys if he gives her more time.  He’s is so shocked that he collapses – and it’s his (oddly tolerant) wife who advises him to give the little hussy the time she wants.

Herrera, however, has no time for that.  He comes around to give Esther a stern lecture about what she owes him and more importantly to remind her that Lucien’s future depends on her relationship with the Baron.  A few quick prayers to sort out her soul, then some coquetry over fripperies, and Esther is on her way.   She admires the palace, but puts off the evil moment by suggesting a play, where she is recognised.  But she is not Esther anymore, nor La Torpille, she is christened Madame de Champy by Nucingen in honour of her new status.   And confronted by curious ladies, she lies charmingly about where she has been.

(Asie, installed as cook in the love-nest, has spiced up the Baron’s dinner so that he gets indigestion and isn’t up to any kind of consummation.)

Alas Madame du Val-Noble (a.k.a. Suzanne) is the courtesan whose house was repossessed by Nucingen and she needs to recoup her losses before she is too old and ugly to attract another lover.  She had foolishly failed to provide for the day when Falleix was no longer around, she is in debt, and she is almost thirty.  So she sets out to make a friend of Esther, and Esther confides that the Baron has not yet had his way with her.

To complicate the plot further, Balzac then introduces a policeman called Peyrade, disguised as an Englishman and accompanied by Contenson (the suspicious bailiff from the beginning of the story) so that they can have a night’s carousing.   (Corentin and Peyrade featured in The Gondreville Mystery but Balzac just drops them here into this story and expects us to work out who they are ).  Whatever, like any good crooks, they are curious to know who is benefiting by making the banker pay, but when they find out that Esther’s mysterious lover is Lucien, they clumsily provoke Herrera into action.

Now it all gets very complicated.  Extremely complicated.

Peyrade and Contenson in disguise are boozing at the hotel when a gendarme turns up to take Peyrade to the Prefecture.  But it’s Herrera in the coach, armed with a stiletto.  Peyrade tells him that he has fallen in love with Madame du Val-Noble and that the reason for his disguise is to impress her with his wealth.  Herrera pries her address out of him, and then questions him about Baron de Nucingen’s love affair, and Madame de Champy (Esther) in particular).   As Herrera is leaving Corentin arrives and raises the alarm when he realises who ‘the gendarme’ is.  Peyrade is aghast when he realises he let slip the 300,00 francs the day that Esther was arrested, and he could have used it for his daughter Lydie’s dowry.

Meanwhile Lucien is still in dalliance with Clotilde, explaining to her that he has got the money to buy back his land (see the story of Eve and David for the reasons for this) to which her wily father( the Duke de Grandlieu) responds that men of no fortune such as Lucien may not assume the privilege of being in debt – and that  he must marry well, though that may be difficult since in their Faubourg daughters do not get large dowries.   This does not discourage Lucien (who has obviously forgotten about Esther).

The next morning he is at breakfast with Herrera when Corentin arrives, using the name of M. de Saint-Esteve.  Herrera hides, and Lucien sees him alone.  Corentin says there will be no marriage unless Lucien coughs up 100,000 francs, because he acts on behalf of blackmailers who will tell her father the Duke that the money Lucien has to buy back the lands of Rubempre comes from money that Esther has extracted from Nucingen.  Lucien admits nothing, says there are plenty of other young ladies he can marry and tells him that Herrera is on his way to Spain.  Corentin makes ominous remarks which suggest that this story won’t end well for Lucien.

Herrera – having made a show of going to Spain, has secretly come back and is living with Esther on the sly, and she is playing the courtesan very well. She has made a complete fool of Nucingen because everyone knows that he still hasn’t had any …um.. satisfaction out of their arrangement.  She doesn’t feel a scrap of guilt about this because she has found out the dubious means by which he made his fortune.  She is downright rude to him at the opera and says some very spiteful things.

Lucien meanwhile has had a blow to his ambitions.  The Duke will suddenly not receive him.  He has received an anonymous letter from you-know-who, and he is making enquiries about the source of Lucien’s money.  His lawyer Derville is on the case, assisted by his spy – who is Corentin…

Esther sees Lucien’s distress at the opera and makes Nucingen bring him to her.  He tells her that the marriage to Clotilde  is in peril, which gives her some hope, but he’s more anxious that being seen with her will only make things worse for his ambition.  However he agrees to attend a dinner party at her house, and to bring Blondet and Rastignac along.  The plan is to invite Madame du Val-Noble and Peyrade (still in disguise as her English nabob and calling himself Mr Samuel Johnson!) so that Herrera can have the nabob under his claws.

The party assembles for the denouément:

At half-past eleven that evening, five carriages were stationed in the Rue Saint-Georges before the famous courtesan’s door. There was Lucien’s, who had brought Rastignac, Bixiou, and Blondet; du Tillet’s, the Baron de Nucingen’s, the Nabob’s, and Florine’s— she was invited by du Tillet.

The closed and doubly-shuttered windows were screened by the splendid Chinese silk curtains. Supper was to be served at one; wax-lights were blazing, the dining-room and little drawing-room displayed all their magnificence. The party looked forward to such an orgy as only three such women and such men as these could survive. They began by playing cards, as they had to wait about two hours.

There are a few pages of witty chat and Peyrade drinks himself silly, only to be woken in the morning with the news that his daughter Lydie has been abducted by someone pretending to be him (Peyrade).  She will not be released until Lucien marries Clotilde, and if Peyrade doesn’t cooperate he’ll be killed and she’ll be forced into prostitution. When he rushes home he is aghast to find that Corentin has gone away for ten days.

But Corentin, now in disguise as M. de Saint-Denis is with Derville at the Grandlieu home and before long they set out for Angouleme to find out the truth about Lucien’s past.   It doesn’t take much to learn that David and Eve Sechard had lost all they had to the Cointets because of Lucien’s extravagances in Paris.  Although they have recovered their position a little through hard work, Lucien didn’t get any vast sums of  money from his sister Eve, that’s for sure. When Eve learns that Lucien has claimed to have had a million francs from them, she is appalled, because she knows he’s up to no good.

But in one of those tidy Balzackian coincidences, Corentin just happens to mention that Lucien de Rubempre was living with a Jewess passing for a Dutchwoman called Esther van Bogseck, and the lawyer just happens to mention that he is hunting for the heiress of a Dutchman named Gobseck.

At the conclusion of their investigations, Corentin and Derville separate, leaving Corentin behind at Mansle. This delays his return to Paris where Contenson and Peyrade have failed to find any trace of Lydie.   Lucien’s marriage plans are in tatters and Madame de Serizy, who might have helped find him another advantageous marriage is still sulking because she saw him in the opera box with Esther.

Still, there’s a dinner to go to at Madame Val-Noble, and off he goes with Rastignac and Nucingen.  Peyrade receives a secret note in his napkin warning him that the ten days are up.  The dinner party is not a success.  And just as they are plodding through dessert the news comes that Lydie has been found, but she is dying.  Peyrade curses in French, thus revealing his disguise, and rushes off to Lydie.  But in the meantime Corentin has finally got back to Paris and learned about Peyrade’s troubles.  He disguises himself as an old man and set out, but comes across Lydie, wandering on the street in her nightclothes.  She tells him she is ruined, and that all she wants to do is wait for death in a convent.  Corentin carries her home only to have her father arrive and drop dead from poison – as Lydie loses her wits, he swears revenge for his friend’s life.

The autopsy finds no cause, but in a plot twist that could have inspired Agatha Christie it turns out that there is a very rare poison that comes from Malaya, where it is used to poison the Malay kris (a lethal curved small knife). Corentin knows that Herrera is behind it (and the readers knows that Asia had been hired to do the cooking at the dinner party!)

Back at Esther’s, she’s plotting suicide.  She promises her impecunious friend Madame du Val-Noble 50,000 francs if she will get two doses of a poison from Asia.  (She tests one of them out on her greyhound – I lost all sympathy with her after that!) She starts behaving kindly to Nucingen and he, poor fool, gives her a large parcel of shares and more money as a present because it’s the night of the house-warming party and at last she is going to give herself to him.  There is a touching little scene where Lucien toys with the idea of absconding to live quietly at Rubempre, but nothing comes of that.

The party is a sensation but Nucingen drinks nothing and as it comes to a close he leads Esther upstairs…

Eventually of course, he goes home, and there he finds out that Esther has sold the shares, and lo! not only that she has just inherited a fortune.

Yes, Bogseck is Gobseck, and the Dutchman’s millions are hers.  We knew that, didn’t we?

And Esther is dead, from poison.  And we knew that too, eh?

Naturally, there is a flurry to sort out who gets her money.  Europe finds the banknotes under her pillow to be delivered to Lucien and she scarpers with Paccard.  Herrera quickly forges a Will leaving everything to Lucien and then decamps through the roof, only to be caught by Contenson.  There is a scuffle and Contenson falls to his death, and Herrera (here called by his real name Jacques Collin just to confuse us*) goes to bed, shamming sleep so that he can’t answer any difficult police questions.

And Lucien?  He’s meeting Clotilde who is defying her father to marry him anyway.  Fortunately for her the gendarmes arrive just in time to arrest him for theft and murder.  At La Force, he is in solitary confinement – and so is the Abbé Carlos Herrera a.k.a. Jacques Collin.


Summary by Lisa Hill, December 31st, 2103.

* But see comments from Benny below, Carlos Herrara is in fact ex-convict Vauturin who makes an entry in Pere Goriot and in the History of Thirteen.

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life: Esther Happy, by Honoré de Balzac

Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life –  Esther Happy
Also translated as  How Girls Love/How a Courtesan Can Love 

This collection Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life includes four parts:
Esther Happy/How Girls Love/How a Courtesan Can Love
What Love Costs an Old Man
The End of Evil Ways
Vautrin’s Last Avatar/The Last Incarnation of Vautrin

Translated by James Waring


At an opera ball, our old friends Rastignac, Blondet and Finot are rather startled to find their formerly impoverished friend Lucien de Rubempre  in more prosperous circumstances and able to hold his own in society.  Indeed, he even meets up with a former lover, Madame d’Espard, ostensibly cutting her but really concealing his intentions from her husband.  This is a surprise because in the closing pages of Eve and David, he had been on the verge of suicide after living the high life in Paris at his family’s expense.  However he was saved by the intervention of a Spanish priest, Carlos Herrera, who gave him work as a secretary, which enabled him to send money back to Eve and David, who had beggared themselves on his behalf.   Embarrassed by his memories of his friend’s kindness when he was penniless, he can’t reject their overtures now, and they are very curious indeed, especially when Rastignac is grabbed by a masked man who warns him that Lucien is now under the protection of the Church – and they’d better cooperate.

Enter into this scene of witty exchanges and ribaldry, the lovely Esther, a.k.a. the courtesan La Torpille and the daughter of Sarah Van Gobseck.  She causes consternation too, especially when she faints into Lucien’s arms.  Some hours later she is found in a slum dwelling where she has tried to End it All…

The priest Herrera, who arrives just in time, hears the story of her sins.  She is in love with Lucien, and terrified that she will find out about her former life.  But the priest urges her to give him up, and she can’t bear the idea.  When she hurls herself at him, weeping on his breast, he’s a little tempted himself. However he restrains himself and sends her off for re-education in a convent…

So off she goes.  Balzac writes a lot of nonsense about the Oriental modelling of her eyes and the fascinations of women native to the desert (she’s Jewish)

Only those races that are native to deserts have in the eye the power of fascinating everybody, for any woman can fascinate some one person. Their eyes preserve, no doubt, something of the infinitude they have gazed on. Has nature, in her foresight, armed their retina with some reflecting background to enable them to endure the mirage of the sand, the torrents of sunshine, and the burning cobalt of the sky? or, do human beings, like other creatures, derive something from the surroundings among which they grow up, and preserve for ages the qualities they have imbibed from them? The great solution of this problem of race lies perhaps in the question itself. Instincts are living facts, and their cause dwells in past necessity. Variety in animals is the result of the exercise of these instincts. To convince ourselves of this long-sought-for truth, it is enough to extend to the herd of mankind the observation recently made on flocks of Spanish and English sheep which, in low meadows where pasture is abundant, feed side by side in close array, but on mountains, where grass is scarce, scatter apart. Take these two kinds of sheep, transfer them to Switzerland or France; the mountain breeds will feed apart even in a lowland meadow of thick grass, the lowland sheep will keep together even on an alp. Hardly will a succession of generations eliminate acquired and transmitted instincts. After a century the highland spirit reappears in a refractory lamb, just as, after eighteen centuries of exile, the spirit of the East shone in Esther’s eyes and features.

At first the other girls were jealous but soon were won over, yes, everybody loves her.  But alas, though she is fervent enough, her health starts to fail .  Yes, she is dying of love for Lucien, but even though he’s just around the corner and she’s at death’s door, Herrera isn’t going to part with a convert if he can help it.   Just hang on till after the baptism, he says, and this cheers her up immediately…

But oh dear, she wouldn’t have been so sanguine if she’d known that Lucien was enjoying himself with every luxury and whizzed through 40,000 francs as well. Besotted with La Torpille, he’s been searching for her everywhere, but not, of course, in the convent, even though he

had discerned the angel in this girl, who was tainted by corruption rather than corrupt; he always saw her white, winged, pure, and mysterious, as she had made herself for him, understanding that he would have her so.

Still he is not best pleased when he gets a lecture from Herrera about hanging around with foul, corrupted creatures, and he’s livid when he learns that the priest had ‘carried her off’.

Lucien flew at Herrera to seize him by the throat, with such violence that any other man must have fallen backwards; but the Spaniard’s arm held off his assailant. “Come, listen,” said he coldly. “I have made another woman of her, chaste, pure, well bred, religious, a perfect lady. She is being educated. She can, if she may, under the influence of your love, become a Ninon, a Marion Delorme, a du Barry, as the journalist at the opera ball remarked. You may proclaim her your mistress, or you may retire behind a curtain of your own creating, which will be wiser. By either method you will gain profit and pride, pleasure and advancement; but if you are as great a politician as you are a poet, Esther will be no more to you than any other woman of the town; for, later, perhaps she may help us out of difficulties; she is worth her weight in gold. Drink, but do not get tipsy. “If I had not held the reins of your passion, where would you be now? Rolling with La Torpille in the slough of misery from which I dragged you.

Well of course then Lucien calms down, reads Esther’s letter about the ecstasies of baptism, and apologises.

But wait! it turns out that the priest is not a priest at all! Herrera has no intention of sanctioning this love affair.  He has grand plans for Lucien, who will be his puppet.  Esther has to stay hidden away, and Herrera provides two exotic women, Europe and Asie (a Malay woman) to ensure that she does.  And with Herrera as mentor and guide, Lucien achieves success as a novelist, and a grand marriage is in the wind.

So Lucien could coquet with the world, give way to his poet’s caprices, and, it may be plainly admitted, to the necessities of his position. All this time he was slowly making his way, and was able to render secret service to certain political personages by helping them in their work. In such matters he was eminently discreet. He cultivated Madame de Serizy’s circle, being, it was rumoured, on the very best terms with that lady. Madame de Serizy had carried him off from the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, who, it was said, had “thrown him over,” one of the phrases by which women avenge themselves on happiness they envy. Lucien was in the lap, so to speak, of the High Almoner’s set, and intimate with women who were the Archbishop’s personal friends. He was modest and reserved; he waited patiently.

Alas for Lucien et al, that lecherous old Baron Nucingen spies Esther taking her convert exercise in the park, and oh dear, he starts to pine for her when he can’t find her anywhere.  When they hear is about to die, the usual crowd turns up and it is amongst the witty repartee that Lucien recognises the Baron’s description as being his Esther.   Herrera is alarmed that the grand marriage is in peril and proposes selling Esther to the Baron rather than letting him find out about their liaison.  This is when we find out – yes, it’s the old story – that Lucien is again in debt up to his ears, and the only way out is to marry Clotilde de Grandlieu, and the only way to get the necessary marriage settlement is to relieve Nucingen of the required sum.

And why is Herrera doing all this?

Carlos Herrera, a man at once ignoble and magnanimous, obscure and famous, compelled to live out of the world from which the law had banned him, exhausted by vice and by frenzied and terrible struggles, though endowed with powers of mind that ate into his soul, consumed especially by a fever of vitality, now lived again in the elegant person of Lucien de Rubempre, whose soul had become his own. He was represented in social life by the poet, to whom he lent his tenacity and iron will. To him Lucien was more than a son, more than a woman beloved, more than a family, more than his life; he was his revenge; and as souls cling more closely to a feeling than to existence, he had bound the young man to him by insoluble ties.

After rescuing Lucien’s life at the moment when the poet in desperation was on the verge of suicide, he had proposed to him one of those infernal bargains which are heard of only in romances, but of which the hideous possibility has often been proved in courts of justice by celebrated criminal dramas. While lavishing on Lucien all the delights of Paris life, and proving to him that he yet had a great future before him, he had made him his chattel.

This is where we find out the real identity of Herrera: That priest’s robe covered Jacques Collin, a man famous on the hulks, who ten years since had lived under the homely name of Vautrin in the Maison Vauquer, where Rastignac and Bianchon were at that time boarders. (And in the next story we learn that he is the secret envoy of Ferdinand VII of Spain, but more of that later.)

Lucien has become Herrera’s creature.  Corrupted by his venality, he turns a blind eye to the Spaniard’s plans for Esther.

From this point on the plot descends into farce.  There is another pseudo-priest, there is a substitute courtesan, and Nucingen, the smartest banker in Paris ends up rolling down the stairs, bereft of his money and the woman he wanted.

And Herrera decides that the best way to deal with Esther is (a) to make her liable for the couple’s debts and (b) to send her back to Paris, where she must never reveal her secret on pain of Lucien’s downfall.

Summarised by Lisa Hill, December 30th, 2013

Read it here

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

Continue reading

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. Continue reading