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