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.