The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Balzac: Cousin Bette

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
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Balzac Crevel Goriot Wenceslas Gare Saint-Lazare 
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With its action beginning in 1838, though looking back to the Napoleonic wars, when Baron Hulot was a protégé of the Emperor in his wars, La Cousine Bette, written in a bare two months, and with about a hundred named characters appearing in it, may be regarded as one of Balzac’s best novels. It began as a serial in Le Constitutionnel on October 8, 1846, appeared as a novel in 1847, and then in 1848 was made into volume XVII of the Comédie humaine [Human Comedy], along with Cousin Pons (published 1847). In a volume entitled Les Parents pauvres [Poor Relations], these two were late comers to a program which Balzac had thought complete. The first 35 chapters form a prologue; the second section, up to the end of Chapter 100, deals with the year 1841; and, the third, more episodically, from 1843 down to the beginning of 1847, the action finishing, in fact, one month later than the December 1846 issues when the novel ceased serialization.

We may start with listing some of the representative characters. Paris is the place for men with the desire to “get on” (Balzac 1992: 23), as Crevel says. He had been the assistant to César Birotteau in the novel of that name (1837) and remains a subject of Balzac’s scorn, a vulgar “bourgeois,” “incapable of understanding the arts” (400). Adeline, the beautiful and devoted but neglected wife of Baron Hector Hulot d’Ervy (her love for him has almost the force of a monomania, similar to that of Goriot for his daughters), married to him in 1808, has as a poor cousin Lisbeth Fischer (Bette): both women are from Lorraine, i.e., provincial France, and their fortunes in Paris are different. Bette is specifically compared to Napoleon, the Corsican (37), described as masculine in character, yet reliant on Valérie, who initially lives in the same apartment block, so that she substitutes for her. Bette is, like Napoleon, equally ruthless in what she wants, which is to exact revenge on her cousin’s family when Hortense, Adeline’s daughter, takes – or steals – Wenselas Steinbock, the Polish artist, away from her: she had dominated him since 1833, making him produce art worthy of himself, as Hortense fails to do. For domestic happiness is not what the artist needs: it stifles his desire. Steinbock, however, leaves his wife for a time for the middle-class and already married Valérie Marneffe, who is also loved by Hulot, and Crevel, and indeed by Bette. Valérie is also loved by Henri Montès de Montéjanos, a South American rastaquouère, a Brazilian identified with Africa (see Chapter 113), called the “Moor of Rio de Janeiro” (399), to enforce the comparison with Othello’s jealousy (compare 416’s reference to Iago and 417). On Marneffe’s death, Valérie marries Crevel, and both are poisoned by Henri Montès.

Hulot is one of a pair: his brother, Le Marechal Hulot, was a character in Les Chouans (1829); now out of place in Restoration France, he has nowhere to go and takes his life. Hector himself is loyal to the memory of the Empire and Napoleon, when he was at his finest. Now, out of any kind of office after the Restoration (1814/1815–1848, with the accession of Louis XVIII), he has nothing to do until he is given employment in 1823 and has therefore diversified his desires: frequently called a “libertine,” he is monomaniac in his pursuit of women, usually actresses, developing his tastes for women further the older he becomes, his fate being to be fleeced by Valérie, who only wants money, and rendered subject to blackmail by her husband (at the end of Chapter 80: the incident is usually thought of as being based on a similar trap set for Victor Hugo on July 5, 1845, which meant that he was caught in the act of adultery). In a persuasive reading, the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson sees his pursuit of women a displacement of the desires that Napoleon awoke, which the restoration of the monarchy ended, making such a man as Hulot feel his political desires had nowhere to go. After 1830 he is employed in the War Ministry which is undertaking the colonization of Algeria and is out of his depth in the commercial world that this implies, relying on the older swindling methods which Napoleon’s army practiced, not knowing that fraud now takes more bureaucratic methods and guises, which contribute to his disgrace. In a chapter called “Crevel Pontificate,” he tells Adeline, who, in 1841, is reduced to begging him to take her sexually for 200,000 francs to save her family from ruin (the novel had begun with Crevel trying unsuccessfully to seduce Adeline – but only in a desire for revenge on Hulot, who had taken a woman, Josépha, away from him; hence now the tables are turned), that above Louis-Philippe, “there is the holy, venerated, tangible, charming, gracious, beautiful, noble, young, all-powerful hundred-sou piece” (316; “la toute-puissante pièce de cent sous,” de Balzac 1977: 325). The flatness of the statement, and its banality, while it personifies the lifeless coin, conveys a sense of the new Paris coming in which is ripe for Haussmann – one where there is no other interest than money interest, acknowledged with some pomposity, the effect of which as a belief will mark the city’s new buildings and make it the middle-class paradise dominated by property and new apartment blocks.

One prominent woman among Hulot’s lovers is the Jewish prostitute Josépha Mirah (whom he has shared with Crevel as the latter explains in Chapter 3); toward the end, he has taken up with a fifteen-year-old, the Italian girl Atala Judici (447) – though all his affairs have been with girls decidedly underage. His son, Victorin, a lawyer and politician, and with none of his father’s saving graces, resorts to the aunt of Vautrin, the criminal of Père Goriot in particular, who is now head of the Criminal Investigation Department (Chapter 107 and p. 404), in order to get rid of Valérie. This “aunt,” who also appears as an indispensable agent in Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes [translated into English as A Harlot High and Low], embodies “the criminal side of Paris” (389), and through her agencies and those of Henri, Valérie is poisoned, as is Crevel, whose death scenes (Chapter 123) display the full extent of his vanity and folly.

Valérie and Wenceslas live in the same block as the Italian opera, in “a sort of inn whose rooms were let out for clandestine love-affairs at exorbitant prices” (425), and Balzac describes it in detail to give the idea of “the sordid dimensions” of such an affair “in the Paris of 1840” (426). She dotes on him, in another example of love as monomania, assorting it with the other interest that the novel has, in violent and murderous jealousy (Cousine Bette is also called an Iago (116), by Valérie). And these themes are realizable in a novel set in the city, in locations which are recognizable and which allow for a continual contrasting of situations, including physical settings.

While the novel has a strong sense of different interiors and their furnishings, and contrasts different tastes, and while it shows people walking from place to place in the streets (e.g., Bette’s walk in Chapter 28), in his short monograph on the novel, David Bellos notes it as having some 19 different Parisian settings, which are the key to its presentation of Paris. The first is the family home of the Hulots, in the rue de l’Université (5), parallel to the Quai D’Orsay, smart apartments in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where Hortense and Wenceslas Steinbock also live, this time on the rue Saint-Dominique, near the Invalides. When Adeline is banished after 1841, it is to the rue Plumet, in the same Faubourg, now called rue Oudinot. Also in the Faubourg is the rue Vaneau, where Hulot sets up Valérie Maneffe in 1838 (103). And Crevel later buys a house for Valérie in the rue Barbet-de-Jouy. On the right bank, there is the block in the rue du Doyenné where Valérie is first found by Hulot and where Bette and Wenceslas live. It was in the Quartier du Louvre (Chapter 13), a condemned area of deep poverty not yet completely destroyed – that waited for 1851 – showing “the intimate alliance of poverty and luxury characteristic of the Queen of capitals” (57–58). Bette had been living there since 1823. Bellos makes the point that this is not that far away from the rue de l’Université: there is a symbolic point lurking here in this parallel geography. Rivet lives in the quartier Saint-Denis, east of Les Halles. Crevel sets up a first apartment for Valérie in the rue du Dauphin, in part of the street now called rue Sainte-Roch, between the rue de Rivoli and the rue Saint-Honoré. In 1834, Victorin Hulot buys as a speculation a block on the boulevard des Capucines, between the rue de la Paix and the rue Louis-le-Grand, just north of the rue Saint-Honoré, and Bellos notes how the restoration of the Hulot family fortunes is because of the high rents he can charge after 1841. The area is cleaned up, and “only in 1840 were commercial premises established there, with their splendid window-displays, the money-changers’ gold, the fairy-like creations of fashions, and the unbridled luxury of the shops” (364). The area is becoming a “business center” between “the Stock Exchange and the Madeleine […] which was in future to be the seat of political power and finance in Paris” (364).

There is also the Crevel family home in the rue des Saussaies at the western end of Saint-Honoré. Then, nearby, and very exclusive, in the rue de la Ville- l’Eveque, west of the quartier Saint-Honoré, is where Josépha is housed as a kept woman by the Duc d’ Hérouville (80). There is the nightlife around the boulevard des Italiens, where is to be found the restaurant Rocher de Cancale “where all Europe has dined” (408, see also 102). North of the boulevard des Italiens was the area called the thirteenth arrondissement, a fictional address, since there were then only 12: this was the area for irregular marriages and liaisons. Josépha and Carabine lived in this area, in the rue Chauchat and the rue Saint-Georges, respectively, the area of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. Here, too, on the boulevard des Italiens is where Valérie and Wenceslas are entrapped by Henri Montès.

And then there are several areas, when Baron Hulot disappears into the working-class areas of Paris near the end, such as the eastern part of the city on the right bank; then in the rue des Bernardins near the Place Maubert near the Latin Quarter; and then in Little Poland, roughly where the Gare Saint-Lazare was built (in 1838), which is specified in great detail in Chapter 124 as:

bounded by the Rue de Rocher, the Rue de la Pépinière, and the Rue de Miromesnil. It survives there like a subsidiary of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau [the working-class faubourg bordering the Bièvre river, in the Ve. and XIIIe. arrondissements … here] the owners of certain houses, inhabited by manual workers without work, by unscrupulous scrap-merchants, and by down-and-outs engaged in risky occupations, dare not collect their rents and cannot find bailiffs who are willing to evict the insolvent tenants. (444–445)

Balzac refers to the possibility of speculators changing the face of this part of Paris (this, of course, was before the arrival of Haussmannization) and notes that in such districts where ignorant poverty and acute distress proliferate, the last public letter writers in Paris survive: “Wherever you see the two words Public Letter-writer in a large running hand on white paper stuck on the window of some entresol or filthy ground-floor premises, you can safely assume that the quarter is a haven for a large illiterate population and consequently for misfortune, vice, and crime. Ignorance is the mother of all crimes. Crime is, above all, the consequence of inadequate reasoning” (445). It is one of those statements where Balzac deliberately evades thinking about the irrational obsessionalism which drives the people forward in this novel, a compulsion which makes Hulot ruin everything he touches, but which Josépha comments on with sympathy (354).

In the last chapters, the girl Atala speaks of Paris in contrast to the faubourg where she lives, the rue de Charonne in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which is simply known as “the faubourg.” When Adeline finds her disgraced husband, missing for 3 years, they return to the house in the rue Louis-le-grand (described in Chapter 101), with Victorin and Célestine, his wife (daughter of Crevel). But Hulot has not changed, and the novel ends with not only Bette’s death, disappointed that her revenge has not quite succeeded, and that of Adeline, who has overheard Hulot talking with Agatha, the Normandy girl brought in to do the cooking, and forecasting his wife’s death. Adeline obliges, and at the end, in 1846, is made the wife of the baron.

Everything in the novel brings out the character of a Paris whose values are nothing but materialistic. Balzac becomes the sharpest critic of a city whose money values he despises, though his sense of the comedy of the hypocrisy and venality at work in that society inscribes it as being of the period when realism could be considered as having the power to change that society. Balzac died disappointed that French society had got nowhere – was indeed on the point of accepting Napoleon III, who gave them financial security and protection against the working-class, over democracy. For the 1848 revolutions had shown, in the “June days,” the middle class turning in reaction against the working-class on the barricades and accepting, therefore, from that moment onward, that they would be forever a reactive force. The split in Balzac makes him interesting; it is more than cynicism that he shows but rather a deep sense of how life and theory do not match.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK