The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Balzac: Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry



Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes [Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans] is the third novel of Balzac’s trilogy which is bound together by its treatment of the escaped convict and criminal, the homosexual Jacques Collin, or Vautrin, or Trompe-la-Mort (trick death) as he is called in Le Père Goriot, and the Abbé Carlos Herrara in Illusions perdues [Lost Illusions].

In Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes, called here by the title it receives in Rayner Heppenstall’s translation for Penguin in 1970: A Harlot High and Low, Vautrin, a figure of gigantic energy, carried to excess (as Baron Hulot in Cousin Bette is a figure of excess) is given the most detailed treatment of the three novels. But Lucien Chardon, who calls himself by his mother’s name, de Rubempré (in which, arguably, he shows an identification with the feminine rather than the masculine), and who is basic to Illusions perdues, is also an essential character, and in this novel, Paris is the setting throughout and dictates the behaviors of people in it.

Written in competition with the popular fiction of Eugène Sue, which creates part of its sensationalism, but which also made Balzac determined to write “the true Paris” (Hunt 1959: 368), the novel has as one of its topics revenge and, another, disguises, but it is certainly the one where Balzac engages most with prostitution in Paris; the early intentions were to write about a prostitute called La Torpille (the torpedo – because of the powerful effect she has on men), and a fragment was published in September 1838. It became Comme aiment les filles [How Girls Love] (the first part of A Harlot High and Low), but it should be noted that Balzac had effectively started the third novel of the Vautrin series before writing the third part of the second novel (Lost Illusions), itself not completed until 1843. The opening parts of A Harlot High and Low were published in 1843 and developed in 1844, and the third part appeared in 1846. The fourth part appeared in the spring of 1847, at the same time as the writing of Cousin Pons. The writing of the complete novel, then, extends over 10 years (1838–1847). The second part of the third novel became A combien l’amour revient aux vieillards. The third part, Ou mênent les mauvais, segues into the fourth, La Dèrniere Incarnation de Vautrin. The equivalent titles in the English translation are “Esther’s Happiest Days,” “What Love may Cost an Old Man,” “Where Evil Ways Lead,” and “The Last Incarnation of Vautrin.” Before roughing out the plot, it should be said that the singular “harlot” in the English translation does not do justice to the plural of the French – the splendors and miseries of courtesans – since both Esther and Lucien are literal prostitutes, to look no further in society (Heathcote 2009: 49, quoting Pierre Citron).

The narrative is basically simple, though its details are not, nor are the roles and functions of its many subsidiary characters. Lucien de Rubempré, the leading character in Illusions perdues, is brought back to Paris by Vautrin, who meets him in disguise as a Spanish priest, and virtually seduces him, and clearly falls in love with him, while his role is to act as the Mephistopheles to his Faust. Lucien falls as Rastignac did not, quite: Rastignac is also present in this third novel. Illusions perdues ends in 1823; A Harlot High and Low opens in Paris, at the Opera, in February 1824, by which time Lucien has acquired a mistress, Esther, the daughter of Gobseck, a Jewish moneylender from Antwerp, whom Balzac had written about in 1830. She lives in poverty and loves Lucien. Vautrin wants to separate them and to marry Lucien to a rich heiress, Clothilde de Grandlieu – her father is deeply suspicious of Lucien and where his money comes from. Once married, Vautrin says, Lucien can have Esther as a kept woman – i.e., a “courtisane.” (It is a measure of his love for Lucien that he is prepared to let him have her.) Esther is pursued by the old and rich Baron de Nucingen, who wants to set her up as a kept woman straightaway: she, however, commits suicide after giving herself to him on a single occasion. Lucien and Vautrin – still in disguise – are both arrested for her murder and sent to the Conciergerie. The powers of law want to crack Vautrin’s disguise and to prove that he is the escaped convict. Their awareness of Vautrin’s homosexuality appears in an anecdote about a certain Lord Durham being shown round a Paris prison, and not being shown one building, which houses “the third sex” (de Balzac 1970: 454). One reason for thinking about Paris as the “capital of the nineteenth century,” with all the ambiguities of that title, certainly rests with its frank acknowledgment of the idea of homosexuality.

Lucien, hysterical and deeply troubled by his relationship with Vautrin, commits suicide in prison. In order not to let incriminating letters from two married heiresses – the duchess of Maufrigneuse and the countess of Sérisy – become public and with the danger that even the supposed integrity of the crown may be affected, the police, in the person of M. de Granville, strikes a deal with Vautrin, who has been devastated by Lucien’s death, and thinks that Lucien “should have been a woman” (514). Vautrin virtually gives himself up, but he also exposes Bibi-Lupin, the chief of security, as utterly corrupt. He volunteers to take Bibi-Lupin’s place himself, so that he becomes a member of the secret police himself, where his first job will be to arrest Bibi-Lupin, he says. He retires after 15 years of service in 1845, and with that the novel ends. He incidentally also saves the life of another young man, another condemned convict, Théodore Calvi, housed with others of the third sex. His new profession is, then, his “last incarnation” (compare 487); it is a reversal of the kind that Walter Benjamin looks for in his will for revolution; and it is a nice irony that when Vautrin was on his way to Paris in Illusions perdues and met Lucien, he was actually traveling to rescue Calvi, one of his “aunts” (tantes – de Balzac 1987: 541: “queens” in Heppenstall’s translation).

The principal irony is that Esther’s father dies at the point when she kills herself, so that she could have become an heiress herself and could have given the million francs to Lucien which he needs, and for which she was willing to sacrifice herself to Nucingen, becoming a professional again – willing to do this since Nucingen has money and to spare. Esther in fact is the professional prostitute who goes out of prostitution and into a regenerative spiritual life out of her love for Lucien (persuaded to do so by Vautrin, who has his own reasons), but goes back into prostitution out of love for him, but finds then she cannot bear her old life again. She begins in squalor, in a house in the rue de Langlade, near the Palais-Royal and the rue de Rivoli (34), as a number in the police files; like everything else, disguise hangs heavy here: “These narrow streets, dark and muddy, where trades are carried on which do not care about external appearances, take on at night a mysterious physiognomy, and one full of contrasts … passing that way in the daytime, nobody could imagine what all those streets become at night; they are scoured by singular creatures who belong to no world; white, half-naked forms line the walls, the darkness is alive” (34). Lucien ends in the Conciergerie, which is described in great detail, especially its prison-yard: it is part of a “Romantic” Paris, associated with the imprisonment of Marie-Antoinette, which shows a debt to Hugo, whose Dernier jour d’un condamné [Last Day of a Condemned Man] ghosts this text, as much as Sue. But there is little Romanticism in Balzac’s writing of the Conciergerie: more cynicism.


In this sense of the irony of events, prostitution is that which ties together all aspects of Paris and Parisian society, so that the splendors and miseries relate to all the different classes of society; courtesans can have glory or misery. In the same way, Dickens, in Bleak House (1852–1853), is anxious to show links binding together all London society: asking, “what connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” (Dickens 2003: 256). In Dickens, it is the symbolism of law which induces guilt which makes the connections, but in Balzac, it is a more material though unsuspected link: the pursuit of pleasure which turns Nucingen and Vautrin into different types of folly. And connections, in both Balzac and Dickens, relate also to the idea of interchangeability: the police and the criminals are the same as each other. Vautrin himself is drawn from Eugène François Vidocq (1775–1857), whom Balzac knew, who moved from being a criminal to a chief of police (the brigade de sureté), and published his memoirs in 1828. (Benjamin, incidentally, quotes Vidocq writing that “Paris is a spot on the globe, but this spot is a sewer, and the emptying point of all sewers” (Benjamin 1999: C8a,1), a nice irony, considering that the “sewer” applies to both physical and moral corruption). Vidocq’s doubleness mirrors a fascination in both Balzac and Dickens in the way that policing involves criminality itself. Policing is produced by the city and perceptions of danger within it; the city then becomes the place for inducing a double identity, this being a correlate of the way that high and low in society are involved in the same thing.

At the end of the third part, Balzac writes: “This last act of the drama may further serve to round out our portrayal of the customs of the time and disentangle those interests which Lucien’s life had so strangely brought together, mingling some of the most ignoble figures of the Underworld with others drawn from the very highest spheres” (408). The sense that this is melodrama is needed by Balzac to account for his feeling that such connections and sexual “minglings” (social “minglings” are seen in the Opera ball which starts the novel) are beyond realism, because minglings render the categorizations on which realist narrative depends, useless. They are beyond what any writer of fiction had tried before (beyond melodrama, the linkages are only found in Shakespearian drama, with which Balzac was well acquainted). Balzac feels the need for justification:

An obligation for ever incumbent upon the historian of our changing customs is that of never spoiling the truth by supposedly dramatic contrivances, especially when the truth itself has been at pains to take the form of a novel. The natural history of man’s society, especially in Paris, comprises so many freaks of chance, such tangling of conjecture and caprice, that the imagination of the inventor is left far behind. The boldness of truth rises to a level of coincidence forbidden to art, so improbable, so indecorous are its devices, so that the writer must tone them down, trim and prune (châtre) them. (487)

There is the sense that drama (certainly melodrama) depends on chance, but truth takes the form of a novel – that is, it must assume some probability. Yet Paris tests the possibility of writing a novel, since the city itself comprises coincidences; the novel may be the privileged form of modernity, but modernity in Paris disallows the novel form and bends things back to the form of the drama, with the four parts of this novel corresponding to the four acts of a play. Life in the city – “truth” – knows coincidences that the writer must censor. The word “châtre” implies castration, as though the sexual wildness which is described is itself only a shadow of what is actually the case. Balzac, then, suggests that prostitution takes more shapes than he can acknowledge.

As always, there is the sense that any form of representation cannot keep up with the reality of modern Paris. That point comes out with the number of disguises which appear throughout. The police, specifically Conrentin, marvel at how many disguises Vautrin and his associates, especially his aunt, have, and Vautrin comments that “actors have all the resources of theatre at their disposal, but perfect performance in the light of day, no matter what time it is, only you and people trained by you” (536). Vautrin in complementing the police, and in pointing to the theater, makes the point that disguise is not a marker of the criminal, but of the forces of law and order. The novel begins with maskings, which recall E.A. Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” There is no order, no rule, which does not depend on being other than it seems to be, a point absolutely applicable to sexual inversion, which is why Vautrin must be what he is; and this is the central exciting insight that motivates everything in the writing of the Comédie Humaine.


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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