Cousin Betty, by Honoré de Balzac


La Cousine Bette was perhaps the last really great thing that Balzac did — for Le Cousin Pons, which now follows it, was actually written before — and it is beyond all question one of the very greatest of his works. It was written at the highest possible pressure, and (contrary to the author’s more usual system) in parts, without even seeing a proof, for the Constitutionnel in the autumn, winter, and early spring of 1846–47, before his departure from Vierzschovnia, the object being to secure a certain sum of ready money to clear off indebtedness. And it has been sometimes asserted that this labor, coming on the top of many years of scarcely less hard works, was almost the last straw which broke down Balzac’s gigantic strength. Of these things it is never possible to be certain; as to the greatness of La Cousine Bette, there is no uncertainty.

In the first place, it is a very long book for Balzac; it is, I think, putting aside books like Les Illusions Perdues, and Les Celibataires, and Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes, which are really groups of work written at different times, the longest of all his novels, if we except the still later and rather doubtful Petits Bourgeois. In the second place, this length is not obtained — as length with him is too often obtained — by digressions, by long retrospective narrations, or even by the insertion of such “padding” as the collection business in Le Cousin Pons. The whole stuff and substance of La Cousine Bette is honestly woven novel-stuff, of one piece and one tenor and texture, with for constant subject the subterranean malignity of the heroine, the erotomania of Hulot and Crevel, the sufferings of Adeline, and the pieuvre operations of Marneffe and his wife — all of which fit in and work together with each other as exactly as the cogs and gear of a harmonious piece of machinery do. Even such much simpler and shorter books as Le Pere Goriot by no means possess this seamless unity of construction, this even march, shoulder to shoulder, of all the personages of the story.

In the second place, this story itself strikes hold on the reader with a force not less irresistible than that of the older and simpler stories just referred to. As compared even with its companion, this force of grasp is remarkable. It is not absolutely criminal or contemptible to feel that Le Cousin Pons sometimes languishes and loses itself; this can never be said of the history of the evil destiny partly personified in Elizabeth Fischer, which hovers over the house of Hulot.

Some, I believe, have felt inclined to question the propriety of the title of the book, and to assign the true heroineship to Valerie Marneffe, whom also the same and other persons are fond of comparing with her contemporary Becky Sharp, not to the advantage of the latter. This is no place for a detailed examination of the comparison, as to which I shall only say that I do not think Thackeray has anything to fear from it. Valerie herself is, beyond all doubt, a powerful study of the “strange woman,” enforcing the Biblical view of that personage with singular force and effectiveness. But her methods are coarser and more commonplace than Becky’s; she never could have long sustained such an ordeal as the tenure of the house in Curzon Street without losing even an equivocal position in decent English society; and it must always be remembered that she was under the orders, so to speak, of Lisbeth, and inspired by her.

Lisbeth herself, on the other hand, is not one of a class; she stands alone as much as Becky herself does. It is, no doubt, an arduous and, some milky-veined critics would say, a doubtfully healthy or praiseworthy task to depict almost pure wickedness; it is excessively hard to render it human; and if the difficulty is not increased, it is certainly not much lessened by the artist’s determination to represent the malefactress as undiscovered and even unsuspected throughout. Balzac, however, has surmounted these difficulties with almost complete success. The only advantage — it is no doubt a considerable one — which he has taken over Shakespeare, when Shakespeare devised Iago, is that of making Mademoiselle Fischer a person of low birth, narrow education, and intellectual faculties narrower still, for all their keenness and intensity. The largeness of brain with which Shakespeare endows his human devil, and the largeness of heart of which he does not seem to wish us to imagine him as in certain circumstances incapable, contrast sharply enough with the peasant meanness of Lisbeth. Indeed, Balzac, whose seldom erring instinct in fixing on the viler parts of human nature may have been somewhat too much dwelt on, but is undeniable, has here and elsewhere hit the fault of the lower class generally very well. It does not appear that the Hulots, though they treated her without much ceremony, gave Bette any real cause of complaint, or that there was anything in their conduct corresponding to that of the Camusots to the luckless Pons. That her cousin Adeline had been prettier than herself in childhood, and was richer and more highly placed in middle life, was enough for Lisbeth — the incarnation of the Radical hatred of superiority in any kind. And so she set to work to ruin and degrade the unhappy family, to set it at variance, and make it miserable, as best she could.

The way of her doing this is wonderfully told, and the various characters, minor as well as major, muster in wonderful strength. I do not know that Balzac has made quite the most of Hector Hulot’s vice — in fact, here, as elsewhere, I think the novelist is not happy in treating this particular deadly sin. The man is a rather disgusting and wholly idiotic old fribble rather than a tragic victim of Libitina. So also his wife is too angelic. But Crevel, the very pattern and model of the vicious bourgeois who had made his fortune; and Wenceslas Steinbock, pattern again and model of the foibles of Polen aus der Polackei; and Hortense, with the better energy of the Hulots in her; and the loathsome reptile Marneffe, and Victoria, and Celestine, and the Brazilian (though he, to be sure, is rather a transpontine rastaqouere), and all the rest are capital, and do their work capitally. But they would not be half so fine as they are if, behind them, there were not the savage Pagan naturalism of Lisbeth Fischer, the “angel of the family”— and a black angel indeed.

One of the last and largest of Balzac’s great works — the very last of them, if we accept La Cousine Bette, to which is pendant and contrast — Le Cousin Pons has always united suffrages from very different classes of admirers. In the first place, it is not “disagreeable,” as the common euphemism has it, and as La Cousine Bette certainly is. In the second, it cannot be accused of being a berquinade, as those who like Balzac best when he is doing moral rag-picking are apt to describe books like Le Medecin de Campagne and Le Lys dans la Vallee, if not even like Eugenie Grandet. It has a considerable variety of interest; its central figure is curiously pathetic and attractive, even though the curse of something like folly, which so often attends Balzac’s good characters, may a little weigh on him. It would be a book of exceptional charm even if it were anonymous, or if we knew no more about the author than we know about Shakespeare.

As it happens, however, Le Cousin Pons has other attractions than this. In the first place, Balzac is always great — perhaps he is at his greatest — in depicting a mania, a passion, whether the subject be pleasure or gold-hunger or parental affection. Pons has two manias, and the one does not interfere with, but rather helps, the other. But this would be nothing if it were not that his chief mania, his ruling passion, is one of Balzac’s own. For, as we have often had occasion to notice, Balzac is not by any means one of the great impersonal artists. He can do many things; but he is never at his best in doing any unless his own personal interests, his likings and hatreds, his sufferings and enjoyments, are concerned. He was a kind of actor-manager in his Comedie Humaine; and perhaps, like other actor-managers, he took rather disproportionate care of the parts which he played himself.

Now, he was even more desperate as a collector and fancier of bibelots than he was as a speculator; and while the one mania was nearly as responsible for his pecuniary troubles and his need to overwork himself as the other, it certainly gave him more constant and more comparatively harmless satisfactions. His connoisseurship would be nothing if he did not question the competence of another, if not of all others. It seems certain that Balzac frequently bought things for what they were not; and probable that his own acquisitions went, in his own eyes, through that succession of stages which Charles Lamb (a sort of Cousin Pons in his way too) described inimitably. His pictures, like John Lamb’s, were apt to begin as Raphaels, and end as Carlo Marattis. Balzac, too, like Pons, was even more addicted to bric-a-brac than to art proper; and after many vicissitudes, he and Madame Hanska seem to have succeeded in getting together a very considerable, if also a very miscellaneous and unequal collection in the house in the Rue du Paradis, the contents of which were dispersed in part (though, I believe, the Rochschild who bought it, bought most of them too) not many years ago. Pons, indeed, was too poor, and probably too queer, to indulge in one fancy which Balzac had, and which, I think, all collectors of the nobler and more poetic class have, though this number may not be large. Balzac liked to have new beautiful things as well as old — to have beautiful things made for him. He was an unwearied customer, though not an uncomplaining one, of the great jeweler Froment Meurice, whose tardiness in carrying out his behests he pathetically upbraids in more than one extant letter.

Therefore, Balzac “did more than sympathize, he felt”— and it has been well put — with Pons in the bric-a-brac matter; and would appear that he did so likewise in that of music, though we have rather less direct evidence. This other sympathy has resulted in the addition to Pons himself of the figure of Schmucke, a minor and more parochial figure, but good in itself, and very much appreciated, I believe, by fellow melomanes.

It is with even more than his usual art that Balzac has surrounded these two originals — these “humorists,” as our own ancestors would have called them — with figures much, very much, more of the ordinary world than themselves. The grasping worldliness of the parvenue family of Camusot in one degree and the greed of the portress, Madame Cibot, in the other, are admirably represented; the latter, in particular, must always hold a very high place among Balzac’s greatest successes. She is, indeed a sort of companion sketch to Cousine Bette herself in a still lower rank of life representing the diabolical in woman; and perhaps we should not wrong the author’s intentions if we suspected that Diane de Maufrigneuse has some claims to make up the trio in a sphere even more above Lisbeth’s than Lisbeth’s is above Madame Cibot’s own.

Different opinions have been held of the actual “bric-a-bracery” of this piece — that is to say, not of Balzac’s competence in the matter but of the artistic value of his introduction of it. Perhaps his enthusiasm does a little run away with him; perhaps he gives us a little too much of it, and avails himself too freely of the license, at least of the temptation, to digress which the introduction of such persons as Elie Magus affords. And it is also open to any one to say that the climax, or what is in effect the climax, is introduced somewhat too soon; that the struggle, first over the body and then over the property of Patroclus–Pons, is inordinately spun out, and that, even granting the author’s mania, he might have utilized it better by giving us more of the harmless and ill-treated cousin’s happy hunts, and less of the disputes over his accumulated quarry. This, however, means simply the old, and generally rather impertinent, suggestion to the artist that he shall do with his art something different from that which he has himself chosen to do. It is, or should be, sufficient that Le Cousin Pons is a very agreeable book, more pathetic if less “grimy,” than its companion, full of its author’s idiosyncracy, and characteristic of his genius. It may not be uninteresting to add that Le Cousin Pons was originally called Le Deux Musiciens, or Le Parasite, and that the change, which is a great improvement, was due to the instances of Madame Hanska.

The bibliography of the two divisions of Les Parents Pauvres is so closely connected, that it is difficult to extricate the separate histories. Originally the author had intended to begin with Le Cousin Pons (which then bore the title of Les Deux Musiciens), and to make it the more important of the two; but La Cousine Bette grew under his hands, and became, in more than one sense, the leader. Both appeared in the Constitutionnel; the first between October 8th and December 3rd, 1846, the second between March 18th and May of the next year. In the winter of 1847–48 the two were published as a book in twelve volumes by Chlendowski and Petion. In the newspaper (where Balzac received — a rarely exact detail — 12,836 francs for the Cousine, and 9,238 for the Cousin) the first-named had thirty-eight headed chapter-divisions, which in book form became a hundred and thirty-two. Le Cousin Pons had two parts in feuilleton, and thirty-one chapters, which in book form became no parts and seventy-eight chapters. All divisions were swept away when, at the end of 1848, the books were added together to the Comedie.

George Saintsbury

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31