Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cousin Bette

Honere de Balzac 1799-1850

France in the 1840s was a pretty crazy place. Parisians walking in two spheres, the respectable world and that of the courtesans. Balzac contrasts these worlds masterfully as reason/passion and duty/pleasure in his 1846 work Cousin Bette. The characters in the book are alternately enticed and smashed by this system.
It all begins with the title character, Cousin Bette Fisher. She is the old maid/black sheep of a peasant family. Her sister, Adeline, married the rich and powerful Baron Hulot. Cousin Bette kind of hangs around the periphery of this new high class life, not being as good looking or charming as her sister. Consequently, she is taken for granted and stepped on for her entire life. Bette snaps when her niece, the seemingly naive and innocent Hortense, steals her "lover" Wenseslas. Bette vows revenge against the family. She teams with the enchantingly beautiful Valerie Marneffe. They work together to tempt the easily temptable Baron Hulot. The Baron is kind of a good natured philanderer who can't keep his hands off of the young girls. Hulot fritters away his money and eventually puts his family into ruin. His wife, Adeline, never challenged her husband's infidelity, instead she worshiped him and accepted his extracurricular activities.
The shenanigans eventually engulf many more people. The most pathetic is the Baroness. She's still beautiful at 50, but she let's Hulot trample her. In contrast her daughter, Hortense, refuses to accept Wenseslas's dalliances with Valerie Marneffe. Neither strategy seems to effect the actions of either man, but at least Hortense has some backbone.
Eventually all the backstabbing and revenge catches up with the main characters. Madame Marneffe is poisoned by her Brazilian lover, Bette dies, the Baron is restored to his honorable position thanks to the diligence of his son, but he is soon discovered messing with a plain country maid. This final insult kills Adeline Hulot.
As evil as Bette's vengeful machinations are, they couldn't have been successful without the utter faithlessness of the men and the conniving of her niece. Hortense takes Wenseslas, the only good thing in Bette's life. Courtesans in Cousin Bette are sirens capable of ruining marriages and causing the shift of thousand and thousands of Francs. Men cannot resist these charming females, so different from regular women. It's the rare woman who has the qualities of wife and courtesan, they don't get cheated on.

Quotes: "Parents may hinder their children's marriage, but children cannot interfere with the insane acts of their parents in their second childhood."

Rating: 7/10: An interesting picture of Paris in this era. The book is, at times, confusing. There are many different characters, some thrown in for only a scene or two. There is also a lot of financial finagling that bogs things down a bit. That being said this is a very realistic look at upper class life in a revenge story.

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