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Cousin bette, p.1
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       Cousin Bette, p.1

           Honoré de Balzac
Cousin Bette


  HONORÉ DE BALZAC was born at Tours in 1799, the son of a civil servant. He spent nearly six years as a boarder in a Vendôme school, then went to live in Paris, working as a lawyer’s clerk then as a hack-writer. Between 1820 and 1824 he wrote a number of novels under various pseudonyms, many of them in collaboration, after which he unsuccessfully tried his luck at publishing, printing and type-founding. At the age of thirty, heavily in debt, he returned to literature with a dedicated fury and wrote the first novel to appear under his own name, The Chouans. During the next twenty years he wrote about ninety novels and shorter stories, among them many masterpieces, to which he gave the comprehensive title The Human Comedy. As Balzac himself put it: ‘What he [Napoleon] was unable to finish by the sword, I shall accomplish with the pen.’ He died in 1850, a few months after his marriage to Evelina Hanska, the Polish countess with whom he had maintained amorous relations for eighteen years.

  MARION AYTON CRAWFORD taught English Language and Literature in the Technical College at Limavady, Northern Ireland, until she died in 1973. She translated five volumes of Balzac for the Penguin Classics: Cousin Bette, Domestic Peace and Other Stories, Eugénie Grandet, The Chouans and Old Goriot.

  OLIVIA McCANNON studied languages at the Queen’s College, Oxford. She has been based in Paris since 1998, working as a writer and translator. She has translated French plays for the Royal Court Theatre, and is currently working on a new edition of Balzac’s Old Goriot for Penguin Classics.


  Cousin Bette

  Part One of Poor Relations




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  This translation first published 1965

  Reprinted with a Chronology and Further Reading 2004


  Copyright © M. A. Crawford, 1965

  Chronology and Further Reading copyright © Olivia McCannon, 2004

  All rights reserved

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject

  to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

  re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s

  prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in

  which it is published and without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser


  As the dedication makes clear, this novel is one of a pair entitled Poor Relations, which were conceived and written practically simultaneously, in less than a year, between 1846 and 1847; the other is Cousin Pons. In spite of its speed of production, Cousin Bette is a deeply considered book, the fruit of a life-time of thought and experience, and a culminating point in Balzac’s chronicle and analysis of Revolutionary, Napoleonic, Restoration, and later times, in his novel-sequence The Human Comedy. The main action takes place between 1838 and 1846, and is thus brought up to date, to the time when the novel was being written. The scene throughout is Paris.

  Paris was then the capital of a rapidly changing France, in an age when the modern world as we know it was coming into existence, with the construction of railways, the expansion of industry and trade, the growing power of international finance and of the Press. The period saw the beginning of the French colonial adventure in Algeria. It was the age of the middle class. Louis-Philippe, ‘the bourgeois king’, brought into strictly limited power by the middle-class revolution of 1830, ruled a nation of highly acquisitive and politically and socially ambitious individuals.

  The book depicts these changes vividly, through the eyes and lives of two generations. The older characters remember the glories of the Imperial past, the exhilaration of life under Napoleon, the circumstances in which their careers were made through unprecedented opportunities grasped then, the brilliance and lavish display of the First Empire society in which they played their part; their eyes are still dazzled. The younger generation have a different conditioning, a new outlook, different aims. It is evident that to Balzac, in comparison, the present was a mean and sordid age, carrying the seeds of disaster in its breaking up of the social framework, and its selfish and philistine money-grubbing. It is worthy of note that Karl Marx considered Balzac’s characters the prototypes of the bourgeois society that came into existence later – after Balzac’s death in 1850 – under Napoleon III.

  The novel, for Balzac, always had a complex function. Cousin Bette is, among other things, a serious investigation of the Paris demi-monde. Because of its enlargement of the scope of the novel, and in particular its objective gaze at vice and crime, it has been hailed as the first volume of French fiction of the naturalistic school, later to be established by the works of the Goncourt brothers and Émile Zola. It has the purposes of the kind of inquiry with which modern Government Commissions have lately familiarized us, as well as those of the modern documentary film. It is also, plainly, an ancestor of the modern thriller.

  There is nothing heavy or dull about this serious work. In reading it one occasionally remembers that Balzac had adapted the Contes drolatiques of Rabelais. Shakespeare, Molière, and Racine, three dramatists, are progenitors whom he invokes in the book; and brilliant scenes of comedy, irony, and high tragedy, although quite characteristically his own, show that he had assimilated something from all three. These scenes succeed one another at a very fast pace, with many changes of points of view and twists of circumstance. The book adds notably to Balzac’s gallery of unforgettable characters.

  Balzac was always fascinated by the relations between husband and wife, father and children, lover and mistress, between those with material possessions, social status, and close family ties, and those not so endowed, and by the different ways in which emotional life can vary, and is tied up with the individual’s everyday existence. These relations and variations are explored and studied here in a way that anticipates Freud.

  Many minor characters, set in their proper environment, help to re-create the richness of life in the capital. Paris is mapped topographically as well as socially: its various groups of upstart tradesmen, politicians, civil servants, bankers, opera singers, courtesans, journalists, artists, money-lenders, Marshals, withdrawn aristocrats, and its colonies of foreigners, Italian stove-fitters and Polish refugees, are seen going about their business, in their natural habitat.

  The characters, actively engaged in their trades or professions, naturally discuss the technical questions that interest them, as well as the events and social questions of the hour – all of burning interest, of course, to Balzac himself. These he is able to make interesting to the reader, partly because of their dramatic place in the story, partly historically, because the period saw the rise of so many new ideas and movements that still involve us, partly because some of the questions that he discusses through the characters or in his own person are eternal questions.

  The sound of Balzac’s voice thro
ughout the book is a unifying factor, but his success in combining very disparate elements to make a satisfying unity is due mainly to the subtle arrangement of the plot. This technical skill is just one respect in which Balzac’s genius, after more than sixty volumes of The Human Comedy, achieves its full maturity in the book. It is a book in which, in all respects, he is most characteristically and triumphantly himself.



  Money is of considerable importance in Cousin Bette; indeed it is the central theme of this portrait of a society given over, in Balzac’s eyes, to the feverish pursuit of wealth. It may therefore be of some use to the reader to have a rough idea of comparative values. Professor Hunt, in his biography of Balzac, states that 100,000 francs were equal to £4,000; this would be roughly equivalent in purchasing power to £130,000 today (1986).

  To Don Michele Angelo Cajetani, Prince of Teano

  I dedicate this small fragment of a long story, not to the Roman prince, nor to the heir of the illustrious Cajetani family that has given Popes to Christendom, but to the learned commentator of Dante.

  I owe the revelation of the wonderful structure of ideas upon which Italy’s greatest poet built his poem, the only modern poem that bears comparison with Homer, to you. Until I had heard you, The Divine Comedy seemed to me a vast enigma, to which no one had found a key, commentators least of all. To comprehend Dante as you do is to be great in his manner; but you find all forms of greatness easy.

  A French scholar would make a reputation, be given a Professor’s Chair perhaps, and a host of honours, by publishing, as an authoritative work, the improvization with which you whiled away one of those evenings when we were resting after sight-seeing in Rome. But perhaps you do not know that most of our professors live on Germany, England, the Orient, or the North, as insects live on a tree, and like the insect become part of what they live on, borrowing their importance from the importance of their subject.

  As it happens, Italy has never yet been exploited in this way by the scholars; and I shall never be given the credit I deserve for my self-restraint as a man of letters. Dressed in your borrowed plumage, I might have been a savant, worth three Schlegels in weight and erudition, and yet I remain a simple doctor of social medicine, a horse-doctor of desperate social ills; if only in order to offer a tribute to my cicerone, and add your illustrious name to the names of Porcia, San Severino, Pareto, Negro, Belgiojoso, which in The Human Comedy will represent the close and enduring alliance between Italy and France.

  So long ago as the sixteenth century, that alliance was celebrated in the same fashion by Bandello (the bishop who wrote some very diverting tales) in a magnificent collection of stories, from which several of Shakespeare’s plays were derived, in some cases entire characters being taken directly from the text.

  The two sketches which I dedicate to you represent the two eternal aspects of a single reality. Homo duplex, said our great Buffon; why not add res duplex? Everything has two faces, even virtue. For this reason Molière always presents both sides of every human problem. Following his example, Diderot one day wrote Ceci n’est pas un conte, perhaps his masterpiece, in which he sets the sublime figure of Mademoiselle de Lachaux, immolated by Gardanne, as pendant to that of a perfect lover slain by his mistress.

  My two stories are therefore placed together as a pair, like twins of different sex. It is a literary fancy in which one may indulge once, especially in a work which seeks to represent all the forms in which thought may be clothed.

  Most disputes are due to the fact that there are many scholars, and many ignorant men, so constituted that they can never see more than one side of a fact or idea; and each man claims that the aspect he has seen is the only true and valid aspect. The prophecy of holy writ is fulfilled: ‘God will deliver the world to disputation’. I declare that that line from scripture should oblige the Holy See, in proper obedience to it, to give you two-Chamber government, as Louis XVIII by his Ordinance of 1814 furnished a commentary upon it.

  May your wit, may the poetry that is yours, take under their protection the two episodes of Poor Relations

  By your affectionate and devoted servant,


  Paris, August–September 1846



  Towards the middle of July, in the year 1838, one of those vehicles called milords, then appearing in the Paris squares for the first time, was driving along the rue de l’ Université, bearing a stout man of medium height in the uniform of a captain in the National Guard.

  Our Paris citizens are credited with plenty of mother wit; yet there are some among them who fancy themselves infinitely more attractive in uniform, and think women so simple as to be easily impressed by a bearskin cap and military trappings.

  The rubicund and rather chubby face of this Captain of the Second Company fairly radiated self-satisfaction. He wore the aureole of complacency achieved by wealthy, self-made, retired shopkeepers, that marked him as one of the Paris elect, an ex-Deputy Mayor of his district at least. The ribbon of the Legion of Honour, naturally, was conspicuous upon his chest, which was valorously puffed out in the Prussian manner. Proudly ensconced in a corner of the milord, this decorated gentleman allowed his glances to rove among the passers-by, who are often, in Paris, the recipients in this fashion of pleasant smiles intended for bright eyes that are far away.

  The milord stopped in the part of the street that lies between the rue de Bellechasse and the rue de Bourgogne, at the door of a large house recently built on part of the court of an old mansion set in a garden. The mansion still stood in its original state beyond the court, whose size had been reduced by half.

  As the Captain alighted from the milord, accepting a helping hand from the driver, it was evident that he was a man in his fifties. Certain movements, by their undisguised heaviness, are as indiscreet as a birth certificate. He replaced his yellow glove on the hand that he had bared, and, making no inquiry of the concierge, walked towards the steps leading to the mansion’s ground floor, with an air that declared ‘She is mine!’ Paris porters know how to use their eyes. They never dream of stopping gentlemen with decorations on their chests who are dressed in National Guard blue and walk like men of weight. In other words, they know money when they see it.

  This whole ground floor was occupied by Monsieur le Baron Hulot d’Ervy, Commissary general under the Republic, lately senior officer controlling the Army Commissariat, and now head of one of the most important departments of the War Ministry, Councillor of State, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, etc., etc.

  Baron Hulot had taken the name of Ervy, his birthplace, in order to distinguish himself from his brother, the famous General Hulot, Colonel of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, created Comte de Forzheim by the Emperor after the campaign of 1809. The elder brother, the Count, with a fatherly concern for the future of the younger, who had been committed to his charge, had found a place for him in military administration, in which, partly owing to his brother’s services but also on his own merits, the Baron had won Napoleon’s favour. From the year 1807, Baron Hulot had been Commissary general of the armies in Spain.

  When he had rung, the bourgeois Captain exerted himself energetically to smooth down his coat, which had been wrinkled up both in front and behind by his corpulence. Admitted on sight by a servant in livery, this important and imposing visitor followed the man, who announced him as he opened the drawing-room door:

  ‘Monsieur Crevel!’

  When she heard this name, admirably appropriate to the appearance of the man who bore it, a tall, fair, well-preserved woman started, and rose, às if she had received an electric shock.

  ‘Hortense, my angel, go into the garden with your Cousin Bette,’ she said hastily to her daughter, who sat at her embroidery not far away.

  With a graceful bow to the Captain, Mademoiselle Hortense Hulot left the room by a french window, taking with her a desiccated spinster who looked older than the Barones
s, although she was five years younger.

  ‘It’s about your marriage,’ Cousin Bette whispered in her young cousin Hortense’s ear, apparently not at all offended by the way in which the Baroness had sent them off, as if she were of little account.

  The appearance of this cousin would have afforded sufficient explanation, if explanation were needed, of such lack of ceremony.

  The old maid wore a puce merino dress whose cut and narrow ribbon trimmings suggested Restoration fashion, an embroidered collar that had cost perhaps three francs, and a stitched straw hat with blue satin rosettes edged with straw, of the kind seen on the heads of old-clothes women in the market. A stranger, noticing her goatskin slippers, clumsily botched as if by a fifth-rate cobbler, would have hesitated before greeting Cousin Bette as a relation of the family: she looked for all the world like a daily sewing-woman. Before she left the room, however, the spinster gave Monsieur Crevel an intimate little nod, a greeting which that personage answered with a look of friendly understanding.

  ‘You are coming tomorrow, Mademoiselle Fischer, aren’t you?’ he said.

  ‘There won’t be company?’ Cousin Bette asked.

  ‘Just my children and you,’ replied the visitor.

  ‘Very well, then, you may count on me.’

  ‘I am at your service, Madame,’ said the bourgeois Captain of Militia, turning to bow again to Baroness Hulot. And he rolled his eyes at Madame Hulot, like Tartuffe casting sheep’s eyes at Elmire, when a provincial actor, at Poitiers or Coutances, thinks it necessary to place heavy emphasis on Tartuffe’s designs.

  ‘If you will come this way, Monsieur, we can discuss our business more conveniently here than in the drawing-room,’ said Madame Hulot, leading the way to an adjoining room that in the lay-out of the suite was designed for a card-room.

  Only a thin partition divided this room from the boudoir, whose window opened on the garden, and Madame Hulot left Monsieur Crevel alone for a moment, considering it necessary to shut both the window and the boudoir door so that no one could eavesdrop on that side. She even took the precaution of closing the french window of the drawing-room, smiling as she did so at her daughter and cousin, whom she saw installed in an old summer-house at the far end of the garden. Returning, she left the door of the card-room ajar, so that she might hear the drawing-room door open if anyone should come in. Moving about the apartment, the Baroness, being unobserved, allowed her face to express what she was thinking, and anyone seeing her would have been quite alarmed by her agitation. But as she crossed the drawing-room to the card-room, she masked her face with that inscrutable reserve that all women, even the most candid, seem able to assume at will.

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