Balzac is one of my favorite authors. This is my fourth read of his and about a quarter of the way through the 400-plus pages I was almost convinced that this would be the first of his stories that I would not like. Indeed, the general tone and settings became banal and irritating. Given the storyline I suspect my irritation stemmed from the repeatedly bad decisions of several characters. But, when one is contrasting vice and virtue on a society, those types of decisions are bound to be front-and-center.
The story is about two men trying to out-do each other with their affairs. Baron Hulot, loses everything (the members of his family, one of the “everythings” he loses are also key characters) except his life, but continues in his ways. The other contender gains “everything” but succumbs to another of his mistress’s suitors who succeeds in taking them both out of the picture. There were more lines and connections being made than the twenty-five-cent fair game “Catch a fish, win a prize!” In between these main events is a lot of back and forth and “she loves me,” “she loves me not.” Even as a child, that game only ever interested me for a daisy or two. After that, okay maybe even before that but you can’t say that to a child, it was ridiculous. Reading about it in a different century doesn’t make it more interesting.
It was not until halfway through (shame on me for taking that long) that I started asking “Why is this novel called Cousin Bette? She barely appears at all.”
And that’s when the genius of the piece became more apparent and things got interesting. Just had to get my eyes focused on the right part.
In a work that examines that which seems with that which is, between what is real, what is imagined, and what is fake, the artistry of Cousin Bette is that she is not seen much at all but her influence is over-arching. When she is present we are given a picture of her as concerned informant, family caregiver, and overall saint – just as her family sees her. In fact, readers learn elsewhere that Cousin Bette is, above all else, intent on orchestrating her family’s demise and doom so she can lord it over them. She is the puppeteer. She keeps all her lines open to family and friends, gives them information so they perform as she expects, and patiently waits behind the scenes to reap her reward. But will she?
Balzac exploits the contrast and connection between virtue and vice in Cousin Bette. We see how Cousin Bette appears the role of virtue next to the vice and viciousness of Madame Merneffe. Yet when Cousin Bette’s sensitivities to slights and her general dissatisfaction with her plight (attributed to her family and not her own work) are presented next to the virtuous Baroness Hulot who suffers in silence for her husband’s ignominious philandering behavior, Bette comes out ever the conniving face of vice. She shimmers and shifts in this light through the novel. Cousin Bette indeed.
Even though Cousin Bette stole the title, every character was used to their fullest literary potential for exposing the themes Balzac explores. The three V’s might be the best way to consider these ideas: virtue, vice, and value. What is valuable? Who determines it? How does what we fall for (vice) or what we stand for (virtue) indicate our true values?
Since I have already mentioned vice and virtue in greater description, here is a telling description of two homes that were bestowed upon favored mistresses that exemplifies discrepancies in value. One is the home of Madame Merneffe given to her by her “winning” suitor, Baron Hulot’s ‘frenemy’ before the word existed, Monsieur Crevel. The other is the home given to Josépha – the mistress who was lost to both Baron Hulot and Monsieur Crevel and sparked their rivalry – by her more noteworthy suitor, Duc d’Hérouville.
“In the decoration of this house, which Crevel looked upon as his own, Grindot had attempted to rival Cleretti, the fashionable architect of the day, whom the Duc d’Hérouville had employed on Josepha’s villa. But Crevel, incapable of understanding the arts, had made up his mind, as all bourgeois do, to spend a fixed sum, specified in advance. Thus limited, Grindot had been unable to carry out his architectural dream. The difference between Josépha’s house and the villa in the Rue Barbet was that between all things with an individual character and vulgarity. Those things that were to be admired in Josépha’s house could not be found elsewhere, those that adorned Crevel’s could not be bought anywhere. These two kinds of luxury are divided from one another by the river of millions. A unique mirror is worth six thousand francs; a mirror made by a manufacturer who commercializes the design can be bought for five hundred. A genuine piece of Boulle luster will fetch as much as three thousand francs at a public auction; the same thing turned out by the dozen can be manufactured for ten or twelve hundred. The one is, in the world of antiques, what a picture by Raphael is in painting; the other is a copy. How much would you give for a copy of a Raphael? Crevel’s house was, in fact, a magnificent specimen of the luxury of fools, while Josépha’s was a perfect example of an artist’s home.”
In this small description, Balzac captures a theme relevant still today in our consumerist mindset. Quality and quantity are not to be confused. What we value will always determine where we stand. Or where we fall short.
I still would not consider this one of my favorite pieces by Balzac. I may go so far to say that of the four I have now read this is my least favorite. Story, maybe not. But the deftness of his skill, once I thought to look for it, was brilliant.