Balzac is an author I have wanted to try for years but have kept putting off, partly because I thought he sounded intimidating and difficult to read and partly because he wrote so many books it was hard to know where to start! Then, last month I chose ten books at random from my Goodreads “to-read” shelf – and one of them was Cousin Bette, a novel I couldn’t even remember adding to my shelf in the first place, but which sounded very appealing. I obviously couldn’t put off reading Balzac any longer!
Cousin Bette (originally La Cousine Bette and sometimes translated as Cousin Betty) was published in 1846 and is set in 19th century Paris. The title character is Lisbeth – Bette – Fischer, a relation of the Hulot family who has always been jealous of her beautiful cousin Adeline. Plain, poor, and having turned down several marriage proposals, Bette is still unmarried at the age of forty-two. When she rescues a young Polish sculptor, Wenceslas Steinbock, from a suicide attempt and takes him under her wing, she is pleased to be able to tell everyone that she has a lover at last. Her happiness is shattered, however, when Adeline’s daughter, Hortense, falls in love with Wenceslas and marries him herself.
Bette vows to take revenge on the Hulot family and joins forces with Valerie Marneffe, her pretty young neighbour. Knowing that Adeline’s husband, the Baron Hulot, is a notorious womaniser and that Valerie is looking for a rich lover, Bette sees a way to ruin the Baron and destroy the rest of the family in the process.
I enjoyed Cousin Bette and I think it was a good choice for my first Balzac novel. I found it surprisingly easy to read and very entertaining, although I did need to concentrate to follow all the intricacies of the plot. The summary I have given above is only the beginning of the story; Bette is by no means the only character who plots and schemes and tries to cause trouble – and in fact, many of the misfortunes that befall members of the Hulot family are caused by their own personal weaknesses and flaws rather than the influence of others. Baron Hulot, for example, despite being one of the targets of Bette and Valerie’s cruelty, really only has himself to blame as he is unable to resist the temptation placed in his way.
I saw the three main female characters – Cousin Bette, Valerie Marneffe and Adeline Hulot – as representing three stereotypical views of 19th century women of different classes and social groups. Bette is the bitter, jealous middle-aged spinster, Valerie the selfish, manipulative beauty, and Adeline the faithful, loving wife who turns a blind eye to her husband’s many affairs. Any reader who is interested in gender roles and the portrayal of women in literature will find a lot to think about in Cousin Bette.
Before reading this novel I had no idea what the outcome of the story would be and I was kept in suspense until the end. Of course, I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but it’s not quite as simple as the ‘good’ characters being rewarded and the ‘bad’ ones being punished. It’s all very melodramatic – and all very bleak as well – but I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more Balzac. As he wrote more than one hundred books, I would love to know if you’ve read any of them and which ones you would recommend.