Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

Cousin Bette 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.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano de Bergerac How many ways are there to insult a man with a big nose?

“Solicitous: ‘But sir, how do you drink? Doesn’t it trail in your glass?’
Or else descriptive: ‘It’s a rock, it’s a peak, it’s a cape…No, not a cape, it’s a peninsula!’
Inquisitive: ‘Do tell me, what is that long container? Do you keep pens in it, or scissors?’
Twee: ‘How darling of you to have built a perch for little birds to rest their tiny claws’.”

These are Cyrano de Bergerac’s own words about his own nose and although it might seem from this that he can see the funny side, he is actually very sensitive about it. Because of his appearance he believes no woman could ever find him attractive – especially not his beautiful cousin, Roxane, the woman he loves.

The handsome Christian is also in love with Roxane but is afraid that he doesn’t have the ability with words to impress her. Cyrano, who is a talented poet as well as a great swordsman and soldier, comes up with the perfect solution: he will write love letters to Roxane and send them in Christian’s name. Not only will this help to further Christian’s romance with Roxane, it will also give Cyrano a chance to express his own feelings. The plan is a success, but who is Roxane really falling in love with – the man who is writing the letters or the man she thinks is writing them?

Edmond Rostand’s French play Cyrano de Bergerac (subtitled An Heroic Comedy in Five Acts) was hugely successful when it was first performed in 1897. The audiences must have loved the same things that I did: the action, the romance, the combination of comedy and tragedy, and the swashbuckling hero. I’m not fortunate enough to have seen a stage version of this play (or any of the film versions either) but I’m sure it must be great fun to watch, with its swordfights, battle scenes and witty dialogue. I enjoyed reading it on the page, but it’s not quite the same as being able to see it performed!

Rostand’s inspiration for the play was a real person, the novelist, playwright and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, but only a few elements of his life are included in the play; the rest is imaginary. And what a great imagination Rostand had! There are so many memorable scenes, ranging from Cyrano fighting a duel while simultaneously composing a ballad, to Roxane standing on a balcony listening to Christian declare his love for her while Cyrano hides in the shadows telling him what to say, to the play’s tragic and emotional ending.

Rostand is credited with bringing the French word ‘panache’ into popular use (at least with the meaning we know today i.e. style and flamboyance). There are many examples of Cyrano’s panache throughout the play – and it is even his final word (although some translators give it the literal translation ‘white plume’). The edition I read was the Penguin Classics one with a recent translation by Carol Clark. I know this is not considered one of the better ones, so I do plan to read a different version of the play at some point. Any recommendations are welcome!

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary I read Madame Bovary during April as part of a readalong hosted by Juliana of Cedar Station and CJ of ebookclassics. It was a book I’d been thinking about reading for a while anyway so the announcement of the readalong couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

Madame Bovary is a French realist novel published in 1856. The title character, Emma Bovary, longs to experience the drama and excitement she has read about in romantic novels but she is unlikely to find it in her marriage to Charles Bovary, an unambitious country doctor. Charles loves his wife and is not unkind to her, but Emma finds him boring and her life dull and meaningless. After she and Charles attend a ball hosted by the Marquis d’Andervilliers, Emma becomes depressed and miserable; she has had a glimpse of a more glamorous world and it has left her even more disillusioned and dissatisfied with her own situation.

Charles wonders whether a move to a larger town will make her happy but Emma is no more content in their new home in Yonville-l’Abbaye than she was in the small village they’ve left behind. Seeking an escape from her unhappy existence, Emma has affairs and spends money she can’t afford, but as she becomes more reckless in both her romantic and financial entanglements, her life begins to spiral out of control.

It has been interesting to read the opinions of other readalong participants, because while I think we all agree that Emma’s behaviour is silly and self-destructive, the amount of sympathy we have for her seems to vary widely. Some readers can relate to Emma and admire her for doing something to try to change her life and find some happiness; other readers find her very selfish and annoying.

I’m one of those readers who didn’t like Emma at all, though I did have some pity for her, because I know there weren’t many options open to women in the 19th century, particularly those living in provincial areas, who wanted more from life than just to be a wife and mother. I can see why she may have felt that adultery was a way of escape and a way to find the passion she’d read about in books. I thought it was sad that Emma couldn’t even take any pleasure in her daughter (when Berthe is born, her first emotion is disappointment that the baby isn’t a boy). Later, when Berthe comes up to her hoping for affection Emma pushes the little girl away so that she falls and hurts herself. Poor Berthe – and life doesn’t get any better for her later in the book either.

I don’t think Charles was entirely blameless as he could have made more effort to understand his wife’s feelings and he was so naïve that he seemed completely oblivious to what was going on, but my sympathy was definitely with him and with Berthe more than with Emma. I noticed, though, that Flaubert himself seems to stay neutral throughout the novel, reporting on his characters’ thoughts and actions without actually passing judgment on them and telling us what we should think.

There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, but I’ll have to be honest and say that much as I wanted to love this book I just didn’t. I think my dislike of Emma was part of the problem, but not the whole problem, as I didn’t find the writing style very engaging either. The version of Madame Bovary that I read was an older Penguin edition (pictured above) translated by Alan Russell – I had no reason for choosing this translation other than that it happened to be the one I already had on my shelf, which seemed as good a reason as any. I didn’t really have any problems with it and found it easy enough to read, but having since read that Flaubert prided himself on always searching for the perfect word, in this case it’s possible that the translation did affect my enjoyment. I didn’t like the book enough to want to read it again in a different translation to find out, though!

While this has not become a favourite classic, I’m still glad I’ve read it. If nothing else, I can now see where Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s inspiration for her novel The Doctor’s Wife came from!

The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette

First published in French in 1678, The Princess of Cleves (or La Princesse de Clèves to give it its French title) is considered to be one of the first psychological novels. The story is set in the previous century (between 1558 and 1559), which also makes it an early example of the historical fiction novel.

Newly arrived at the court of Henri II, the beautiful Mademoiselle de Chartres catches the eye of the Prince of Cleves and they are soon married. The new Princess of Cleves does not love her husband, but she likes and respects him and for a while it seems that might be enough…until she meets and falls in love with the Duc de Nemours. The rest of the book explores the Princess’s conflicting emotions, as she becomes torn between her passionate love for the Duc and her desire to stick to her morals and do what she believes is right. Eventually the Princess faces an important decision, but the choice she makes is maybe not what you would expect and it’s left to the reader to make up their own mind whether they agree with her actions or not.

This book was of particular interest to me because earlier this year I read Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett, which is set at the French court in the middle of the 16th century. The Princess of Cleves is set at the same court during the same period and so it was filled with names I recognised. The title character and her mother are fictional but the others are real historical figures: Henri II and his wife Catherine de’ Medici, Diane de Poitiers (the Duchess de Valentinois), the Constable de Montmorency, the Mareschal de St. Andre, the Prince of Conde, the Vidame of Chartres, the Duke de Guise and his brothers, as well as the Dauphin and his wife, Mary Queen of Scots. I think the fact that I was already familiar with these characters made the opening pages of this book slightly less overwhelming than they might otherwise have been! And luckily, only a few of the people mentioned play an important part in the story, so it’s not necessary to keep track of all of them.

If you can get past the first section, which is little more than a long list of names and descriptions of the relationships between the various courtiers, the story does start to pick up. It all appears to be very accurate historically, although not much attention is given to the important historical events of the period – this is a character driven story with the focus on the actions of the Princess, her husband and the Duc de Nemours. The court of France at that time was known for being frivolous, decadent and rife with romantic intrigue and gossip, and the author manages to capture these aspects of court life. However, having read about the background to the novel, it seems Madame de Lafayette was also commenting on the behaviour and structure of the court of her own time, Louis XIV, which I know less about so am not sure how similar or different the two courts were.

The Princess of Cleves is not a book I would recommend if you’re looking for an entertaining read with an exciting plot, but if you enjoy French literature and history or if you’re interested in the development of the early novel then I think it’s definitely worth reading. It’s a short novel and doesn’t take too long to read, though it does require some concentration, especially at the beginning. I found the writing very dry, though maybe that’s my own fault for reading the free version from Project Gutenberg rather than searching for a better translation. As I’m not able to read it in its original French, which would obviously be the best option, I’d appreciate any opinions as to which translation I should try if I decide to re-read the book at some point in the future.

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse is a young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille Raquin. On the surface she appears quiet and passive, never voicing an opinion of her own. But underneath Thérèse is a passionate person who longs to break away from her boring, oppressive existence. When Camille introduces her to an old friend, Laurent, the two begin an affair. Desperate to find a way in which they can be together, Thérèse and Laurent are driven to commit a terrible crime – a crime that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

If you think I’ve given too much away then I can tell you that this crime takes place quite early in the story and is not the climax of the book. The point of the story is what happens afterwards when Zola begins to explore the psychological effects this action has on the characters.

Thérèse Raquin, as you will have guessed, is a very dark book which becomes increasingly feverish and claustrophobic with scenes of violence and cruelty. I haven’t read much 19th century French literature, apart from a few books by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, and one thing that struck me about Zola’s writing was how much more daring and graphic this book is than British novels from the same period. The reader becomes locked inside the tormented minds of Thérèse and Laurent, sharing their fear and terror, their nightmares and sleepless nights, their inability to enjoy being together because the horror of what they have done stands between them. If you’ve read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, there are some similarities here.

This book could be enjoyed just for the dramatic plot (it’s as tense and gripping as any modern thriller) but I also thought the four main characters – Thérèse, Laurent, Camille and Madame Raquin – were fascinating and very vividly drawn. Zola apparently said that his aim was to create characters with different temperaments and see how each of them reacted to the situation they were in.

As the first book I’ve read by Zola, I wasn’t sure what I could expect from Thérèse Raquin but I thought it was excellent and I’ll certainly be reading more of his books.