Honoré de Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac in twenty-five volumes : the first complete translation into English, with illustrations from drawings on the wood by famous French artists (Volume 14) online

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Ralz&c, vol. fourteen Front is


Complete ^Translation into (Englistj


Volume fourteen








Cousin Betty.



"LA COUSINE BETTE" was perhaps the last really great
thing that Balzac did for "Le Cousin Pons," which now
follows it, was actually written before and it is beyond
all question one of the very greatest of his works. It was
written at the highest possible pressure, and (contrary to the
author's more usual system) in parts, without even seeing
a proof, for the "Constitutionnel" in the autumn, winter,
and early spring of 1846-47, before his departure from
Vierzschovnia, the object being to secure a certain sum of
ready money to clear off indebtedness. And it has been
sometimes asserted that this labor, coming on the top of
many years of scarcely less hard work, was almost the last
straw which broke down Balzac's gigantic strength. Of
these things it is never possible to be certain; as to the
greatness of "La Cousine Bette, " there is no uncertainty.

In the first place, it is a very long book for Balzac; it is,
I think, putting aside books like "Les Illusions Perdues,"
and "Les Celibataires, " and "Splendeurs et Miseres des
Courtisanes," which are really groups of work written at
different times, the longest of all his novels, if we except the
still later and rather doubtful "Petits Bourgeois." In the
second place, this length is not obtained as length with
him is too often obtained by digressions, by long retro-
spective narrations, or even by the insertion of such "pad-
ding" as the collection business in "Le Cousin Pons." The
whole stuff and substance of "La Cousine Bette" is hon-
estly woven novel-stuff, of one piece and one tenor and
texture, with for constant subject the subterranean malignity
of the heroine, the erotomania of Hulot and Crevel, the



sufferings of Adeline, and the pieuvre operations of Marneffe
and his wife all of which fit in and work together with
each other as exactly as the cogs and gear of a harmonious
piece of machinery do. Even such much simpler and
shorter books as "Le Pere Goriot" by no means possess
this seamless unity of construction, this even march, shoul-
der to shoulder, of all the personages of the story.

In the second place, this story itself strikes hold on the
reader with a force not less irresistible than that of the older
and simpler stories just referred to. As compared even with
its companion, this force of grasp is remarkable. It is not
absolutely criminal or contemptible to feel that "Le Cousin
Pons" sometimes languishes and loses itself; this can never
be said of the history of the evil destiny, partly personified
in Elizabeth Fischer, which hovers over the house of Hulot.

Some, I believe, have felt inclined to question the pro-
priety of the title of the book, and to assign, the true
heroineship to Valerie Marneffe, whom also the same and
other persons are fond of comparing with her contemporary
Becky Sharp, not to the advantage of the latter. This is no
place for a detailed examination of the comparison, as to
which I shall only say that I do not think Thackeray has
anything to fear from it. Valerie herself is, beyond all
doubt, a powerful study of the "strange woman," enforcing
the Biblical view of that personage with singular force and
effectiveness. But her methods are coarser and more com-
monplace than Becky's; she never could have long sus-
tained such an ordeal as the tenure of the house in Curzon
Street without losing even an equivocal position in decent
English society; and it must always be remembered that she
was under the orders, so to speak, of Lisbeth, and inspired
by her.

Lisbeth herself, on the other hand, is not one of a class ;
she stands alone as much as Becky herself does. It is, no
doubt, an arduous and, some milky-veined critics would say,
a doubtfully healthy or praiseworthy task to depict almost
pure wickedness; it is excessively hard to render it human;


and if the difficulty is not increased, it is certainly not much
lessened by the artist's determination to represent the male-
factress as undiscovered and even unsuspected throughout.
Balzac, however, has surmounted these difficulties with
almost complete success. The only advantage it is no
doubt a considerable one which he has taken over Shake-
speare, when Shakespeare devised lago, is that of making
Mademoiselle Fischer a person of low birth, narrow educa-
tion, and intellectual faculties narrower still, for all their
keenness and intensity. The largeness of brain with which
Shakespeare endows his human devil, and the largeness of
heart of which he does not seem to wish us to imagine him
as in certain circumstances incapable, contrast sharply
enough with the peasant meanness of Lisbeth. Indeed,
Balzac, whose seldom erring instinct in fixing on the viler
parts of human nature may have been somewhat too much
dwelt on, but is undeniable, has here and elsewhere hit the
fault of the lower class generally very well. It does not
appear that the Hulots, though they treated her without
much ceremony, gave Bette any real cause of complaint,
or that there was anything in their conduct corresponding
to that of the Camusots to the luckless Pons. That her
cousin Adeline had been prettier than herself in childhood,
and was richer and more highly placed in middle life, was
enough for Lisbeth the incarnation of the Radical hatred
of superiority in any kind. And so she set to work to ruin
and degrade the unhappy family, to set it at variance, and
make it miserable, as best she could.

The way of her doing this is wonderfully told, and the
various characters, minor as well as major, muster in won-
derful strength. I do not know that Balzac has maa^ quite
the most of Hector Hulot's vice in fact, here, as elsewhere,
I think the novelist not happy in treating this particular
deadly sin. The man is a rather disgusting and wholly
idiotic old fribble rather than a tragic victim of Libitina.
So also his wife is too angelic. But Crevel, the very pat-
tern and model of the vicious bourgeois who has made his


fortune; and Wenceslas Steinbock, pattern again and model
of the foibles of "Polen aus der Polackei"; and Hortense,
with the better energy of the Hulots in her; and the loath-
some reptile Marneffe, and Yictorin, and Celestine, and the
Brazilian (though he, to be sure, is rather a transpontine
rastaqou&re), and all the rest are capital, and do their work
capitally. But they would not be half so fine as they are if,
behind them, there were not the savage Pagan naturalism
of Lisbeth Fischer, the "angel of the family" and a black
angel indeed.

The bibliography of the two divisions of "Les Parents
Pauvres" is so closely connected that it is difficult to extri-
cate the separate histories, and they will be given together
here. Originally the author had intended to begin with "Le
Cousin Pons" (which then bore the title of "Les Deux
Musiciens"), and to make it the more important of the two;
but "La Cousine Bette" grew under his hands, and became,
in more than one sense, the leader. Both appeared in the
' Constitutional"; the first between October 8th and De-
cember 3d, 1846, the second between March 18th and May
of next year. In the winter of 1847-48 the two were pub-
lished as a book in twelve volumes by Chlendowski and
Pdtion. In the newspaper (where Balzac received a rarely
exact detail 12,836 francs for the "Cousine," and 9,238 for
the "Cousin") the first-named had thirty- eight headed chap-
ter divisions, which in book form became a hundred and
thirty-two. "Le Cousin Pons" had two parts in feuilleton,
and thirty-one chapters, which in book form became no parts
and seventy-eight chapters. All divisions were swept away
when, at the end of 1848, the books were added together to
the "Come'die." GK S.


IT is neither to the Roman Prince, nor to the representa-
tive of the illustrious house of Cajetani, which has given
more than one Pope to the Christian Church, that I dedicate
this short portion of a long history; it is to the learned com-
mentator of Dante.

It was you who led me to understand the marvellous
framework of ideas on which the great Italian poet built his
poem, the only work which the moderns can place by that
of Homer. Till I heard you, the "Divine Comedy" was to
me a vast enigma to which none had found the clew the
commentators least of all. Thus, to understand Dante is
to be as great as he; but every form of greatness is familiar
to you.

A French savant would make a reputation, earn a pro-
fessor's chair and a dozen decorations, by publishing in a
dogmatic volume the improvised lecture by which you lent
enchantment to one of those evenings which are rest after
seeing Kome. You do not know, perhaps, that most of our
professors live on Germany, on England, on the East, or on
the North, as an insect lives on a tree; and, like the insect,
become an integral part of it, borrowing their merit from that
of what they feed on. Now, Italy hitherto has not yet been
worked out in public lectures. No one will ever give me
credit for my literary honesty. Merely by plundering you
I might have been as learned as three Schlegels in one,
whereas I mean to remain a humble Doctor of the Faculty
of Social Medicine, a veterinary surgeon for incurable mala-
dies. Were it only to lay a token of gratitude at the feet of
my cicerone, I would fain add your illustrious name to those
of Porcia, of San-Severino, of Pareto, of di Negro, and of



Belgiojoso, who will represent in this "Human Comedy" the
close and constant alliance between Italy and France, to
which Bandello did honor in the same way in the sixteenth
century Bandello, the bishop and author of some strange
tales indeed, who left us the splendid collection of romances
whence Shakespeare derived many of his plots and even
complete characters, word for word.

The two sketches I dedicate to you are the two eternal
aspects of one and the same fact. Homo duplex, said the
great Buffon: why not add Res duplex? Everything has
two sides, even virtue. Hence Moliere always shows us
both sides of every human problem; and Diderot, imitating
him, once wrote, "This is not a mere tale" in what is per-
haps Diderot's masterpiece, where he shows us the beautiful
picture of Mademoiselle de Lachaux sacrificed by Gardanne,
side by side with that of a perfect lover dying for his mistress.

In the same way, these two romances form a pair, like
twins of opposite sexes. This is a literary vagary to which
a writer may for once give way, especially as part of a work
in which I am endeavoring to depict every form that can
serve as a garb to mind.

Most human quarrels arise from the fact that both wise
men and dunces exist who are so constituted as to be incapa-
ble of seeing more than one side of any fact or idea, while
each asserts that the side he sees is the only true and right
one. Thus it is written in the Holy Book, "God will deliver
the world over to divisions." I must confess that this pas-
sage of Scripture alone should persuade the Papal See to give
you the control of the two Chambers to carry out this text
which found its commentary in 1814, in the decree of Louis

May your wit and the poetry that is in you extend a
protecting hand over these two histories of "The Poor

Of your affectionate humble servant,


PARIS, August- September, 1846.




NE DA F, about the middle of July, 1838, one of the
carriages, then lately introduced to Paris cabstands,
and known as J/t'forcfe, was driving down the Rue
de F Universitd, conveying a stout man of middle height in
the uniform "of a captain of the National Gruard.

Among the Paris crowd, who are supposed to be so
clever, there are some men who fancy themselves infinitely
more attractive in uniform than in their ordinary clothes,
and who attribute to women so depraved a taste that they
believe they will be favorably impressed by the aspect of
a busby and of military accoutrements.

The countenance of this Captain of the Second Company
beamed with a self-satisfaction that added splendor to his
ruddy and somewhat chubby face. The halo of glory that
a fortune made in business gives to a retired tradesman sat
on his brow, and stamped him as one of the elect of Paris
at least a retired deputy-mayor of his quarter of the town.
And you may be sure that the ribbon of the Legion of
Honor was not missing from his breast, gallantly padded
d la Prwsstenwe. Proudly seated in one corner of the
milord, this splendid person let his gaze wander over the



passers-by, who, in Paris, often thus meet an ingratiating
smile meant for sweet eyes that are absent.

The vehicle stopped in the part of the street between the
Rue de Bellechasse and the Rue de Bourgogne, at the door
of a large, newly- built house, standing on part of the court-
yard of an ancient mansion that had a garden. The old
house remained in its original state, beyond the courtyard
curtailed by half its extent.

Only from the way in which the officer accepted the
assistance of the coachman to help him out it was plain
that he was past fifty. There are certain movements so
undisgnisedly heavy that they are as tell-tale as a register
of birth. The captain put on his lemon-colored right-hand
glove,- and, without any question to the gatekeeper, went
up the outer steps to the ground floor of the new house with
a look that proclaimed, "She is mine!"

The concierges of Paris have sharp eyes; they do not
stop visitors who wear an order, have a blue uniform, and
walk ponderously; in short, they know a rich man when
they see him.

This ground floor was entirely occupied by Monsieur
le Baron Hulot d'Ervy, Commissary General under the
Republic, retired army contractor, and at the present time
at the head of one of the most important departments of
the War Office, Councillor of State, officer of the Legion
of Honor, and so forth.

This Baron Hulot had taken the name of d'Ervy the
place of his birth to distinguish him from his brother,
the famous General Hulot, Colonel of the Grenadiers of
the Imperial Guard, created by the Emperor Comte de
Forzheim after the campaign of 1809. The Count, the
elder brother, being responsible for his junior, had, with


paternal care, placed him in the commissariat, where, thanks
to the services of the two brothers, the Baron deserved and
won Napoleon's good graces. After 1807, Baron Hulot was
Commissary General for the army in Spain.

Having rung the bell, the citizen-captain made strenuous
efforts to pull his coat into place, for it had rucked up as
much at the back as in front, pushed out of shape by the
working of a piriform stomach. Being admitted as soon as
the servant in livery saw him, the important and imposing
personage followed the man, who opened the door of the
drawing-room, announcing:

"Monsieur Crevel."

On hearing the name, singularly appropriate to the figure
of the man who bore it, a tall, fair woman, evidently young-
lookiug for her age, rose as if she had received an electric

"Hortense, my darling, go into the garden with your
Cousin Betty," she said hastily to her daughter, who was
working at some embroidery at her mother's side.

After courtesying prettily to the captain, Mademoiselle
Hortense went oat by a glass door, taking with her a with-
ered-looking spinster, who looked older than the Baroness,
though she was five years younger.

"They are settling your marriage." said Cousin Betty
in the girl's ear, without seeming at all offended at the way
in which the Baroness had dismissed them, counting her
almost as zero.

The cousin's dress might, at need, have explained this
free-and-easy demeanor. The old maid wore a merino gown
of a dark plum color, of which the cut and trimming dated
from the year of the Eestoration; a little worked collar,
worth perhaps three francs; and a common straw hat with


blue satin ribbons edged with straw plait, such as the old-
clothes buyers wear at market. On looking down at her
kid shoes, made, it was evident, by the veriest cobbler, a
stranger would have hesitated to recognize Cousin Betty
as a member of the family, for she looked exactly like a
journeywoman seamstress. But she did not leave the room
without bestowing a little friendly nod on Monsieur Crevel,
to which that gentleman responded by a look of mutual

"You are coming to us to-morrow I hope, Mademoiselle
Fischer?" said he.

"You have no company?" asked Cousin Betty.

"My children and yourself, no one else," replied the

"Very well," replied she; "depend on me."

"And here am I, Madame, at your orders," said the
citizen-captain, bowing again to Madame Hulot.

He gave such a look at Madame Hulot as Tartuffe casts
at Elniire when a provincial actor plays the part and thinks
, it necessary to emphasize its meaning at Poitiers, or at

"If you will come into this room with me, we shall be
more conveniently placed for talking business than we are
in this room," said Madame Hulot, going to an adjoining
room, which, as the apartment was arranged, served as a

It was divided by a slight partition from a boudoir look-
ing out on the garden, and Madame Hulot left her visitor
to himself for a minute, for she thought it wise to shut the
window and the door of the boudoir, so that no one should
get in and listen. She even took the precaution of shutting
the glass door of the drawing-room, smiling on her daughter


and her cousin, whom she saw seated in an old summer-
house at the end of the garden. As she came back she left
the card-room door open, so as to hear if any one should
open that of the drawing-room to come in.

As she came and went, the Baroness, seen by nobody,
allowed her face to betray all her thoughts, and any one
who could have seen her would have been shocked to see
her agitation. But when she finally came back from the
glass door of the drawing-room, as she entered the card-
room, her face was hidden behind the impenetrable reserve
which every woman, even the most candid, seems to have
at her command.

During all these preparations odd, to say the least the
National Guardsman studied the furniture of the room in
which he found himself. As he noted the silk curtains,
once red, now faded to dull purple by the sunshine, and
frayed in the plaits by long wear; the carpet, from which
the hues had faded ; the discolored gilding of the furniture^
and the silk seats, discolored in patches, and wearing into
strips expressions of scorn, satisfaction, and hope dawned
in succession without disguise on his stupid tradesman's
face. He looked at himself in the glass over an old clock
of the Empire, and was contemplating the general effect,
when the rustle of her silk skirt announced the Baroness,
He at once struck an attitude.

After dropping on to a sofa, which had been a very
handsome one in the year 1809, the Baroness, pointing to
an armchair with the arms ending in bronze sphinxes' heads,
while the paint was peeling from the wood, which showed
through in many places, signed to Crevel to be seated.

"AH the precautions you are taking, Madame, would
seem full of promise to


"To a lover," said she, interrupting Mm.

"The word is too feeble," said he, placing his right hand
on his heart, and rolling his eyes in a way which almost
always makes a woman laugh when she, in cold blood,
sees such a look. "A lover! A lover? Say a' man
bewitched "

""Listen, Monsieur Grevel," said the Baroness, too anx-
ious to be able to laugh, "you are fifty ten years younger
than Monsieur Hulot, I know; but at my age a woman's
follies ought to be justified by beauty, youth, fame, supe-
rior merit some one of the splendid qualities which can
dazzle us to the point of making us forget all else even at
our age. Though you may have fifty thousand francs a
year, your age counterbalances your fortune ; thus you have
nothing whatever of what a woman looks for "

"But love!" said the officer, rising and coming forward.
"Such love as"

"No, Monsieur, such obstinacy!" said the Baroness,
interrupting him to put an end to his absurdity.

"Yes, obstinacy," said he, "and love; but something
stronger still a claim

"A claim J" cried Madame Hulot, rising sublime with
scorn, defiance, and indignation. "But," she went on,
"this will bring us to no issues; I did not ask you to
come here to discuss the matter which led to your banish-
ment in spite of the connection between our families "

"I had fancied so."

"What! still?" cried she. "Do you not see, Monsieur,
by the entire ease and freedom with which I can speak of
lovers and love, of everything least creditable to a woman,
that I am perfectly secure in my own virtue ? I fear noth-
ing not even to shut myself in alone with you. Is that


the conduct of a weak woman ? You know full well why
I begged you to come."

"No, Madame," replied Crevel, with an assumption of
great coldness. He pursed up his lips, and again struck
an attitude.

"Well, I will be brief, to shorten our common discom-
fort," said the Baroness, looking at Crevel.

Crevel made an ironical bow, in which a man who knew
the race would have recognized the graces of a bagman.

"Our son married your daughter "

"And if it were to do again '' said Crevel.

"It would not be done at all, I suspect," said the
Baroness hastily. "However, you have nothing to com-
plain of. My son is not only one of the leading pleaders
of Paris, but for the last year he has sat as Deputy, and his
maiden speech was brilliant enough to lead us to suppose
that ere long he will be in office. Victorin has twice been
called upon to report on important measures; and he might
even now, if he chose, be made Attorney-General in the
Court of Appeal. So, if you mean to say that your son-
in-law has no fortune "

"Worse than that, Madame, a son-in-law whom I am
obliged to maintain," replied Crevel. "Of the five hun-
dred thousand francs that formed my daughter's marriage
portion, two hundred thousand have vanished God knows
how! in paying the young gentleman's debts, in furnish-
ing his house splendaciously a house costing five hundred
thousand francs, and bringing in scarcely fifteen thousand,
since he occupies the larger part of it, while he owes two
hundred and sixty thousand francs of the purchase-money.
The rent he gets barely pays the interest on the debt. I
have had to give my daughter twenty thousand francs this


year to help her to make both ends meet. And then my
son-in-law, who was making thirty thousand francs a year
at the Assizes, I am told, is going to throw that up for the

"This again, Monsieur Crevel, is beside the mark; we
are wandering from the point. Still, to dispose of it finally,
it may be said that if my son gets into office, if he has you
made an officer of the Legion of Honor and councillor of the
municipality of Paris, you, as a retired perfumer, will not
have much to complain of '

"Ah! there we are again, Madame! Yes, I am a trades-
man, a shopkeeper, a retail dealer in almond-paste, eau-de-
Portugal, and hair- oil, and was only too much honored when
my only daughter was married to the son of Monsieur le
Baron Hulot d'Ervy my daughter will be a Baroness 1
This is Eegency, Louis XV., (Eil-de-bceuf quite tip-top!
very good. I love Celestine as a man loves his only child
so well indeed, that, to preserve her from having either
brother or sister, I resigned myself to all the privations of a
widower in Paris, and in the prime of life, Madame. But
you must understand that, in spite of this extravagant affec-
tion for my daughter, I do not intend to reduce my fortune
for the sake of your son, whose expenses are not wholly
accounted for in my eyes, as an old man of business."

"Monsieur, you may at this day see in the Ministry of
Commerce Monsieur Popinot, formerly a druggist in the
Rue des Lombards "

"And a friend of mine, Madame," said the ex-perfumer.
"For I, Celestin Crevel, foreman once to old Cdsar Birot-
teau, bought up the said Cesar Birotteau's stock; and he
was Popinot' s father-in-law. Why, that very Popinot was

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacHonoré de Balzac in twenty-five volumes : the first complete translation into English, with illustrations from drawings on the wood by famous French artists (Volume 14) → online text (page 1 of 37)