Cousin Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

Cousin Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

By Balzac
Translated by Kathleen Raine

It is not one of those books that I like to read. In fact, the characters and the whole story is quite disturbing. However, I must say that the author is quite captivating in the description of the plot that I am quite hooked to the story even though I find it distasteful to my reading. It’s a pity I do not understand French, otherwise it can be a very different understanding of the charcters.

Baron Hector Hulot had risen to a senior post in the  military administration of Alsace, and his brother had fought with distinction in Napoleons armies. The Baron’s obsessive tendency to fall madly in love with, and subsequently enslave himself to, paradoxically cheap and expensive women has brought his family to near-ruin. At one point of time , he is so obsessed even with fifteen year old girls. Even up till the end of the story, when he was around 80 years old of age, he never changed his way. (maybe this reminds me of the scandal of the Singapore famous director, Jack Neo, who had an affair with a much younger woman, and there were other women involved.)

I do not know whether the author is portraying a part of himself in the Baron, as he seems to be well-known to have numerous affairs. I guess this story portrayed from a different angle, tells of a world of money and sex. This novel is disturbing in that up till the end, generosity and virtue are repaid with humiliation, betrayal. However there is some hope in the story, the mistress Valerie left a large amount of fortune back to Baron’s family after her death. The money was mostly fleeced from the Baron when she was with him. She even tells Bette to give up her idea of revenge.

While there are some bad characters in the story, there are some good ones. However the good ones are too good and anglic in the sense that it does not sound human, it is almost mantyr. This is the example of Adeline who is the baron’s wife. She forgave him again and again even up to her deathbed. Her husband has told the servant girl “My wife has not long to live, and if you like you could be a Baroness”. Perhaps from the story, we can see that men like the Baron are unlikely to learn their ways, and they created their own ruins. Even the author’s personal familiarity with the vice – sex and debt provided us with real life example based on his own life.

Surprisingly I find the evil characters in the story more real like , than the good ones. Because the good ones are really too one dimensional. This is with the exception of the Baron’s brother Marshal Hulot. He is a good and honourable man, that he is very concerned with integrity and well being of his family. Cousin Bette never expected that her secret plot is so successful that it had caused death to the man she is supposed to marry to. Marshal Hulot is a man who is very attached to his family ties.

Perhaps Cousin Bette though still have the goodwill of the family at her deathbed, thinking she is a good and kind family member. However, her own hatred and revenge has caused misery to her own life.


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