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Poor Relations   By: (1799-1850)

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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 works, 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 retrospective narrations, or even by the insertion of such "padding" as the collection business in Le Cousin Pons . The whole stuff and substance of La Cousine Bette is honestly 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, shoulder 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 propriety 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 commonplace than Becky's; she never could have long sustained 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 malefactress as undiscovered and even unsuspected throughout... Continue reading book >>

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