A brilliant and vivid portrait of the Paris of Louis-Philippe, Cousin Bette is a portrait of hidden rage and hatred directed against a prominent but vulnerable family. Hector Hulot has done well during Napoleon I’s wars, proving himself an efficient chief transport officer and winning the beautiful and noble—if peasant—Adeline Fischer as his wife. Adeline and her sister, the jealous Lisbeth, thin, dark, and ugly, are taken by Hulot to the Paris of the Emperor Napoleon, where Bette, as she is called, nurses her hatred and resentment of her sister. Bette saves Wenceslas Steinbock, an expatriate Polish count and talented sculptor, from suicide. She forms an odd half-maternal relationship with him, and she responds with carefully concealed rage when Hulot’s daughter, Hortense, wins the handsome Pole as husband. Bette then forms a pact with mercenary Valérie Marneffe, recently installed mistress of the aging Baron Hulot, against the Hulot family. If Valérie can be compared with Becky Sharp in English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848), then Bette is a portrait of venomous malice whose only parallel is William Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622, revised 1623). She sets out to destroy the family that has patronized and slighted her.
Like Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet’s father, Hulot is a monomaniac. His obsession is women, who are more important...
One day in the summer of 1838, M. Crevel calls on Adeline, the Baroness Hulot, to offer to make her his mistress, but she refuses him. M. Crevel swore to be revenged on Baron Hulot, who stole his former mistress. The baron, however, spent his fortune in the process and is now unable to give his daughter Hortense a satisfactory dowry. Hortense forgets her sorrow over her own marriage prospects by teasing Adeline’s cousin Lisbeth, or Cousin Bette, about her lover. Cousin Bette is the old maid of the family, and her lover is a sculptor and Polish refugee named Count Steinbock. The attachment between them is that of mother and son, but Cousin Bette is wildly jealous of his other friends.
That evening, the baron’s older brother, Colonel Hulot, and his son and daughter-in-law, Victorin and Célestine, come for dinner. Célestine, the daughter of M. Crevel, does not share her father’s dislike of Baron Hulot. After dinner, the baron escorts Cousin Bette home and then goes to see his mistress. He finds that she deserted him for a rich duke.
The next morning, Baron Hulot makes plans to seduce Madame Marneffe, the wife of a clerk who works for him. In the meantime, Hortense manages to speak to Count Steinbock by buying one of his pieces of sculpture. He calls shortly afterward. The Hulots feel that the penniless young nobleman might be a good match for Hortense, but the plan is kept secret from Cousin Bette.
Baron Hulot arranges to meet Madame Marneffe in Cousin Bette’s rooms. Later, he moves the Marneffes into a more lavish establishment in the Rue Varennes, and Cousin Bette goes there to live. Through her new friend, Cousin Bette learns of the coming marriage between Hortense and Count Steinbock, for Baron Hulot keeps no secrets from Madame Marneffe. Cousin Bette was always treated in the family as the eccentric old maid and the ugly duckling; their stealing her lover is the final humiliation. She swears vengeance on the whole Hulot family, and Madame Marneffe agrees to help her.
As a first step, Cousin Bette introduces M. Crevel to Madame Marneffe. Then she has Count Steinbock imprisoned for debt, and she tells Hortense that he returned to Poland. No one suspects that Cousin Bette put him in prison. Once he obtains his release through friends, the wedding plans go ahead. Baron Hulot manages to raise a dowry for Hortense and plans to keep himself solvent by sending Adeline’s uncle to Algiers. There, Baron Hulot hopes to steal money from the government through dealings with the army commissary; the uncle is to be the innocent dupe.
As soon as Hortense is married, Baron Hulot moves Adeline to a more modest house so that he can spend more money on Madame Marneffe. She and the baron conduct their affair quietly and attract little notice. At the same time, she is also intimate with M. Crevel. M. Marneffe gives little trouble to...