Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1179 words.)