Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1179
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 either of these gentlemen as long as they keep him supplied with money and a good position at the war office.
When Baron Montès, an old lover of Madame Marneffe, appears one evening, Baron Hulot and M. Crevel become worried. That same night, Madame Marneffe refuses to let Baron Hulot enter her apartment. M. Crevel tells Baron Hulot that he, too, is Madame Marneffe’s lover. The two old rivals reconcile and go to see Madame Marneffe the next day. She agrees to consider M. Crevel’s offer to marry her after her husband dies, but she tells Baron Hulot that he need not hope to be her lover again. After the two old men leave, she asks Cousin Bette to try to get Count Steinbock to come to her. She always wanted to make a conquest of him, and his downfall will also be Cousin Bette’s revenge on Hortense.
Count Steinbock is in need of money, and Cousin Bette slyly suggests borrowing from Madame Marneffe. After the count secretly goes to see her, Madame Marneffe makes a complete conquest of him.
When Madame Marneffe finds herself to be pregnant, she tells each lover separately that he is the father. Hortense believes that Count Steinbock is the father and deserts him to return to her mother. Baron Hulot finds it necessary to visit Adeline to see Hortense and asks her to return to her husband. Hortense refuses and makes a violent scene. Cousin Bette arrives to take Hortense’s side. She says that she can no longer stay with Madame Marneffe; she will keep house for old Colonel Hulot. It is her plan to marry the old man and gain control of the only money left in the family.
The baron’s affairs are growing desperate. Adeline’s uncle in Algiers writes that the plot to steal from the government was discovered and that money is needed to stop an investigation. Madame Marneffe is insisting on money for her child and a better position for her husband. One night, Madame Marneffe leads Baron Hulot into a trap; when M. Marneffe brings the police to the lovers’ room, saying he will prosecute unless he is promoted at the war office, the baron agrees.
At last, the Algerian scandal breaks, and the uncle kills himself. Colonel Hulot is crushed by this blow to the family honor. He pays the necessary money from his own savings and dies only a few days later from wounded pride. Cousin Bette has her revenge. Baron Hulot is a ruined man. In his disgrace, he seeks shelter with the mistress who deserted him for the duke. She provides him with some capital and a pretty seamstress to keep him company, and he lives in the slums under an assumed name. Through the efforts of Victorin, now a successful lawyer, the family slowly regains its wealth. Madame Marneffe’s child is stillborn, and her husband dies. Victorin is determined to keep his father-in-law from throwing himself away on the woman. He hires an underworld character to inform Baron Montès that Madame Marneffe is having an affair with Count Steinbock and is to marry M. Crevel. Baron Montès takes his revenge on Madame Marneffe and M. Crevel by infecting them with a fatal tropical disease; they both die soon after their marriage.
Adeline begins to do charity work in the slums. On one of her visits, she discovers her husband and brings him back to live with his family. Meanwhile, Cousin Bette retires to her bed with consumption; she dies soon after the return of Baron Hulot, who became a model husband. Soon after his wife hires a new cook, however, Adeline discovers her husband in the servants’ quarters with the peasant girl. Adeline dies three days later. Baron Hulot leaves Paris, and as soon as he can, he marries the peasant girl, Agathe. This impropriety causes Victorin to remark that parents can hinder the marriages of their children, but children can do nothing about the actions of their parents in their second childhood.
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