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.)