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Friday, 23 March 2012

Balzac (2), Courtesans and Anne Ousby

Caring or Controlling?
Wendy  La Cousine Bette is one of Honore de Balzac’s longest novels - first published in a series of pamphlets -  and is considered one of his best. This novel was considered by some his last great work -  sometimes compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace - and her he wrote it in two months. I sometimes wonder at the intellectual energy of these creative giants (see also the posts on Charles Dickens) compared with contemporary writers who take five years to write what in the end might be considered a moderately fine book.

 I have already written here  about researching the mid nineteenth century demi monde for the next novel when I  had started re-reading all of Balzac with  The Girl With The Golden Eyes. I was  talking at the Kindling conference with writer Anne Ousby *** and discovered that she had just read La Cousine Bette and was loving it. So I asked her to comment on it here.

Here’s Anne:
' When it comes to classical literature I confess I’m an inverted snob and often choose the easy option – screen adaptations of famous works. The small, dense type-face of such books is difficult to read and I soon lose interest.
However, despite my prejudices, I’ve had to eat humble-pie. I’ve just read Cousin Bette.
From the first page, when the bourgeois Captain, Monsieur Crevell, posed and postured his way across the page, I was hooked. Each character is unforgettable.
Cousin Bette is set in mid Nineteenth Century Paris and deals with the rise of the middle-class – the bourgeoisie – with all its acquisitiveness and political and social ambition. Balzac referred to it as ‘a mean and sordid age.’The book is peopled with Grotesques. Baron Hulot is a lascivious, debauched, selfish man – a terrible father and an unfaithful husband, who is totally unaware of his shortcomings. This is a hypocritical society where people cling to a thin veneer of respectability and Baron Hulot demands respect and filial duty from his children. However, he has no scruples about impoverishing them by throwing money at the demi-monde - the famous singer/courtesans, Josepha and Celestine. These are powerful women who use their beauty and sex as bargaining tools for wealth and social standing. Madame Marneffe is a ‘respectable’ married woman who runs four lovers at once, playing each like a fish on a rod. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants – power and money.
These degenerates are like an orchestra ‘playing’ their particular vile instruments while the conductor controls and whips them into a frenzy. And The Conductor? Why poor, dowdy Cousin Bette of course. Her bitterness and hatred for the Hulot family carries the plot along at a cracking pace. As the poor relation of the family she has been slighted and patronised all her life and vows to make them all pay, especially her cousin Adeline – Baron Hulot’s virtuous and beautiful wife.

There is no fairy-tale ending to this book but Cousin Bette remains with me in my dreams and I am on my guard.' 

*** Anne Ousby lives on the Northumbrian coast. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4 and her stage plays have been performed widely in the North East. The television drama 'Wait till the Summer comes' was broadcast on ITV. Her first novel Patterson's Curse was published in 2010 and her new novel The Leopard Man will be published in 2012.

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