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COUSIN BeTTE by Honore de Balzac (1846)
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Plot: Bette is an avaricious spinster living with virtuous cousin Adeline and her rich husband Baron Hulot. The Baron is elderly but lecherous. Bette lives emotionally through a young Polish artist, who falls in love with Hulot's daughter; a marriage is arranged. Bette lusts for revenge. She joins forces with Mme Marneffe, the Baron's latest mistress, to undermine the Baron's wealth and wreck his daughter's marriage. The world learns that Hulot has embezzled millions of francs of goverment money. After some serpentine contortions of plot, the family's wealth is restored by the son's marriage. Bette is so disappointed, she dies. Ditto Mme Hulot, when she catches her husband groping the chambermaid. The novel closes with Hulot marrying the maid, who is ''as well furnished with fat as a wet nurse''.

Theme: The Baron's sexuality is crazily indulged; cousin Bette's is crazily repressed. Balzac also portrays a society that is endlessly acquisitive and where money corrupts absolutely.

Style: Balzac's voice ''changes like an actor's. It is sanguine, sceptical, sensible... ready with the rash generalisation... it easily contorts the larynx in passages of lurid melodrama yet passes without a blush to asides that may be caustic, shameless or tender''. (V S Pritchett).

Chief strengths: Balzac is a ''Gulliver among pygmies''. Seeming to work within the convention of the naturalistic novel, his imagination is ablaze and his lurid characters strut across their Parisian stage with Shakespearean grandeur.

Chief weaknesses: Sometimes Balzac's enthusiasm leads him astray: the magnification distorts and the drama collapses into gesture.

What they thought of it then: The novel restored Balzac's flagging reputation. It sold well; Balzac died soon after.

What we think of it now: In England, Balzac's genius has been underrated. (The comparison with Dickens damages both authors.) In France, he is ranked a bit below Flaubert, and far below Stendhal.

Responsible for: Zola's obsession with naturalistic detail; James's obsession with the corrosive power of money; Proust's obsession with the desolating torments of sexual love. All three recognised Balzac as their mentor.

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