Saturday, June 26, 2021

Quote of the Day (Honore de Balzac, on How a Parisian Vamp Can Torment a Powerful Man)

“Valerie [Marneffe] wished to be found in an atmosphere of sweetness, to attract the chief and to please him enough to have a right to be cruel; to tantalize him as a child would, with all the tricks of fashionable tactics. She had gauged [Baron Hector] Hulot. Give a Paris woman at bay four-and-twenty hours, and she will overthrow a ministry.” ― French novelist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), Cousin Bette (1846)

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this month, Honore de Balzac—one of the most astonishingly prolific novelists of all time—set to work on not one, but two novels of “poor relations”: Cousin Pons and Cousin Bette. The latter is probably the better known of the two, as it was adapted for television (first airing 50 years ago this August, as a miniseries in the Masterpiece Theatre franchise), with Margaret Tyzack in the title role, and a less faithful and less accomplished 1998 film starring Jessica Lange.

The image accompanying this post comes from the miniseries, with Helen Mirren, still early in her long, distinguished career, as Valerie, the beautiful, greedy wife of a War Office clerk. (Elisabeth Shue played a courtesan, based on this character but inexplicably renamed, in the movie.) Bette, a poor, aging spinster, uses her young friend to wreak vengeance on rich relatives, the Hulots, for unknowingly depriving her of the young artist she has come to love.  

Seldom has literature seen an irredeemable roue undone by his own folly like Baron Hulot (played in the miniseries by Thorley Walters, who appears in this photo with Dame Mirren). Bad enough that this department head in the War Office squanders money on a mistress at the start of the novel, or that he (like three other men, simultaneously) is seduced by Valerie.

But, even when he pays dearly for that most recent dangerous liaison, Hulot is so incorrigible in his lust that he begs his saintly wife to allow him to bring home another, younger (15 years old) mistress. The result: disgrace and financial ruin for his family.

With penetrating insight into the male psyche, Balzac demonstrates a lesson as applicable in 21st century Washington, London, Berlin—and, I suspect, even Moscow—as it was in 19th-century Paris: a middle-aged high government official or businessman, no matter how much money or influence he wields, is a mere toy in the hands of a wily, pretty young thing.

As rich in irony as it is relentless in pessimism, Cousin Bette is a masterpiece of 19th-century literary realism.

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