Quotes from Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

I’ve shared my impressions of this great novel at https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/07/19/cousin-bette-by-balzac-sombre-fantastical-plausible/

From the introduction

He takes everything in this sombre novel, to a fantastical, but plausible extreme;

Cousin Bette seems to mark the point beyond which the novel must give way to theatre or to grand opera.

Hulot is certainly repulsive as a human being, but there is something magnificent about his unwavering devotion to a single passion: sexual passion untarnished and undeterred by sentiment, by social life, by anything outside of itself— not even by the ugliness of an overweight scullery maid.

From the novel

I am going to remain simply a doctor of social medicine, the surgeon of incurable ills;

Everything is two-sided, even virtue.

But envy remained hidden in the depths of her heart, like the germ of a disease which can break out and ravage a town if one opens the fatal bale of wool in which it is enclosed.

Like all those dedicated to genuine celibacy, she was gifted with an insight that had become penetrating, and as she expressed her thoughts with a sharp wit, she would have appeared formidable in any other situation. With a malicious nature, she would have disrupted the most united family.

The moralist cannot deny that, generally, well-bred, very dissolute people are much more agreeable than the virtuous. Having crimes to compensate for, they seek indulgence in advance by being lenient with their judges’ failings and have the reputation of being delightful.

Like all men who have sorrows or excessive energy to allay, he was a smoker.

Feeling, honour, and poetry are disastrous in business affairs.

Virtuous lovers have not a shred of hypocrisy.

Madame Marneffe had been appalled to find both an Iago and a Richard III in an old maid who was apparently so weak, so humble, and so inoffensive.

In a moment, then, Cousin Bette became the Mohican* whose snares are inescapable, whose deceit is impenetrable, and whose swift decisions are based on the incredible perfection of his sense organs. She was the embodiment of uncompromising hatred and vengeance as they are found in Italy, in Spain, and in the East.

Money has never lost the least opportunity of showing how stupid it is.

Happiness creates nothing but memories.

Those comforting, long-winded laments in which women use words rather like cigarettes to allay life’s little miseries.

The pleasures of satisfied hatred are the keenest and the most ardent that the heart can experience. Love is, in a way, the gold and hatred the iron of that mine of emotions that lies within us.

Love and hatred are emotions which feed on themselves, but, of the two, hatred is the more long-lasting. Love is bounded by our limited strength; it derives its power from life and generous giving. Hatred is like death and avarice, it is a kind of active abstraction, above people and things.

Disasters drive all strong, intelligent men to philosophize.

Ceaseless work is the law of art, as it is of life, for art is the creation of an ideal of life. So great artists, like true poets, do not wait for order or customers. They produce today, tomorrow, all the time.

The majority, which is composed, as we know, of the foolish, the envious, the ignorant, and the superficial.

Hortense was the wife and Valérie was the mistress. Many men want to have these two editions of the same work, although it is a clear proof of inferiority in a man if he is unable to make his wife his mistress. The need for variety in this respect is a sign of inadequacy. Fidelity will always be the essence of love, the indication of an enormous power, the power that makes the poet. A man should find all women in his wife,

Women value lovers for whom they have rivals as men value women who are desired by several nincompoops.

The passion for women is not like gambling, or speculation, or avarice. There’s an end to it.’ The beautiful Adeline— for she was still beautiful in spite of her fifty years and her sorrows— was mistaken in this. Libertines, men whom nature has gifted with the precious faculty of loving beyond the limits usually set for love, are never as old as their chronological age.

I respect an inveterate passion as much as doctors respect an inveterate ill …

Many married women, devoted to their duties and to their husbands, may well wonder at this point why strong, kindly men, so sympathetic to women like Madame Marneffe, don’t make their wives the subject of their fancies and their passions, especially when they are like Baroness Adeline Hulot. This is linked to one of the deepest mysteries of human nature. Love, when reason runs riot, the manly, serious pleasure of great hearts, and sensual pleasure, the vulgar commodity sold on the market-place, are two different aspects of the same thing. The woman who can satisfy those two great appetites of the two sides of human nature is as rare amongst her sex as great generals, great writers, great artists, and great inventors are in a nation. Men of superior gifts as well as fools, a Hulot as well as a Crevel, feel the need both of the ideal and of sensual pleasure; all go in search of the mysterious hermaphrodite, that rare object which is usually found to be a work in two volumes. This quest is a depravity for which society is to blame. Clearly, marriage must be accepted as a task to be performed. It is life, with its toil and painful sacrifices to be made equally on both sides. Libertines, those treasure-hunters, are as guilty as other wrong-doers who are more severely punished than they. This reflection is not merely an outward show of morality; it explains many incomprehensible misfortunes. The preceding scene has, moreover, its own moral lessons of more than one kind.


Nothing equals the curiosity of virtuous women on this subject; they would like to possess the seductions of vice and yet remain pure.

‘Woman is man’s meat.’ as Molière amusingly observed by the mouth of the discerning Gros-René.* This comparison implies a kind of culinary science in love. The noble, virtuous wife would then be the Homeric meal, flesh thrown on burning coal. The courtesan, on the other hand, would be Carême’s* work with its condiments, spices, and studied presentation.

To be an upright and virtuous woman to the outside world, and to turn herself into a courtesan for her husband, is to be a woman of genius, and there are few. There lies the secret of long attachments, inexplicable to women who are not endowed with these complementary and magnificent abilities.

You are much mistaken, my dear, if you think it’s King Louis-Philippe who reigns, but he’s not mistaken about that. He knows, as we all do, that above the Charter* there is the holy, venerated, tangible, charming, gracious, beautiful, noble, young, all-powerful hundred-sou piece.

You are much mistaken, my dear, if you think it’s Theresa May who rules, but she’s not mistaken about that. She knows, as we all do, that above the Cabinet there is the holy, venerated, tangible, charming, gracious, beautiful, noble, young, all-powerful five pound note. [Adapted from Balzac]

Twenty-five years of virtue always repel a man, like a neglected illness.

‘You don’t know how much an adulteress must love a man to silence the remorse that gnaws at her heart.

He adopted a sound view of life, appreciating that its universal law obliges us to put up with the less than perfect in everything.

She had the soothing charm of old ruins.

Not only did she abandon all idea of vying with this woman, but she even humbled herself before a greatness that she understood.

He’s fond of women. But, you know, if you’d had a little of our savvy, you’d have stopped him gallivanting; for you’d have been what we know how to be: all kinds of women to a man. The government ought to set up a training school for respectable women. But governments are so prudish!

In the end Valérie had succumbed to the overwhelming love which, once in a lifetime, grips a woman’s heart— such was her love for Wenceslas. A failure as an artist, he became such a perfect lover in Madame Marneffe’s hands that he was for her what she had been for Baron Hulot.

‘Only a Pole could want to turn a devoted mistress into a wife,’ exclaimed Valérie. ‘To exchange love for duty! Pleasure for boredom!’

Ignorance is the mother of all crimes.

Life cannot go on without a great deal of forgetting.




One thought on “Quotes from Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Pingback: Cousin Bette by Balzac: sombre, fantastical, plausible | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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