Home > 19th Century, Balzac Honoré de, Classics, French Literature, Novel > La Cousine Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

La Cousine Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

La Cousine Bette by Balzac. Translated into English by James Warin (Cousin Betty)

La Cousine Bette is included in La Comédie Humaine, in the section Scènes de la vie parisienne. It was first published as a roman-feuilleton in a newspaper, Le Constitutionnel. I read the kindle version from Gutenberg Project. The book is divided in 132 chapters, each chapter having a specific title. It appears that not all editions have this chapter subdivision and it may be a good thing for the modern reader as it breaks the flow.

La Cousine Bette is the story of an implacable vengeance fomented by Lisbeth Fischer, the poor relative of the extended Hulot family. Lisbeth and Adeline Fischer are cousins, and both women come from a remote village of Lorraine, in the Vosges. Lisbeth is ugly while Adeline is beyond lovely. Here’s Balzac’s idea of an ugly woman:

Paysanne des Vosges, dans toute l’extension du mot, maigre, brune, les cheveux d’un noir luisant, les sourcils épais et réunis par un bouquet, les bras longs et forts, les pieds épais, quelques verrues dans sa face longue et simiesque, tel est le portrait concis de cette vierge. A native of the Vosges, a peasant in the fullest sense of the word, lean, brown, with shining black hair and thick eyebrows joining in a tuft, with long, strong arms, thick feet, and some moles on her narrow simian face–such is a brief description of the elderly virgin.

The peasant family wants to make the best money out of their two assets:

La famille, qui vivait en commun, avait immolé la fille vulgaire à la jolie fille, le fruit âpre à la fleur éclatante. Lisbeth travaillait à la terre, quand sa cousine était dorlotée. The family, living all under one roof, had sacrificed the common- looking girl to the beauty, the bitter fruit to the splendid flower. Lisbeth worked in the fields, while her cousin was indulged

Lisbeth has more value in the fields or later as a worker than on the marriage market and Adeline’s value lays in her beauty as she can expect a rich marriage, which is what happens when she meets Hulot. The injustice of the situation plants in Lisbeth an entrenched hatred towards her spoiled and beautiful cousin. In her eyes, Adeline has everything: beauty, money and family.

At the beginning of the book, Adeline is married to Le Baron Hulot and has two children, Hortense and Victorin. Her son is married to Célestine, M. Crevel’s daughter. Lisbeth, nicknamed Bette, lives in Paris in a poor neighbourhood and weekly visits her cousin Adeline. Lisbeth’s hatred is under good check until she reveals to her cousin Hortense that she has a secret lover. Indeed, she has a secret relationship with a Polish immigrant named Wenceslas, but it isn’t a love affair. He’s a handsome, poor and unknown artist. She supports him financially, encourages him in his work and loves him. He’s younger than her but her love is half-motherly, half-tender. When the beautiful Hortense steals Wencelas from her and marries him, Bette’s hatred is set on fire. She decides to avenge herself on Adeline and her family.

Meanwhile, we learn more about the Baron Hulot, who became rich during the Empire and now works for the War Office. He was handsome and took advantage of it. He is a pathological womanizer and as coquettish as a courtesan. Crevel, Victorin’s father-in-law and Hulot have known each other for a long time as they have been companions in debauchery. When Hulot steals the courtesan Josepha from him, Crevel wants to avenge himself by seducing Adeline. The virtuous Adeline resists and Crevel needs to find a new way out to his fierce resentment.

The tool will be Valérie Marneffe.

She’s a bourgeois, living poorly in the same filthy building as Lisbeth. She’s beautiful and knows how to make the better of it. Her husband gives her free rein and she’s absolutely decided to bet on her charms to enrich but without being a courtesan.

Lisbeth and Valérie befriend and share their secret. Lisbeth wants the financial and social death of Hulot to reach Adeline. Valérie wants to find a rich lover. They realize they can achieve their respective goal if Hulot fall madly in love with Valérie and if she withdraw from him as much money as possible. In the meantime, Valérie also resolves to seduce Crevel, whose rivalry with Hulot is known and who has even more money. Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be completed until Valérie has also Wenceslas at her feet and thus ruins Hortense’s happiness.

Lisbeth has a one track mind and is an accomplished actress. She has an incredible talent to disguise her feelings and deceive her relatives, who rely blindly on her to protect their interests while she’s the one who sets in motion the machine that will ruin and dishonour them. She looks like a dull and devoted spinster when she’s consumed by hatred.

Hulot is a perfect imbecile, totally led by passion. He’s not very strong-willed and is solely driven by his libido. He needs to make himself attractive to women. I loved the description of the ageing Hulot with dyed hair wearing a corset to look younger. He looks so ridiculous.

Crevel is a more interesting character, as he’s a womanizer but he keeps some control over himself and doesn’t make reckless decisions about money. He’s more a libertine than passionate. He’s also interested in climbing the social ladder and leans on Valérie’s knowledge of worldly manners to improve. He’s a former shopkeeper and he doesn’t speak very well.

Wenceslas is weak too, easily turned away from art to flirt in Valérie’s salon. He could have been a great artist but lacked the perseverance.

Victorin is the most interesting man. Lacking of personality at the beginning, he improves as the novel progresses. He’s actually utterly honest and good and behaves gentlemanly. He’s the most reliable man in the family. His marriage with Célestine happens to be a good match.

The women are charming and deceitful (Valérie), ugly and evil (Lisbeth), good but not without pride (Hortense) or generous to imbecility (Adeline). All correspond to a stereotype of women. I read on Wikipedia that Lisbeth and Valérie have a lesbian relationship, I hadn’t noticed it but thinking about it, it’s quite right. (There were also lesbians in La Fille aux Yeux d’Or). All in all, the courtesan Josepha looks less evil than Valérie. At least she doesn’t hide that she lives on sex when Valérie plays the virtuous bourgeoise. (I wonder if Valérie inspired Nana. I don’t remember Nana well enough, I read it such a long time ago.)

Among all the events, descriptions and thoughts left by Balzac in this dense novel, I want point out specific elements that stayed with me.  

There is a great emphasis on the Lorraine origins of Lisbeth, especially at the beginning of the book. Coming from there, I can’t imagine why such dark features could be representative of a Lorraine girl, especially before the immigration waves from Southern Europe. Lisbeth Fischer is a German name, and her nickname Bette is German too. Though Balzac doesn’t mention it, she must have had a strong German accent, as French must have been a learnt language for a Lorraine peasant of that time. Dialects were eradicated in France in the 20thC through zealous school teachers who forbid pupils to speak in dialects at school. But at that time, in that region, she probably spoke a German dialect. Balzac enforces the origin from this country by using “la Bette” when referring to her. This locution has two impacts: it’s a regionalism, people in Lorraine use “la/le” (the) before first names, like authorized in German but grammatically wrong in French. It’s less frequent now but it still exists. It’s also a way to show the animal nature of Lisbeth, because “la bette” sounds like “la bête” which means “the beast”. In addition, as Lorraine was ruled by a Polish prince, Stanislas Leszczyński in the 18thC, it is quite ironic to put Lisbeth’s heart in the power of a Polish immigrant. I don’t know if Balzac did it on purpose or if the Polish character was fashionable at the time, as it also appears in La Fausse Maîtresse.

I was hugely interested in the picture of Paris during the Restauration. I was amused to read that the neighbourhood in which Lisbeth and Valérie first live and meet, near Le Louvre was a place of ill repute. Now, it’s one of the neatest places of the capital. I also enjoyed the descriptions of pre-Haussmanian Paris. Political references were fascinating too such as the place of heroes of the Napoleonic wars in the society, the war to conquer Algeria, the construction of a new civilian society based on the remains of the Ancien Régime and the Révolution. There would also be a lot to say about religion and how Catholic faith was at work to gain the masses after the Revolution.

I wondered if Hulot could be medically considered as suffering from hyper-sexuality. It’s the medical term for abnormal sexual needs. He is quite an addict and would need a therapy. I can’t compare him to Don Juan, he’s not excited by the thrill of the chase. He’s more what we call in colloquial French a “chaud lapin” (a “randy devil” according to the dictionary).

I was also really fascinated by the means people use to get cash money. I was puzzled by the financial instruments and the pledge of pensions and future income. Balzac speaks naturally of all this, I can only think it was very common. At a moment, Crevel says:

Pour avoir deux cent mille francs d’argent vivant, il faut vendre environ sept mille francs de rente trois pour cent.

To have two hundred thousand francs in hard cash it would be needful to sell about seven hundred thousand francs’ worth of stock at three per cent.

I was intrigued by this. I wondered how many later payments of 7000 francs were needed to get 200 000 francs in hard cash with a 3% interest rate. An Excel spreadsheet later – you can’t shut up the accountant for a long time, *sigh*– I could tell that 66 periods were needed. Obviously, these periods weren’t years and could only be months. That leaves us with a monthly 3% interest rate, roughly equivalent to 36% a year. Ruinous, especially with an inflation rate inferior to 5%.

I really enjoyed Balzac’s wits. He’s an example of sharp French eloquence. For pure pleasure, here are excerpts:

Et, en effet, à quarante-sept ans passés, la baronne pouvait être préférée à sa fille par les amateurs de couchers de soleil And, in point of fact, at seven-and-forty the Baroness might have been preferred to her daughter by amateurs of sunset beauty.
Elle saisit son adorateur dans une de ces stupéfactions où les oreilles tintent si bien, qu’on n’entend rien que le glas du désastre. [She] came upon her adorer, standing lost in amazement–in the stupid amazement when a man’s ears tingle so loudly that he hears nothing but that fatal knell.
Mme Crevel, femme assez laide, très vulgaire et sotte, morte à temps, n’avait pas donné d’autres plaisirs à son mari que ceux de la paternité. Madame Crevel, ugly, vulgar, and silly, had given her husband no pleasures but those of paternity; she died young.

The first quote sounds better in French, I’m afraid as it’s more elliptic and I don’t know why the “glas du désastre” wasn’t translated by “the knell of disaster”, I suppose that “fatal knell” sounds more English.  

There has been two moments for me with this novel. The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to the how: how Bette takes revenge on her relatives and how Le Baron Hulot carries away the whole family in his fall. I thought this part particularly theatrical and melodramatic. I could see a stage, with doors slamming from people entering and going out. I could imagine the settings changing between each chapter according to the house in which the scene took place. The vocabulary and Balzac’s constant references to Molière didn’t help me disregard this impression, but this will be developed in another post. I expected something like Eugénie Grandet or La Femme de 30 ans and not theatre in prose. I almost stopped reading it. I persevered because it was Balzac and because this book came highly recommended. I enjoyed the last third of the book better. The impression of theatre dispelled. I didn’t read the last chapters but heard them in an audio version. (I was in one of those cooking week-ends and wanted to know the ending, so I opted for the audio version. Cousin Bette’s revenge must have broken through into my life as it has been the worst cake of my history as a cook.)

Though I can tell it’s a great novel, I didn’t love it. It sure deserves to be read. Theatre filtering through the novel really bothered me. That may have been avoided with a paper edition without the short chapters sounding like scenes in a play. In addition, I found the characters too simple, lacking of subtlety. Bette is all vengeance. Adeline is all saintly acceptance, virtue and resignation. The old opposition between a devilish ugly brunette vs angelic beautiful blonde, vice against virtue annoyed me as life isn’t so simple. I prefer books where the nasty have redeeming qualities and the good have flaws because life isn’t black and white, or brunette and blonde, I should say. I loved the ending though, so typically French that it made me smile.

For another review, read Lisa’s from ANZ LitLovers.

  1. April 7, 2011 at 4:15 am

    Many good insights here. The ideas about Bette’s name and background seem really useful.

    Balzac was, at this point, in love with the Polish countess he would later marry, so that at least suggests why Polish names were on his mind, but does not really explain how he uses them.

    And checking the accounting – what a good idea! Balzac is packed with more of this financial business than any other novelist I can think of.

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    • April 7, 2011 at 7:50 am

      I know about Mme Hanska and Balzac’s visits in Poland. But when I read La Fausse Maîtresse, I searched for the November Uprising of 1830 in Poland mentioned in the book. It was repressed by the Russians and I understood that some defeated Polish were refugees in Paris. Wenceslas probably comes from this community. Here is Lisbeth and Hortense talking about him:

      – C’est une manière de Polonais, un réfugié…
      – Un conspirateur ?… s’était écriée Hortense. Es-tu heureuse !… A-t-il eu des aventures ?…
      – Mais il s’est battu pour la Pologne. Il était professeur dans le gymnase dont le élèves ont commencé la révolte, et, comme il était placé là par le grand-duc Constantin, il n’a pas de grâce à espérer…

      In English :
      “He is a sort of Pole–a refugee—-”
      “A conspirator?” cried Hortense. “What luck for you!–Has he had any adventures?”
      “He has fought for Poland. He was a professor in the school where the students began the rebellion; and as he
      had been placed there by the Grand Duke Constantine, he has no hope of mercy—-“

      Bette uses the word “gymnase” for “lycée” (high-school) and I’ve never heard it in French in that sense. However, “Gymnasium” is the German word for “lycée” and it is typical of Lorraine natives to use German words in a French form when they speak. (It is still true)

      About the accounting : well, sometimes it’s useful to be specialized in something else than literature…

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  2. April 7, 2011 at 6:06 am

    I am one of the readers who loved it. I particularly loved the descriptions of Paris. Compared to Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes this one reads very fluently. Which is your favourite Balzac? I can’t remember Eugénie Grandet? I love this one much more. And Les illusions perdues which is one of the best novels ever written. I never pay attention to referrence to economy or money, totally not on my radar but it is a major Balzac theme.

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    • April 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

      I loved the description of Paris too, Balzac’s witt and many other things.
      What I didn’t love is the lack of nuance in the plot and that comedy form. Is your copy split in 132 chapters or do you have a more “novel” form copy like Guy? With the 132 chapters, I really felt the feuilleton under the novel. I even thought of soap-operas with the constant new developments. I read that Balzac’s aim was to prove he could do better than Eugène Sue.
      I haven’t read Splendeurs et misère des courtisanes or Les Illusions perdues. Yet. I still have to read La Rabouilleuse.

      I don’t know which one is my favourite. I remember I really enjoyed Eugénie Grandet when I read it (teenage read). Le Père Goriot and La peau de chagrin were ruined in class. I should re-read Le Père Goriot and Le colonel Chabert. I liked Le Lys dans la vallée, Le député d’Arcis and La femme de trente ans.
      Thinking about it, I think my favourite is Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées. It’s an epistolary novel and for once, women are well treated.

      About economy and finance. It is a major theme. I don’t have time for it but it would be interesting to understand the banking system and credit laws to fully appreciate the environment.
      There’s something I didn’t mention in the post as it is obvious for a French citizen but maybe not so obvious for foreigners : the Code Napoléon changed the laws on inheritance. Balzac mentions this. Before Napoléon, I think you could choose your heir and give all your money to one person if you wanted or split your fortune unequally between heirs. After Napoleon, only half of the fortune can be donated to whomever you want and the other half is given according to rules written in civil law. You can’t disinherit your children. (It’s still like this, btw) It had huge impacts on the bourgeoisie, such as not wanting too many children to avoid spliting fortunes. Plus, the blood bonds (family) are more important than love bonds (spouse)

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      • April 7, 2011 at 9:06 am

        I haven’t read le Lys dans la vallée but all the others. I think I do not have a book with that feuilleton feel like you. I remember reading “Splendeurs…” and one could feel the feuilleton. It’s not very well written but I thought La cousine Bette was.
        You should read La maison Nucingen (I haven’t yet). That’s really a “banker’s novel” and since you are interested in that aspect you might enjoy it. There are still so many of his novels I want to read… It seems never ending. La femme abandonnée is high on the list.

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        • April 7, 2011 at 9:11 am

          I’ll have a look at La Maison Nucingen, thanks. (He’s a banker and already mentioned in La Cousine Bette)
          I’m not usually fond of novels about finance but the historical aspects of it are intriguing. The impacts on everyday life are important and in La Cousine Bette, characters make decisions according to the financial consequences.

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  3. April 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    After reading the acountant comments, I have to say that The Black Sheep comes to mind as the issue of pension and the money to be raised on a pension comes into the text many times.

    BTW, I’ve read Lily of the Valley and enjoyed it very much.

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    • April 7, 2011 at 10:13 pm

      What’s the French title of The Black Sheep?
      I’m not interested in finance in itself in novels but more as a part of the society of that time. It impacts relationships and social behaviours.
      Le Lys dans la Vallée is a great novel.

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    • April 8, 2011 at 8:57 am

      About finance and Balzac.

      Read this morning in a Finance Newsletter, about fresh cash in companies : “In September 2008, when the CFO of Renault explained that like poor César Birotteau he was scraping some money together certainly made their auditors think”

      Funny, how things often bounce on each other.

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  4. April 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    La Rabouilleuse

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  5. April 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

    I suspect the melodramatic nature of it stems from the episodic manner of publication. If you publish something as a newspaper serial it means each little bit must be worth reading on its own and that you don’t really expect at least initially people to read more than one episode at a time. That means lots of mini-climaxes, sudden twists, dramatic developments and so on. The overall book may suffer, but that’s not how most readers will read it.

    That’s probably too why the conflict is a bit broad brush (ugliness against beauty, town and country, and so on). Easy to follow, particularly given the reader may miss the occasional episode and still need to follow what’s going on.

    Fascinating detail on the accent and social background. Thanks for that.

    I think the finance aspects are common to a lot of 19th Century fiction. This was a period without a social services safety net. No state funded pensions for most people. Knowledge of investments among the middle classes was I think much higher because in part you provided for your own old age through those investments.

    Ruin is a threat in these novels because it means penury and squalor with no real chance of escape. I think to a modern reader it’s hard sometimes to recognise (not for you, I mean in general) how real a threat ruin was. It’s much more than social embarassment. It’s losing your home, your friends, your very means of survival at the level you’re accustomed to. On a slight tangent, the threat of ruin to a woman from loss of reputation is I think often seen now as a social threat but it’s a very real fiscal one. A ruined woman has no means of providing for herself. The consquences of that could be very grim indeed.

    Nice review. Interesting stuff.

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    • April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      You’re right, the feuilleton-form requires lots of events to keep the reader interested. However, it’s not the first book I’ve read that had been published in feuilleton before. I really think that keeping the chapters with their titles prevented me from forgetting it had been published as a feuilleton in the first place.
      The audio chapters I listened were more fluent than the reading.

      I agree, the finance aspects are important in many novels of 19thC. But here, it’s more than saying “I should marry Mr XX who has YYY thousand pounds of income per year”. They constantly talk about how to get cash, they “juggle” with money and financial “instruments” (letters of credit, loans, pledges, investing in bonds or shares, creating yearly allowances,…) and talk about the value of one’s signature on a letter of credit, for example. Balzac mentions this very naturally, as if it were everyday life.

      Do you think they were investing for old age? Retirement pensions were children who took care of their parents, that’s it.
      I think they were interested in becoming rich and maybe leaving something to their children. Isn’t it every parent’s wish that their children are richer than they are?

      Ruin was a real threat, I agree, because of what you listed, at least for upper and middle classes, generally shown in fiction. We tend to forget about the masses who aren’t represented in novels, except by Dickens and Zola. Working classes had to survive from their work anyway.
      Ruin was a great threat because banqueroute meant prison. You could go to prison for unpaid bills, not now, at least, not in France anymore, except for embezzlement or window-dressing your financial statements. It also sometimes meant suicide, which was a social and religious disaster for the family. Don’t forget that for a Catholic of that time, a suicide means being burried outside the cemetery. So what Hulot did to his family just because he was a stupid horny man is even worse when you think about what ruin meant for his wife and children.

      Btw, despite our social benefits, nowadays homeless people come from a personal ruin too. When you watch documentaries, most of them had a “normal” life and misery fell on them after a redundancy plan, an illness and/or a divorce. They loose their job, their home and end up on the streets.

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      • April 13, 2011 at 2:21 am

        In Zola’s The Earth, elderly parents decide to divide up their land amongst their 3 children BEFORE they die with the idea in mind that they will receive money as a form of pension from each of their children. This of course does not happen and disaster results.

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        • April 13, 2011 at 8:51 am

          They expect that their children will take care of them. If they had owned the “usufruit” of their land, they would have received an income. I don’t know if that was possible at that time.
          In France you can divide the right of ownership between “nue-propriété” and “usufruit”. One person owns the good or land, another person owns the income from the good or land. Example for equities : the person who has the “nue-propriété” of the shares is a partner and has a right to vote. The person who has the “usufruit” gets the dividends.
          Does that exist in the US or the UK?

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    • April 12, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      You’re right, the feuilleton-form requires lots of events to keep the reader interested. However, it’s not the first book I’ve read that had been published in feuilleton before. I really think that keeping the chapters with their titles prevented me from forgetting it had been published as a feuilleton in the first place.
      The audio chapters I listened were more fluent than the reading.

      I agree, the finance aspects are important in many novels of 19thC. But here, it’s more than saying “I should marry Mr XX who has YYY thousand pounds of income per year”. They constantly talk about how to get cash, they “juggle” with money and financial “instruments” (letters of credit, loans, pledges, investing in bonds or shares, creating yearly allowances,…) and talk about the value of one’s signature on a letter of credit, for example. Balzac mentions this very naturally, as if it were everyday life.

      Do you think they were investing for old age? Retirement pensions were children who took care of their parents, that’s it.
      I think they were interested in becoming rich and maybe leaving something to their children. Isn’t it every parent’s wish that their children are richer than they are?

      Ruin was a real threat, I agree, because of what you listed, at least for upper and middle classes, generally shown in fiction. We tend to forget about the masses who aren’t represented in novels, except by Dickens and Zola. Working classes had to survive from their work anyway.
      Ruin was a great threat because banqueroute meant prison. You could go to prison for unpaid bills, not now, at least, not in France anymore, except for embezzlement or window-dressing your financial statements. It also sometimes meant suicide, which was a social and religious disaster for the family. Don’t forget that for a Catholic of that time, a suicide means being burried outside the cemetery. So what Hulot did to his family just because he was a stupid horny man is even worse when you think about what ruin meant for his wife and children.

      Btw, despite our social benefits, nowadays homeless people come from a personal ruin too. When you watch documentaries, most of them had a “normal” life and misery fell on them after a redudancy plan, an illness and/or a divorce. They loose their job, their home and end up on the streets.

      Like

  6. April 14, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Not having read it it’s hard to know what they were investing for. I do think though that there was a greater familiarity with financial instruments then than now and less opportunity to just buy a straightforward pension and then ignore it.

    Ruin in part is about becoming part of the masses isn’t it? It’s a very middle class concept. Good point on the risk of imprisonment.

    There’s a saying in English that’s gone out of fashion, there but for the grace of god go I. I’m not religious, but I still like it. When one sees someone homeless it’s easy to forget they won’t have started out that way. Life can be very fragile. A lost job, a divorce and soon things can get very nasty indeed.

    Years ago I lost my job and broke up with my partner. I had to move out into a room in a larger flat. I was then burgled. Within a few months I’d gone from having money, a flat, possessions and a partner to having literally only the clothes on my back. It doesn’t take that much bad luck to tear one’s life down…

    It’s omething that fiction of the 19th Century is often much more aware of than contemporary fiction.

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    • April 14, 2011 at 7:36 pm

      What does “there but for the grace of god go I.” mean, for Christ’s sake? That reminds me that I still haven’t found out where my seven-year-old son has learnt to say “oh my God” in English. He can’t (or won’t) say where it comes from. Believe me, it’s strange to watch him play and then hear him say “oh my god” out of the blue when something goes wrong.

      About your last part, it must have been a really tough time and I hope it didn’t last long. I don’t know how I’d react if such a series of unfortunate events fell on me like that.
      Btw, I didn’t know “partner” could be used for something else than business.

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      • April 18, 2011 at 2:01 pm

        It’s an antique phrase now, though still just about in use when I was a kid. It’s used by a person enjoying reasonably good fortune in relation to someone unfortunate such as a homeless person.

        It implies that but for the grace of god (ie providence, good fortune, divine blessing, fate or whatever – it’s origins are religious but the usage needn’t be) the person speaking could have been in the position of the unfortunate person. It’s a statement of humility, a recognition that one’s own good fortune is dependent on many things and that with some of those missing the outcome could have been very different indeed.

        It’s distinctly out of fashion, which is a shame as it encourages people to remember that those less fortunate aren’t different, just less lucky.

        Partner is often used nowadays because one can’t assume that someone is married or what their situation might be so if you’re inviting them plus one you might say “please bring your partner”.

        Equally if you’re in your 30s or older it could feel odd referring to someone as your boyfriend or girlfriend – it sounds a bit teenage and fits oddly if you’ve been living with them for fifteen years and have two children together.

        The result is people often say partner.

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        • April 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm

          Thanks for the explanations, it’s clear now.

          In French you would say “conjoint” for “partner”, which can be translated by “spouse”. Like “partner”, it’s a word to avoid “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” and its gender is neutral, contrary to “compagnon” or “compagne”. Our languages should invent a new and nice word to call the person you share your life with, married or not; something that doesn’t sound like business, sport or administrative forms but represent the bond between two persons.

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