Reviewing a classic in the summer: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (A Harlot High and Low, 1847) by Honoré de Balzac

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (December 30, 1970)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140442324
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140442328
  • genre: suspence/romance/ sociological novel
  • target audience: adults


The book is a sequel of “ Illusions perdues” (‘Lost Illusions’) and the last part of ‘ La Comédie Humaine’, a series which forms a cohesive overview of French Parisian and Provincial society during the Restoration and July Monarchy. Like the previous part it features the same main characters: Lucien Chardon /de Rubempré and Vautrin. In order to make it more lucid let me summarize the first part very shortly before progressing to the second.

Lucien starts off as a young, handsome, talented man from good but impoverished family. He hopes to make his mark as a poet and, in order to do so, he moves from his provincial home to Paris. After being spurned by an aristocratic lover, he is forced to prostitute his talent in different newspapers in order to survive. Things go from bad to worse and Lucien, who had made a lot of foolish mistakes and doesn’t possess a strong character make up for them, is about to commit suicide. In the last moment he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest (read: devil incarnated), the Abbé Carlos Herrera a.k.a Vautrin, an escaped convict and criminal mastermind. They make a pact in which Lucien agrees to follow Vautrin’s instructions on how to conquer Paris promising to share his future riches and glory.

Vautrin manages to arrange a very profitable marriage between Lucien and a rich aristocratic heiress named Clotilde de Grandlieu. It revives Lucien’s ambitions and hopes. Clotilde is intelligent but ugly; she fancies Lucien but he prefers his secret lover, Esther Van Gobseck. known as the Torpedo, the harlot of the title.
Esther and Lucien fall truly in love with each other. This fact might have thrown a wrench into Vautrin’s best-laid plans; instead of forcing Lucien to abandon Esther the clever man allows him to continue the affair secretly making a good use of it. Pretending to be a clergyman Herrera/Vautrin convinces Esther that, in order to deserve Lucien she must become a completely different person. He sends her to a convent for a period of time to be taught how to become a proper Catholic girl (Esther is Jewish but it doesn’t matter). It’s tough for her, she tries her best but she’s a whore at heart. She does what she has to out of love, though. Once Esther has been turned into an acceptable mistress Herrera allows her and Lucien to continue their affair secretly. For four years Esther remains locked away in a house in Paris, totally secluded, taking walks only at night in a carriage, pretty much breaking any connection to her old Torpedo days. One night, however, the Baron de Nucingen, a rich banker, spots her and falls deeply in love with her. When Vautrin realizes that Esther became Nucingen’s obsession he decides to use it and advance Lucien’s prospects.

The plan is the following: Vautrin and Lucien are 60,000 francs in debt. The luxurious lifestyle that Lucien has had to maintain in order to impress the family and friends of his future wife costs a lot and their creditors are getting impatient. They also need one million francs to buy the old Rubempré land back, so that Lucien can marry Clotilde and settle down like a real aristocrat. Esther out of love for Lucien agrees to become a courtesan again and milk as much money as possible out of the impossibly rich Nucingen. Things don’t work out as smoothly as Vautrin would have liked – Esther, unable to betray her love and come unscathed, breaks down and commits suicide after sleeping with Nucingen for the first and only time (and, of course making him pay through his nose for it). Since the police have already been suspicious of Vautrin and Lucien, they arrest these two accusing them of murdering Esther. It turns out that only hours before her suicide she had actually inherited a huge amount of money from an estranged family member. If only she had held on, she could have married Lucien herself and become la grande dame.

Lucien, ever the sensitive, delicate poet, doesn’t do well in prison. Although Vautrin actually manages to fool his interrogators into believing that he might be Carlos Herrera, a priest on a secret mission for the Spanish king, Lucien succumbs to the wiles of his interviewer. He tells his interrogator everything, including Vautrin’s true identity. Afterwards he regrets what he has done and, pinning away for Esther, hangs himself in his cell.

Title page of Honoré de Balzac's The Splendors...Vautrin finds Esther dying in her flat via Wikipedia

His suicide, like Esther’s, is badly timed. In an effort not to compromise the ladies from high society the justices had arranged to let Lucien go free. When he kills himself, things get more sticky and the maneuverings more desperate. It turns out that Vautrin possesses the very compromising letters sent by these women to Lucien, and he uses them to negotiate his release. He also manages to save and help several of his accomplices along the way, helping them to avoid a death sentence or abject poverty.

At the end of the novel, Vautrin actually becomes a member of the police force before retiring in 1845. The nobility that was so fearful for its reputation moves on to other affairs.

What I liked:

Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22, and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. He does it in a great way. He starts a simple story of a weak young man helped by an older, more experienced and cunning tutor and then it explodes into a multi-novel epic. The narrative is powerful enough to carry readers past any of the flaws – I wasn’t bored for one single second. The deception, corruption, and trickery, at every level of society are brilliantly displayed, often almost off-hand, in casual conversation because everyone expects nothing different. There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, from the maids Herrera uses in his carefully orchestrated plans to various members of high society.

I liked this book especially because, although Balzac doesn’t do badly with the romance he builds his novel around, he doesn’t really have much patience for it. He, like me, is not a romantic person at heart, believing in more primal instincts – survival, cunning, logic. Love doesn’t conquer all: no one is ever allowed to forget that Esther is a whore and likes her job, that it’s practically in her blood and that she can be little else, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she adores her poor, infatuated, ambitious Lucien. Criminals are perceived similarly – the author even admires them for being true to themselves and their instincts. Small wonder Vautrin steals the show in every part of his series.

Balzac’s writing, even at its messiest, it’s never less than forceful. The best thing about him is that he never offers a didactic or ‘social’ novel (mind you we are dealing here with an 19th century writer!), and ultimately it’s for the best that he lets himself get carried away by the nasty criminals so readily. A novel meant to be about prostitution, with a courtesan (or harlot) in the title, manages to dispense with her services for its entire final part: that’s a bit odd but entirely deliberate. Balzac knows where his strengths lie and when Esther (or, especially, Lucien, the weakest link in the chain) no longer serves her/ his narrative purposes the author is quick to brush them aside and concentrate on the anti-hero he can have the most fun with.

What I didn’t like:

A Harlot High and Low is part of Balzac’s grand ‘Human Comedy’ series, and like many of his novels it’s one that seems to get out of hand. It seems too long; what’s more the author simply doesn’t have any patience to describe good moments in full – the happy four-year period Lucien and Esther were granted by Herrera occupies…one paragraph.

And speaking of that period…I do wonder how Esther managed such a long seclusion. During that time she led a life of a vampire and should have succumbed to serious depression – think about vitamin D deficiency among other things…also the obsession of the rich old banker with a prostitute was presented a bit over the top. Well- different times, different criteria.

At last, Balzac’s inability to make Esther and Lucien more forceful heroes, do prevent A Harlot High and Low from being a great novel, but it’s nevertheless a very good one.

Final verdict:

It’s summer so treat yourself with this one. It might not be flawless but still the writing style is superb. If you know French I highly recommend reading it in original version. Formidable!

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10 Responses to Reviewing a classic in the summer: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (A Harlot High and Low, 1847) by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Summer reading..oh, I do take my summer reading more fluffy, I would actually like to spend the summer reading only chick-lit and dwell in the land of silly and sweet ;)This, well fall…one day

  2. anachronist says:

    This was fluffy! Lucien was nothing but fluffy and Esther…ok, she was a professional so maybe not so sweet…fall is a good season for reading Balzac though.

  3. Balzac!! Sorry, everytime I see his name I hear that in my head. Too many Balzac jokes. :PFluffy for Balzac, but not generally fluffy, I'd say. 🙂

  4. anachronist says:

    Well, jokes aside the man could write!

  5. I do know French, but I always worry about trying to read in it haha I feel I'll be terrible at it :)Great, insightful review!

  6. anachronist says:

    It is difficult only at the beginning, Melissa, don't worry! Thanks for your visit!

  7. Tracy says:

    I'll bear it in mind – I've never read any Balzac, and this sounds like Balzac-lite? (Though all of those suicides sound too depressing for a light summer read)

  8. anachronist says:

    Yes, it is a bit on the lite side – if you want to start, though, it's always better to read the prequel to know more about Lucien and Vautrin. Both books are longish and not exactly very cheerful so yes, maybe perhaps better to read them in autumn or winter.I picked up this one accidentaly btw – I had to present a French novel in original version in order to get a better grade and there was just this one in my uni library available in French so I took it, rather unwillingly, and got hooked as soon as I had aqcuainted myself with the vocabulary enough to enjoy it.

  9. I like Balzac but this one almost sounds as if it was written by Zola. Except there are some names that I have encountered in other Balzac novels.

  10. anachronist says:

    Well, Zola was a Balzac turned extremist. This one is nowhere as gritty as Zola's books and, in my opinion, better-written.

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