The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Honoré de Balzac's Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, translated either as The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans or as The Harlot High and Low, was published in four parts from 1838-1847. It continues the story of Lucien de Rubempré, who was a main character in Les Illusions perdues, a preceding Balzac novel. Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes forms part of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine.
Lucien de Rubempré and "Abbé Herrera" (Vautrin) have made a pact, in which Lucien will arrive at success in Paris if he agrees to follow Vautrin's instructions on how to do so. Esther Van Gobseck throws a wrench into Vautrin's best-laid plans, however, because Lucien falls in love with her and she with him. Instead of forcing Lucien to abandon her, he allows Lucien this secret affair, but also makes good use of it. For four years, Esther remains locked away in a house in Paris, taking walks only at night. One night, however, the Baron de Nucingen spots her and falls deeply in love with her. When Vautrin realizes that Nucingen's obsession is with Esther, he decides to use her powers to help advance Lucien.
The plan is the following: Vautrin and Lucien are 60,000 francs in debt because of the lifestyle that Lucien has had to maintain. They also need one million francs to buy the old Rubempré land back, so that Lucien can marry Clotilde, the rich but ugly daughter of the Grandlieu's. Esther will be the tool they use to get as much money as possible out of the impossibly rich Nucingen. Things don't work out as smoothly as Vautrin would have liked, however, because Esther commits suicide after giving herself to Nucingen for the first and only time (after making him wait for months). Since the police have already been suspicious of Vautrin and Lucien, they arrest the two on suspicion of murder over the suicide. This turn of events is particularly tragic because it turns out that only hours before, Esther 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.
Lucien, ever the 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 hangs himself in his cell.
His suicide, like Esther's, is badly timed. In an effort not to compromise the high society ladies who were involved with him, the justices had arranged to let Lucien go. But 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.
- Esther Van Gobseck, former courtesan and lover of Lucien, assigned to seducing Nucingen. Commits suicide after sleeping with Nucingen for money.
- Lucien de Rubempré, ambitious young man protected by Vautrin, trying to marry Clotilde de Grandlieu. Commits suicide in prison.
- Vautrin, escaped convict with the alias Carlos Herrera, real name Jacques Collin, nickname Trompe-la-Mort. Has a weakness for pretty young men, tries to help Lucien move up in society in every evil way possible.
- Baron de Nucingen, obsessed with Esther and the target of Vautrin's money machinations.
- Jacqueline Collin, aunt of Vautrin, alias of Asie. Charged with watching over Esther and helping Vautrin in his various schemes.
- Clotilde de Grandlieu, target of Lucien's affections, key to his advancement in society. But he cannot marry her unless he buys back his family's ancient land, worth one million francs.
- Comtesse de Sérizy and Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, former lovers of Lucien of whom Vautrin possesses very compromising letters.
- Camusot de Marville, Comte de Granville, judge and magistrate respectively. Try to work out the case of Vautrin and Lucien without compromising the women involved.
- Peyrade, Contenson, Corentin, Bibi-Lupin, spies of various sorts associated with the police. Try to get Vautrin for various personal reasons.