BBC Radio 4, 2-13 January 2012
Henry James acknowledged Balzac as one of his major inspirations. Listening
to Marmion's abridgment of Cousin Bette, it was not hard to see why: both writers are concerned to analyse their
characters' feelings, emotions and behaviour in great detail, while at the same time commenting on what they perceive as the
characters' mistakes. Both writers create small, self-enclosed worlds in which every word and gesture matters: no one can
Balzac's novel creates a socially stratified world in which outward appearance matters;
if characters fail to observe certain behavioural conventions, they either ostracized or dismissed as deviant. At the same
time, however, the characters perpetually compete with one another for power and influence - whether financial or personal.
They engage in a series of intrigues and/or love-affairs, in which personal feelings count for little; what matters more
is the advantage that can be obtained from conducting a particular affair. The novel anticipated Schnitzler's La
Ronde, in its portrayal of an emotional merry-go-round, where a smal group people fall in and out of love, while perpetually
trying to exploit one another. This is a capitalist world in which money talks; if you don't have it, you must try to obtain
it from somewhere - either through loans, or through contracting financially advantageous marriages.
Alex Jennings' reading vividly communicated the small, intimate world of Balzac's
novel, whose characters behaved in much the same way. The fact that he impersonated all the characters - young, old, male
or female - implied that they were in some way similar to one another, especially in behavioural terms. His voice became slightly
more reproving as the narrator, who was perpetually concerned to detach himself from the story, so that he could make comments
and hence guide the listener's responses.
Sometimes the sheer intricacy of Balzac's plot became rather difficult to follow;
but perhaps this was not really important. What mattered more was that we should be able to judge the characters for what
they are. Jennings' reading in a series of ten tightly constructed episodes, produced by Di Speirs, proved particularly
helpful in this respect.