Love in a Cold Climate

Dangerous Liaisons in the Low Countries

Some people have gone to France or Italy in search of passionate romance, but others have fallen hopelessly in love in the unpromising dampness of the Low Countries.

A Utrecht lady’s charm

James Boswell was miserable from the moment he arrived in Holland. A nine-hour journey in a Dutch trekschuit hardly improved matters. By the time he stepped onto the cobbled quayside in Utrecht, he was sunk in gloom.

‘I was shown up to an old bedroom with high furniture, where I had to sit and be fed by myself,’ he later wrote to a friend. ‘At every hour the bells of the great tower played a dreary psalm tune. A deep melancholy seized upon me. I groaned with the idea of living all winter in so shocking a place.’

Boswell arrived in Utrecht in September 1763 full of good intentions and in search of a suitable wife. He had been sent to the university town, like many young Scots, to study Dutch law. He found rooms in an old hotel called Het Kasteel van Antwerpen which looked out on the ruined cathedral nave, blown down in a hurricane in 1674 and left overgrown with weeds until 1826.

A few days after his arrival, he wrote down his Inviolable Plan, ‘to be read over frequently’. In it he drew up a stiff routine for self-improvement: ‘You have got an excellent heart and bright parts. You are born to a respectable station in life. You are bound to do the duties of a Laird. For some years past, you have been idle, dissipated, absurd and unhappy. Let those years be thought of no more. You are now determined to form yourself into a man.’

He tried to brighten up his hotel room by ordering a green tablecloth and two candlesticks. His spirits eventually lifted on 31 October when a young Dutch woman entered his life. ‘At night you was absurdly bashful before Miss de Zuylen,’ he wrote in his diary. He even composed a love poem in her honour. ‘And yet just now a Utrecht lady’s charms / Make my gay bosom beat with love’s alarms,’ he mused happily.

Isabella van Tuyll van Serooskerken (shortened to Belle van Zuylen, or Zélide) was twenty-three when she met Boswell. She came from an old aristocratic family that owned a crumbling castle on the River Vecht and a town house faced with grey stone on Kromme Nieuwegracht. At the age of ten she had visited Paris and Geneva and absorbed the new French ideas on liberty and nature.

Shortly before Boswell arrived on the scene she had caused a scandal in staid Utrecht by publishing a satirical novella called Le Noble, set in a crumbling castle that was Zuylen Castle in all but name. Her father was outraged and banned his daughter from writing any more novels. She then turned her talent to letter writing and began a secret correspondence with a handsome Swiss colonel called Constant d’Hermanches.

Belle was, judging from portraits of her, an astonishingly beautiful young woman. Quentin de la Tour’s pastel portrait is one of the delights of Geneva’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. Yet she was also engagingly honest about her shortcomings. ‘You will ask me perhaps if Zélide is beautiful, or pretty, or merely passable,’ she wrote in her 1764 Portrait de Zélide. ‘I do not know. It all depends on your loving her or her wishing to make herself beloved. She has a beautiful neck; she knows it, and displays a little more of it than modesty allows.’

Belle was born on 20 October 1740 in a twelfth-century castle on the Vecht, while Boswell was born just nine days later in his family’s town house in Edinburgh. It seemed as if they were destined for one another. Yet Belle’s manner annoyed the young Scot. ‘You was shocked, or rather offended, with her unlimited vivacity,’ he wrote in his diary on 28 November after a game of cards.

By the following January, he was criticising her boundless vanity. And by April it seemed as if he had definitely scored her off his list of potential wives. ‘Zélide was nervous. You saw she would make a sad wife and propagate wretches,’ he wrote. ‘She would never make a wife,’ he told himself three weeks later. ‘You would be miserable with her,’ he reminded himself on 11 June.

During his time in Utrecht, Boswell was gradually firming up his identity as a respectable Scottish laird. ‘The pleasure of laughing is great,’ he told himself, ‘But the pleasure of being a respected gentleman is greater.’ Even so, he allowed himself the occasional lapse from the Inviolable Plan. ‘Whore not except fine Amsterdam, private,’ he wrote on 29 April, which is interpreted by Frederick Pottle, the editor of his letters, as meaning that he could visit prostitutes in Amsterdam as long as no one knew about it. Two days later, he succumbed to temptation on a night boat from Amsterdam. ‘Fine girl, risk of sensual and adventures,’ he wrote, which his editor decoded as: ‘You fondled a fine girl and ran the risk of sensuality and low adventures.’

Meanwhile, Belle was fashioning her own identity. She clearly had no interest in becoming Lady James Boswell of Auchinleck. ‘Can a title offer any consolation in adversity?’ she wrote to Constant d’Hermanches. ‘Can it fill the void of one’s soul?’ The affair should have fizzled out fairly quickly, but a strange courtship ritual continued in the early summer of 1764 against the backdrop of Zuylen Castle.

Boswell’s first visit to Zuylen Castle was on 30 May. He sent a card to Zélide, telling her that he was bringing a visitor. ‘Take Gordon to Zélide and talk to her sweet,’ he wrote in a note to himself. Boswell and his friend were politely received by Zélide and taken into the large entrance hall. Boswell, as usual, barely noticed the surroundings. ‘I saw the old castle and all the family pictures,’ he noted briefly in his diary. He was really only interested in Belle. ‘Zélide was rather too vivacious,’ he wrote that evening. ‘I was discontented.’

Boswell called on Belle again on 10 June and spent some time alone with her, noting in his diary that she told him she was a hypochondriac. ‘Yet I loved her,’ he wrote, contradicting all his earlier observations. Their meetings became more intense after Boswell resolved to leave Utrecht in mid-June. Four days before he was due to depart, Boswell was invited to dinner. ‘I owed to her that I was very sorry to leave her,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘She gave me many a tender look.’

Boswell went back to Zuylen Castle one more time the following Sunday, on the eve of his departure. ‘We drank tea before the gate in the open air,’ he noted in his diary. Belle pressed a letter in his hand and instructed him to open it once he had left Utrecht. ‘We made a touching adieu,’ Boswell noted.

He concluded that Zélide was in love with him. ‘Zélide seemed much agitated, said that she had never been in love, but that one might meet un homme aimable, etc… In short she spoke too plain to leave me in doubt that she really loved me.’ But Boswell was shocked by something she had said. ‘I should like to have a husband who would let me go away sometimes to amuse myself,’ she told him. Free love was not part of his Inviolable Plan. ‘In short she seemed a frantic libertine,’ he snorted.

Boswell could not wait to read her letter; he tore it open in his hotel room, and read it while the gloomy church bells rang outside. ‘You, my philosophical friend, appear to be experiencing the agitation of a lover,’ she told him. ‘I find you odd and lovable.’

Zélide went on to set out her ideas on open marriage, a full two hundred years before these would be embraced by a generation of Dutch hippies. ‘I should be well pleased with a husband who would take me as his mistress: I should say to him: “Do not look on faithfulness as a duty: so long as I have more charm, more wit, more gaiety than another, … you will prefer me out of inclination”.’

Boswell just had time to dash off a quick reply before leaving Utrecht. Barely 200 words long, the letter was intended to put Belle firmly in her place. ‘I admire your mind,’ he wrote. ‘I love your goodness. But I am not in love with you.’ Belle immediately wrote a long reply, put it aside for a day, and then added several more pages, inviting Boswell to write secret letters addressed to Spruyt’s bookshop in Choorstraat.

The first letter to arrive at Spruyt’s was posted in Berlin on 9 July. It was 17 pages long. ‘Now, Zélide give me leave to reprove you for your libertine sentiments,’ he began. Something was obviously troubling Boswell. ‘I charge you, once and for all, be strictly honest with me. If you love me, own it.’

Belle had gone off the boil by now. ‘Am I not the unluckiest of beings?’ she wrote to her secret Swiss colonel on 21 July 1764. ‘I found in my room an English letter from Boswell seventeen pages long. I read it; I went to bed. The seventeen thousand thoughts of my friend Boswell revolved in my head with such violence that I have not been able to stay in bed more than a quarter of an hour.’

Poor Boswell wrote again on Christmas Day 1764, begging her to write back to him. ‘O Zélide…I had almost come to count on your heart. I had almost –’ He stopped short of telling her the truth. Zélide replied on 27 January, assuring Boswell that she had never been in love. ‘I am not inconstant,’ she said. ‘I have not ceased to be your friend. I shall be your friend always.’

Boswell was still thinking about Belle 18 months later. He was laid up in bed in Paris in January 1766, afflicted with an ingrown toenail caused by tramping the rocky trails of Corsica in tight riding boots. Unable to move, he asked Belle’s brother to visit him in his room. They talked mainly about Belle. ‘We said every unfavourable thing that could possibly be said of her, and concluded always by contemplating her with admiration and affection.’

After the visit, Boswell sat down with his throbbing toenail and wrote a long letter to Monsieur van Zuylen. It was on the subject of his wayward daughter. ‘I swear to you that I was never in love with Mademoiselle,’ he wrote on 16 January 1766. ‘I saw so clearly the mistaken and – dare I say it? – licentious ideas of her imagination.’

Boswell and Belle stopped writing at some time in 1768. Belle went on to marry her brother’s tutor, while Boswell found himself a suitable wife in Scotland. Madame de Charrière, as she was then known, ended her life in bitter solitude, shutting herself away in a chateau at Le Pontet in Switzerland, and died in 1805, ten years after Boswell.

A letter out of turn

Charlotte Brontë was 25 when she travelled to the Low Countries with her sister Emily to spend nine months at a boarding school. After returning to England, she became obsessed with her French teacher Constantin Heger, and wrote a series of increasingly desperate letters to him.

Heger tore up most of the letters, but four were retrieved, probably by his wife, and two of them carefully repaired with needle and thread. In 1913 the letters were presented by Heger’s son to the British Museum and are now kept in the British Library next to St Pancras Station.

‘Ah, Monsieur, I once wrote you a letter that was unreasonable, because my heart was choked with grief,’ reads one letter, kept in a glass frame in the manuscript room. ‘But I will not do it again! I will try not to be selfish; although I cannot but feel your letters as one of the greatest sources of happiness that I know.’

At the time Charlotte was living with her half-blind father and drunken brother in a remote English village, longing for a letter from Heger. ‘I am told that you are working too hard and that your health has suffered somewhat in consequence. For that reason I refrain from uttering a single complaint for your long silence – I would rather remain six months without receiving news from you than add one grain to the weight, already too heavy, which overwhelms you.’

Heger still refused to reply to her letters, bringing Charlotte close to madness. ‘I know, by some secret instinct, that certain absolutely reasonable and cool-headed people reading it through will say: – “she appears to have gone mad.” By way of revenge on such judges, all I would wish them is that they too might endure, for one day only, the sufferings I have borne for eight months – then, one would see, if they too did not “appear to have gone mad”.’ But Heger still maintained his stubborn silence, and Charlotte finally ended the correspondence in 1845. Her first and last novels, The Professor and Villette, were attempts, some people argue, to express the feelings she had for the Brussels professor.

A nice Belgian

‘I have at last discovered a nice Belgian: wonders will never cease,’ wrote the bespectacled novelist Aldous Huxley in the summer of 1916. He had fallen in love with Maria Nys, a hauntingly beautiful Flemish woman from the sleepy Flemish town of Sint Truiden. The only problem was that Maria was already in love with the eccentric Lady Ottoline Morrell and had confessed to her sister that she couldn’t imagine life without her.

Maria was a small and chubby 16-year-old from a conventional Flemish bourgeois family when war broke out in 1914. She joined the flood of refugees and ended up being offered sanctuary in a tiny attic room in Garsington, Lady Ottoline’s rambling Tudor manor outside Oxford.

Maria looked ‘like a woman in a Rubens painting,’ according to Huxley. He called her Hélène, after Rubens’s plump second wife, and persuaded her to marry him, even though she was really in love with Virginia Woolf. They took the steamer to Ostend after the war and married in a Flemish village near Bruges in the summer of 1919. Money was in short supply, and Huxley stayed with Maria’s parents in Sint Truiden while Maria moved in with her grandparents further down the street. ‘All of them are rich merchants who live in big and ugly houses,’ Huxley complained to his father.

The couple left Europe in 1937 for America, where Maria met D.H. Lawrence and fell in love with a string of Hollywood beauties, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn. Yet the glamorous screen stars were no match for Lady Ottoline. ‘She was my greatest love,’ Maria wrote to a friend. Maria died in 1955 in Hollywood and was soon almost forgotten in Flanders. Her extraordinary love life was revealed a few years ago when the Flemish crime writer Stan Lauryssen published a biography based on 3,000 private letters kept in the Belgian national library.

Sexual healing

The American soul singer Marvin Gaye had reached a low point in his life when he boarded a ferry for Ostend in 1981. He had been living recklessly in London, spending all his money on cocaine, when the Flemish promoter Freddy Cousaert invited him to recuperate in the faded Belgian beach town. Gaye boarded the Ostend ferry on a cold February day, hoping that a spell in the Low Countries might help him to get his life in order.

Gaye and his Dutch girlfriend settled into a neat apartment with a sea view on Zeedijk. The singer went jogging along the beach and played darts in one of the local fishermen’s bars. He was even recorded in a documentary film singing an a capella version of the Lord’s Prayer in Mariakerke church. But his old habits were hard to shake off and he started seeing local prostitutes.

Gaye liked the calm of Ostend and enjoyed visiting James Ensor’s mask-filled museum. But he complained about the provincial atmosphere, which made him feel ‘like a raisin in a bowl of milk’. An American music journalist called David Ritz paid a visit and found him reading a porn magazine. ‘Man, you need some sexual healing,’ Ritz told him. Gaye used the line as the title for one of the sexiest soul songs ever composed. It seems that love, or something like it, can happen even in a damp Flemish seaside town.

By Derek Blyth

First published in The Low Countries, 2008