‘An Utrecht lady’s charms’

Belle van Zuylen / Isabelle de Charriere

‘And yet just now a lady’s charms / Make my gay bosom beat with love’s alarms / (…) But she from whom my heart has caught the flame, / Has nothing Dutch about her but the name.’

Thus wrote James Boswell in 1763 about the eighteenth-century Dutch-woman who has in recent years been the subject of two biographies, one in Dutch and one in English, as well as studies and dissertations in America and Europe, and about whom there have been plays and a film, – undoubtedly therefore a remarkable person. So remarkable in fact, that the Institute of Womens’ Studies in Amsterdam is named after her.

Belle van Zuylen was born into the nobility on 20 October 1740 at Zuylen Castle outside Utrecht. Her full name was Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken, known in the Netherlands as Belle van Zuylen and elsewhere as Isabelle de Charriere after the man she married, the Swiss Charles-Emmanuel de Charriere de Penthaz. She owes her reputation to her writing, her character, her ideas and her emancipated personality.

The discovery – or rather rediscovery – of this exceptional woman at this time is no unexpected coincidence. In 1974 the Dutch took the initiative of commissioning the publication of her complete works and correspondence, prepared by an international team of English, Swiss, Belgian, French and Dutch scholars in close co-operation. It appeared between 1979 and 1984 in ten India-paper volumes. It is this first complete, scholarly edition, written in French, the language in which she herself wrote, that established the basis for her rapidly growing acclaim.

Belle’s father presided over the knights of the province of Utrecht and was a member of the States-General. Her mother, Helena de Vicq, the daughter of a well-to-do Amsterdam patrician family, was a wealthy orphan who married Baron Van Tuyll at the age of fifteen. Belle was the first of seven children and received a sound education under the guidance of a Swiss francophone governess. French was widely spoken at that time in European – and Dutch – society; it was the international language of culture, learning, finance and trade. A great deal of correspondence was then written in French, so that it is not surprising that Belle also wrote in that language. When she was ten, she was sent with her governess to stay for some time in Geneva to further her intellectual education. On the return journey she stayed for a time in Paris. What we know about her life between her tenth and eighteenth years comes from her governess, Jeanne-Louise Prevost, who returned to Switzerland in 1753 but maintained a correspondence with her pupil, of which only Prevost’s letters have survived.

The first letter in Belle’s hand dates from 1760, a letter written to Baron Constant d’Hermenches, a Swiss colonel in the service of the States-General in the Netherlands. He was a cultured gentleman, a friend of Voltaire and the Prince de Ligne, a welcome guest at the courts of Paris, London, Vienna, Brussels and The Hague. She met him at a ball given by the Duke of Brunswick, guardian to the young stadholder, Prince William V of Orange. Because d’Hermenches had the reputation of being a Don Juan and was living apart from his wife, their meeting created a sensation, the more so since Belle flouted etiquette by asking him to dance with her. Her parents left the ball, taking their daughter with them. But the contact had been made and an exchange of letters followed, secretly at first of course, but ultimately lasting fifteen years. During that time they only saw one another occasionally, and there was never any question of there being an affair between them. But there is not the slightest doubt that they were very much in love with each other; or rather with the impression that they had of one another. They exchanged hundreds of letters, which literary critics consider to be among the finest and most exceptional epistolary literature in Europe. The sincerity, intelligent subtlety, sensitivity and depth with which Belle portrays and analyses herself in these letters is quite unique – not only as a remarkable contribution to cultural history in the eighteenth century, but especially as an unparallelled psychological account of the modern European woman. Her most famous predecessor in epistolary literature, Madame de Sevigne, provides in her letters a superb description of society and morals at the French court in the seventeenth century. Belle gives an introspective account of feminine reality in such a fascinating manner as never before. Moreover, her reflections on this are so broad in their scope that they embrace not only womanhood of the eighteenth century, but womankind of all time.

So apart from her brilliant and direct style, which rivals that of the leading authors of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and above all Diderot, it is her modern and universal appeal that accounts for the present interest in her. In the captivating honesty with which she reveals her thoughts and feelings, she expresses the essence of femininity in its present-day perspective. There are therefore many reasons for her widespread appeal: in literature because of her stylistic qualities, in cultural history through her intimate concerns with various aspects of the Enlightenment, and in sociology through her aura of emancipation. At a time and in an environment in which that was unusual, she exhibited an emancipated character and an autonomous personality. We now have access to this in the twentieth century through the publication of her complete works, a great deal of which had been hitherto unknown, since only fragments or unreliable texts were available.

Something more about her life was first published in 1906 by the Swiss professor Philippe Godet in his Madame de Charriere and Her Friends (Madame de Charriere et ses amis). In this biography he provided an attractive portrait of her, based on letters and documents that he had unearthed, and of which he included substantial fragments. It appears from this that Belle’s opinions and feelings had not always made life easy for her, despite her privileged surroundings and the fact that her parents were reasonable and broadminded. Her correspondence with Constant d’Hermenches had been prompted by her irresistible need for a sympathetic hearing.

From an early age, under the guidance of her well-educated governess, Belle had read a lot. She knew the classics and the French seventeenth century. She read contemporary writers in French and English, in which she was fluent, and she had lessons in mathematics and physics. Religion was something of a problem for her. Her parents were Protestants, but Belle could not go along with the doctrine of predestination, and her spirit was too sceptical to accept dogmas easily. Early on in her life she abandoned religion.

She was no less critical in her observation of other institutions, particularly social norms. For instance, the privileges of the aristocracy, to which she herself belonged, in her view frequently gave rise to a vacuity filled with pride of ancestry and the pleasures of the chase. When she was twenty she wrote a satire on this, Le Noble (1763), her first known literary work, which caused a scandal and was withdrawn by her parents.

She soon realised that she would not be able to air her independent opinions in public writings, and so for the time being she expressed them in letters and other writings which were circulated unobtrusively, with the result that most of them have failed to survive. But this added to her awareness of the precarious and inferior situation of women. To achieve some measure of freedom it was essential to be married. But here too she registered a socially unacceptable situation: marriage was after all not a matter of free choice; such factors as social class, wealth, business or hereditary considerations were the guiding principles. Love was incidental or entirely irrelevant. Such a marriage was not for her.

There was certainly no lack of suitors. She was a ‘suitable’ match, wealthy, of good family, handsome according to witnesses and portraits, very intelligent and loveable to boot. In her twenties marriage is one of the dominant themes in her biography. Several candidates crop up during that time both from home and abroad, but without success. If they do not back off of their own accord because Belle is too intelligent or too independent, she turns them down because she does not find them interesting and cannot feel anything for them. Moreover, as she wrote to Boswell, ‘I am wealthy enough not to need the fortune of a husband, my temperament is lively enough and I have sufficient mental ability to manage without a husband and without a household; I do not need, as they say, to be looked after’ (17 Jan. 1768). Not until her thirty-first year does she decide to embark on marriage with the one-time governor of her brothers, who loves her, of whom she is fond and who is prepared to allow her all the freedom she wants – a mariage de convenance.

The second part of her life was spent mainly in Switzerland, in her husband’s manor Le Pontet; his two unmarried sisters also lived there permanently, even surviving Belle. She would have liked to have children, but that was not to be. During the first ten years of her marriage she did her best to adapt herself to the role of a conventional housewife. She did not succeed.

Her husband’s benign temperament was not particularly ardent and the atmosphere was not stimulating. In 1783 Isabelle began to accept the situation; she withdrew more and more into herself and stayed, sometimes completely alone, in Chexbres, Payerne and Paris. From that time on she also used her freedom to write and publish. Until her death on 26 December 1805 there was a stream of novels, short stories, plays, essays, pamphlets, poetry, on a wide range of themes: morality, culture, politics, social conditions, marriage, education, the position of women and so on. In addition there were various musical compositions and her extensive correspondence.

One of her most prominent correspondents at that time was the future statesman and author Benjamin Constant. She met him in 1787, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, in the Paris salons which she then frequented. He was nineteen, she forty-six. He worshipped her because she was beautiful, charming and free, completely accepting and understanding him, just as his uncle Constant d’Hermenches had done when the roles were reversed. The relationship between Isabelle and Benjamin was a passionate affair hovering between love and motherly affection. Their correspondence is brilliant and fascinating. The association lasted until her death, though there was a break in their intimacy when Constant began an intimate affair with the young writer and ambassador’s wife, Germaine de Stael, for whom Isabelle even before her acquaintance with Constant had felt little sympathy.

Madame de Charriere left her papers to a friend who knew and appreciated her work, but the friend died soon after the birth of her first child. This son, Eusebe-Henri Gaullieur, inherited the literary legacy. It was from him that Sainte-Beuve, the renowned nineteenth-century French critic, acquired some of Belle’s letters. He published two extensive studies on her, in which he expressed the hope that her work would be collected since in his view it constituted some of the best French literature produced outside France.

Her first biographer was Godet, who also had a number of her works reprinted as well as publishing part of the d’Hermenches correspondence. This meant that she was rescued from obscurity, which was quite an achievement. But there was no follow-up, and no further research until three quarters of a century later when the collected works and the new biographies were published. Everything written about her between 1900 and 1970 was based on Godet, and did her scant justice. The material from and about her was much more extensive than Godet knew, and his account failed to appreciate her originality and the modern and universal quality of her insight.

It was also due to Godet that attention was first paid to her in England. The English author Geoffrey Scott and his wife Sybil were staying at Ouchy on Lake Geneva, when he noticed, one foggy November day, a copy of Godet’s forgotten book in a Lausanne bookshop. He and his wife were so struck by Belle’s character that they went round all the bookshops in the days that followed, looking for more information about her. Three days later Scott began his own biography, based on Godet, but revitalised by his own enthusiasm. The book appeared in 1925 under the title The Portrait of Zélide and it immediately had a far greater success than Godet’s original work, running to seven impressions within the first year. Scott wrote his book because Godet’s work was only available second-hand and because he wanted to divest Isabelle de Charriere’s life of local biographical details of no interest to many readers. Moreover he felt a personal bond with her and he declared: ‘All I have here done is to catch an image of her in a single light, and to make from a single angle the best drawing I can of Zelide, as I believe her to have been. I have sought to give her the reality of a fiction; but my material is fact.’ His wife Sybil meanwhile translated four of Madame de Charriere’s short stories (Le Noble, Lettres de Mistriss Henley, Lettres de Lausanne and Caliste) into English, under the title Four tales by Zélide (1925).

Scott called Isabelle Zelide because this was the name she gave herself in a written self-portrait. It was also the name given her by the Scottish writer James Boswell, who went to Utrecht as a law student in 1763 and there met the Van Tuyll family. He fell in love with Belle, and an account of this can be found in his humorous and entertaining correspondence with her, quoted by Scott and included in the collected works and letters. An amusing description of their relationship occurs in ‘Boswell in Holland’, part of the publication of the Boswell papers, on which Scott also collaborated. Boswell wanted to get Belle to admit that she was also in love with him. In reality she felt a warm affection for him, but realised that marriage to him would place her in a dependent and subservient position. One of her letters contains the well-known comment ‘I have no talent for subordination!’

England always had a considerable attraction for Belle and evidence of this is clearly given in her correspondence and her writings. Having learned the language at a young age, she spoke and wrote it fluently. She read the English authors of her day and was familiar with Pope, Richardson, Sterne, Fielding, Defoe and Godwin. Together with a young friend she translated Fanny Inchbald’s novel Nature and Art, and she studied such philosophers as Smith, Locke and Hume. She stayed for some time in London and elsewhere in England, visited David Hume and dined with him, and was presented at court. In her novels Lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784), Lettres & rites de Lausanne (1785), Sir Walter Finch et son fils (1806), England and the English often play an important part, and she shows her keen powers of observation in her descriptions of the country, its inhabitants and customs, individual places and peculiarities. She went to the theatre, saw Shakespeare plays and admired the famous actor Garrick. She knew English history and praised the British parliamentary system, which she offered as a model for the Netherlands.

It is therefore not surprising that English scholars have recently shown a keen interest in Belle. Two of them, C.P. Courtney at Cambridge and Dennis M. Wood in Birmingham, were members of the editing board of the Collected Works. Courtney recently published one of the two new biographies of Isabelle de Charriere, and Wood published a biography of Benjamin Constant, in which he focused attention on his relationship with Isabelle de Charriere, and revealed the results of new research. It is to be hoped that new translations of the writings themselves will soon follow. For we may confidently expect that interest in the work of this remarkable woman will increase as rapidly in Great Britain and America as it has done in Europe; and not only among specialists in eighteenth-century literature, but also in the much wider circle of those with an interest in literature and in culture.

By Pierre H. Dubois
Translated by Peter King

First published in The Low Countries, 1994

Further Reading

COURTNEY, C.P., Isabelle de Charriere (Belle de Zuylen). Oxford, 1993.
DUBOIS, PIERRE H. and SIMONE DUBOIS, Zonder vaandel. Belle van Zuylen, een biografie. Amsterdam, 1993.
GODET, PHILIPPE, Madame de Charriere et ses amis. Geneva, 1906, 2 vols.
SCOTT, GEOFFREY, The Portrait of Zelide. London, 1925.
WOOD, DENNIS, Benjamin Constant. London / New York, 1993.