The Portrait of Zélide
by Geoffrey Scott, Introduction by Shirley Hazzard, afterword by Richard Dunn
Helen Marx/Turtle Point, 227 pp., $13.95 (paper)
In August 1763, James Boswell went to Utrecht to complete his education, and within hours of arriving, appalled at the prospect of spending the winter in “so shocking a place,” he fell into the blackest depression. He believed he was going mad and would rush out into the streets, weeping and crying aloud: “Poor Boswell! is it come to this?” He fled but returned a week or two later full of good resolutions, and by the end of October he was studying six days a week, teaching himself French, and writing verses about his love for a vrouw, a Miss Isabelle de Zuylen—a lady who “has nothing Dutch about her but the name.”
The remarkable Isabelle Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken (1740-1805) belonged to a distinguished and ancestor-proud Dutch family, occupying a moated château in Zuylen and, during the winter months, a grand mansion in Utrecht. Her father the baron, a provincial governor, was a stickler for order and the proprieties, and Isabelle, who would get up at six to study mathematics or Adam Smith, was generally regarded as an oddity—declaring in return that the Dutch were cold, slow, and a slave to forms, and indeed a dreadful set of Philistines. From the age of twelve she spoke French and claimed to have half forgotten the Dutch language.
At the time that Boswell first met her she had just published an entertaining story entitled “Le Noble,” satirizing ancestor worship. It concerns the daughter of the Baron d’Arnonville, an ancestor-mad nobleman. She is in love with the young Valaincourt, whose title, to her father’s horror, only goes back one generation, and, forced to escape from her castle bedroom, where she is imprisoned, she softens her fall by tossing family portraits into the ditch below. “‘Well, at least you have done this for me,”’ she cried. “She had never thought one could derive such profit from one’s grandparents. This new custom amused her.”
The story, though published anonymously, caused scandal in Utrecht society, and it would appear that Isabelle’s parents—not so much, probably, because of the satire as because of the heroine’s free ways—bought up all available copies. It does not follow from this, however, that Isabelle was on bad terms with them. She thought her father the noblest, most conscientious, if most infuriatingly unresponsive, of men, and she enjoyed quarreling with her mother, who she believed—probably rightly—could not get on without her.
It could be said that if any one person reconciled Boswell to Utrecht it was Isabelle de Zuylen (or, as he called her, “Zélide”). She enchanted and unnerved him and became a major theme in his journal. 7 Feb. 1764. “Last Monday I drank tea at Heer van Zuylen’s…. His daughter was highly amusing.” 10 Mar. “You told her you was distressed for the death of a friend, and begged to see if she could be company to the distressed. She said yes, but she soon …