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 showed her eternal laughing.” 28 Mar. “Mademoiselle de Zuylen deserves a great deal more fame and love than she gets. She has quite superior parts and the best heart in the world.” 17 Apr. “She is much my superior. One does not like that.” 17 June [Boswell is about to leave Holland]. “She spoke too plain to leave me in doubt that she really loved me. But then she went away with her wild fancy, saying that she thought only of the present moment. ‘I had rather feel than think’…. In short, she seemed a frantic libertine…. She gave me her hand at parting, and the tender tear stood crystal in her eye. Poor Zélide!”

It will be worth staying a little longer with this year 1763, for it was a time of great significance in Isabelle de Zuylen’s life. Boswell, before setting off for Berlin, lingered for a few days in Utrecht, and during this time she wrote him a succession of letters. In one she told him, “There is a man in the world (I do not think that you know him) of whom I usually think at night, in the morning, and sometimes during the day. For three or four days past I have thought of him less often. Do you guess why? It is because you, my philosophical friend, appeared to me to be experiencing the agitation of a lover.” Then, a few days later, she wrote:

It would be a very pleasant thing for once to think of no one, at least for a few days. But this wretched man that I love does not leave me in calm for long. He soon resumes his full rights. What I told you yesterday is not a fiction. Every word of it is truth…. He is a Roman Catholic, and my parents are Calvinists. I have loved him for two years, and I love him much. He has less imagination than I: he has not the same flight of passion, but he has a delicacy of taste, a cultivated, subtle, and just mind, a tender heart, a quiet and indolent vanity.

It seems, in fact, fairly certain that every word of this was not truth, indeed it could have been almost pure invention. There is, however, a complicated story here, which one will have to go back a year or two to trace. In 1760 she had made the acquaintance, and conquest, of Constant d’Hermenches, a Swiss officer in the service of the United Provinces. He was a married man, eighteen years older than herself: witty, dissatisfied, a friend of Voltaire, and reputedly a great libertine. They met at a ball in The Hague, where, flouting etiquette, she made the first advances, asking him whether he was not dancing. By the end of the evening they had struck up an ardent friendship. He was eager for them to correspond, and, though she had scruples at first, they at length embarked on a clandestine correspondence, which would last for some twelve years.


D’Hermenches’s attitude, from the first, was that Isabelle was a quite extraordinary person, far above ordinary mortals. She wrote, he said, better letters than anyone he knew, including Voltaire, and she positively reconciled him with human society, even with the detestable Dutch. In some sense, moreover, he seems actually to have meant this. The two shared a passion for frankness and a hatred of conventional prejudice. (They would catch each other out with relish when they slipped back into cliché.) It gave them a great deal of fun to tear their acquaintances apart, but their letters were by no means merely malicious. They were full of feeling, as well as verve, and ranged freely over a wide range of topics.

Among these was Isabelle’s marriage prospects. Her parents had interested several noble suitors, with whom stately letters would be exchanged about dowries and estates and “quarterings.” Isabelle called these gentlemen, whom she had never met, her “épouseurs” (marryers), and they provided excellent copy for letters to d’Hermenches. But then in the summer of 1764 the latter suggested she might marry his great friend and house-companion the Marquis de Bellegarde. Admittedly, Bellegarde was fifteen or so years older than her; moreover he was a Roman Catholic, whereas Isabelle’s parents were strict Calvinists. Nevertheless he was good-humored, intelligent, and a lover of music. Also, it was tacitly implied, if she accepted him, d’Hermenches and she would have more freedom to meet, something they both dearly wanted.

Which brings us back to those letters to Boswell of June 14 and 18, 1764. Boswell’s editor, Frederick A. Pottle, assumed that the man she claimed to have loved for two years was no other than Bellegarde, and I am inclined to think he was right—though she had not even met Bellegarde by then, and a letter from d’Hermenches of July 14, 1764, reads as if he were describing Bellegarde to her for the first time. 1 At all events, it is rather hard to believe in this two-year-old love affair. It seems much more likely that she is playing some game with Boswell, and one has to ask why. It could be merely for amusement, i.e., to pay him out, by provoking his jealousy, for being so crassly certain that she had fallen in love with him. I think, though, that the answer lies elsewhere.

The truth is that d’Hermenches’s proposal had stirred her profoundly and was indeed, so far, the greatest event of her life. The proof is in a remarkable letter she wrote to him on July 25 (one of a great flurry of letters). She told him she had never been so flattered in her life as by this proposal. D’Hermenches’s letter, which she took as a noble act of self-sacrifice on his part, was “sublime.” It compelled her, she said, in sheer honesty, to describe a side of herself she had not so far revealed. If she were free, she wrote, she would find it very difficult to be sage (prudent). Her senses, like her heart and her intelligence, were greedy for pleasure, “susceptible of the vividest and most delicate impressions.” If she had neither father nor mother, she might well become a courtesan like Ninon de Lenclos, though more delicate and more constant. “When I ask myself if, scarcely loving my husband, I might not love another…I blush at my response.” Yet any husband of hers would be marrying a woman so changeable as to seem six different people during a single day. Was this the companion that d’Hermenches wanted to give to his best friend?2


The significance of this letter is not quite what it might seem. What it actually shows, I think, is that the real passion of Isabelle’s life was self-portraiture. One might have guessed it from all of her letters, as from her sparkling “Portrait of Zélide” and “Addition to the Portrait” that she composed for her friends. She was at work all her life on her own identity, whether to discover it or to invent it. C.P. Courtney, in his valuable biography,3 puts her behavior at this time down to “immaturity,” but she is not noticeably different twenty years later. Living alone in Paris in 1786, spending six or ten hours a day at her harpsichord, she writes to friends in amazement at her own “bizarre” temperament, her way of life which is the “most singular in the world.”

We have a clue here to what caused Boswell, and later Benjamin Constant, to be drawn to her so intensely. For both, as is well known, were outstanding, indeed astonishing, examples of the quest after one’s own identity. Boswell found an answer to this baffling problem by addressing himself as “You” and admonishing himself to “Be Johnson,” to be somebody or something other than himself—thereby becoming the greatest of all biographers. Constant’s quest was even more radical, hilarious, and hopeless, and it was, in his case too, the source of his genius, though causing him to be a menace in any personal relationship. It is not to belittle Isabelle de Zuylen to liken her problem to theirs. The point is, rather, that conventional accounts of her tend to employ the terms that she, an obsessive self-portraitist, has provided herself. This makes for unrealism: for, shall we say, attributing that bold, ardent, fantasizing letter of hers of July 25 to “frankness” (though no doubt frankness comes into the matter somewhere), or to “cold eighteenth-century reason.” Nothing could be less reasonable, in the sense of likely to make for her happiness, than her behavior over Bellegarde.

For, after all, it soon becomes plain that Bellegarde himself will play very little part in her story, and at most a farcical one. D’Hermenches explains that, his friend being somewhat slothful or diffident, he will have to write to Isabelle’s father on his behalf—hearing which Isabelle decides to draft Bellegarde’s marriage proposal herself, suitably eulogizing her own talents and virtues. Later, Bellegarde having made no effort to discover if the Church would even countenance such a mixed marriage, she impatiently undertakes this negotiation too. It suits her autonomous and autocratic temperament to take everything on herself. By this time she has had many agonizing disputes with her parents, who are opposed to the marriage. But further, in any serious sense, she does not in the least care for Bellegarde anyway. On the rare occasions when they meet, he finds her glacial; and after four years of vacillation he bows out, declaring himself unworthy of her hand.

Thus it need not really surprise us that, when she does in fact marry, at the age of thirty, it is a disaster, or leads to one. Evading grander suitors, she decides she is in love with an unpretentious Swiss gentleman, David-Emmanuel de Charrière, who has previously been tutor to her brothers. The initiative is all from her side and again leads to painful scenes with her father. “For the last two years she has occupied herself with the plan of marrying me,” Charrière writes to a relative,4 and, much as he admires Isabelle, the prospect makes him nervous. She has, he is afraid, too much esprit for him, too high a social position, too much money. She will be lonely in his tiny village near Neuchâtel. He will bore her with punctilious, pedestrian ways.

It proves true, and exactly as he says. He is an angel of good will but, in the words of Benjamin Constant, “the coldest and most phlegmatic character you can imagine.”5 She has told herself that her deepest need is for freedom, from Holland and parental control—“I should be worth much more if I were free”6—but it proves an illusion; and the later life of this brilliant woman, related in engrossing and moving detail in Philippe Godet’s Madame de Charrière et ses amis (1906), becomes at times a desperate affair. There is a miraculous reprieve or resurrection when, in Paris in 1787, she meets d’Hermenches’s nephew, the nineteen-year-old Benjamin Constant. He is enchanted and overwhelmed by her, the “first woman of truly superior intelligence” he has known, and they spend whole days and nights talking. Thus it is a bitter day when, eventually, he deserts her for Germaine de Staël, writing to her, in a celebrated letter (October 21, 1794), that de Staël was the second woman he had found who could have “replaced the universe” for him. “You know who the first one was.” She took as her motto a stanza by the poet J.-B.-L. Gresset,7 decrying the “cheap benefit” of asking for pity from others, and she lived up to it, but her last years were a struggle with despair.


Isabelle de Charrière’s novels (Neuchâtel Letters, Mistriss Henley, Caliste, Letters Written from Lausanne, etc.) are fragile and sketchy, but, in some elusive way, have real distinction. The most successful is probably the Letters Written from Lausanne, which is more elaborately constructed than the rest. Part I consists of letters written by a mother, a third-generation Protestant exile from Languedoc, to a female cousin, about her young daughter Cécile and Cécile’s admirers, who include an odious young minister, a young English milord, and a French army captain married to a heartless coquette. She dearly loves her daughter, “a pretty young Savoyard boy in women’s clothes,” but describes her unsentimentally, not glossing over the fact that she has a hint of goiter. She teases her cousinly correspondent for pretending to be heartbroken that her own daughter is to marry and desert her for that dangerous place, Paris. Wouldn’t she actually love to live in Paris herself, and find a place at court, the mother asks? Some princess would certainly value a woman of her merit, prudent without prudery, sincere yet polite, modest though highly talented…. And then, what a stupid fraud those phrases (“prudent without prudery” etc.) are! How impossible to be prudent all one’s life and not become a prude! It puts her in a rage to hear her daughter’s tutors plaguing her with such paradoxes.

The mother has an idea for a utopia. She thinks the sovereign (she means the Duke of Savoy) should cherish and refine the nobility, making it unable to sell itself in the marriage market by a law that titles should pass through the female line. She writes her daughter, who has fallen for the young milord, a once-for-all letter of maternal advice, explaining ruefully how men have all the advantages. They have a complicated social role to play, in which they will be judged by an elaborate “honor” code, whereas women are only asked to obey one of the Ten Commandments. Next morning she writes a postscript to her letter, reminding Cécile that famous sinners like Adrienne Lecouvreur or Agnes Sorel would not have been able to perform their heroic actions if they had been sages (prudent).

Part I bristles with such little surprises and pieces of ironic subversion. But let us notice something else. In the same letter of advice, the mother warns Cécile of the miseries of struggling to be faithful to an unworthy husband and tells her that, should Cécile suffer this fate and fall from virtue, she (her mother) will not die of chagrin and shame. No, she will prolong her life to restore Cécile’s self-esteem, even in such tragic circumstances. This is prolepsis, or telescoping the future, with a vengeance. It reveals what we have already sensed, that Cécile hardly counts in the novel, and its whole purpose (or anyway the purpose of Part I) is to display the Isabelle de Charrière-like mother.

Part II, much admired in its day and regarded as a foreshadowing of De Staël’s Corinne, is recounted by the traveling companion of Cécile’s milord, a melancholy Englishman named William. (It is a kind of tragic exemplum for Cécile’s benefit.) The heroine, “Caliste,” is a young English woman, of “good” family, who was forced by her degenerate mother to become a dancer and actress and, after making a triumphant debut as Calista in Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, was “sold” by her mother to a wealthy protector. This protector dies, but the stigma of her early life continues to haunt her. She meets with an Englishman, whose affections up to now have entirely centered on a lately lost twin brother, and she falls deeply in love with him. He proves, however, too inert or Hamlet-like to measure up to her love, and she dies of a broken heart. “William,” whose own story this is, finds himself irresistibly drawn to Cécile’s mother, who poignantly reminds him of Caliste.

The Caliste story suffers somewhat from its “heroinism” (to use Ellen Moers’s phrase). To take just one example, we learn that Caliste, when placed by her protector in a convent to finish her education, is idolized by the nuns and by her schoolfellows alike; she masters sewing and embroidery with astonishing proficiency; she invents a style of playing and singing all her own, designed to bring out not so much her own talents as those of others. Now, within the terms of the fiction, William can only have learned these flattering facts about Caliste from her own lips, which—if you took it literally—would not say much for her modesty. The fault really lies with the genre, which is beset by such logical traps; and here and there the story shakes free of heroinism and comes admirably to life. It is an excellent stroke that Caliste, having refused to become William’s lover in the physical sense, falls to pieces, begins to overdo all her reactions, and loses the à-propos (poise) and serenity she has possessed up to now. Charrière’s precise and sedate prose, modeled on Pascal and Sévigné, can achieve strong and original effects in this line.

As for the message of her novels, it seems to be that, though women may be great, the odds are too much loaded against them for them to do anything great. Men have all the privileges… and what do they do with them? It is the lesson, and the question, that her own life has suggested. Even a “superior” woman, who studies conic sections, composes operas, and reads Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding with her maid, is nagged by the sense that she is doing these things, partly anyway, for the sake of the spectacle. With Charrière it leads to a weary cynicism, which dismisses action for the public good as a sham and chimera and the French Revolution as a sordid farce.

Geoffrey Scott’s The Portrait of Zélide, first published in 1925 and now reissued with an attractive foreword by Shirley Hazzard, has always had a following. Based on Philippe Godet’s voluminous Madame de Charrière et ses amis, it is a brilliant, fireworky, phrase-making essay in biography in the Lytton Strachey style. Scott was known, before this, as a member of the Berenson circle and as the author of a much-praised book The Architecture of Humanism (1914). He had a stormy affair with Vita Sackville-West, of which there are overtones in his Portrait of Zélide, and shortly afterward he went to America, to work on the recently discovered Boswell papers. He died of pneumonia in New York in 1929 at the early age of forty-five. Virginia Woolf, in a memorable, needling sketch of him in her diary, speaks of him as very clever and supercilious: “He was tall, & dark & had the distinguished face of a failure.”8

There is a lot to be said for Scott’s book. It is, for one thing, at times extremely funny. I liked: “Monsieur de Bellegarde was neither very ardent nor very adroit; he went too gently, he could hardly be said to go at all.” Further, I am inclined to think that, in one important case, he shows more shrewdness than Godet. A certain Pastor Chaillet, who was for many years a daily visitor at the Charrières’ home and kept a record of doings there in microscopic handwriting, is represented by Godet as a man of fearless intellect and integrity, but Scott’s version of him, as a hypocrite and sponger, rings more true.

It has to be said, though, that his portrait of Isabelle de Charrière strikes one as, in some ways, simply false. One allows for a certain amount of glare and heightening in this Stracheyesque genre, but the trouble here lies deeper. It partly relates to his continual harping on Charrière’s “reason”; “the cold rays of her self-analysis,” her “dry intellectual delight,” etc. It is a foolish cliché anyway that reason has to be “cold,” and to say that “she made such a fetish of reason that her action was paralysed and her feelings found no outlet” seems almost the opposite of the truth. She poured out her feelings in her letters, and was capable of action, but of a madly unwise kind. Again, it hardly makes sense, it is too absurdly undiscriminating, to write: “Belle de Zuylen, alone in the world of Tuylls, had caught the breath of the new spirit which thirty years later was to make the Revolution,” or that “no one was ever more genuinely democratic, by instinct, taste, and conviction than Mademoiselle de Tuyll.” The truth was far more nuanced and interesting. I think, moreover, that it is probably untrue that she was “born sceptical.” Much more likely, she was made so by experience and by the horribly stifling situation a talented woman found herself in at this period.

Further, Scott is seriously inaccurate. It perhaps does not matter too much that he gets the date of Isabelle’s marriage wrong by two years, but it is a gross error to say that the first part of Letters Written from Lausanne is “told in a series of letters from a mother to her child.” Again, it makes a dramatic climax in his story when Isabelle’s husband, desperate to cure her depression, decides to take her to Paris in 1786, but Scott does not mention that he did not actually go with her, or join her there for the best part of a year.

Then, a final criticism: Isabelle’s Mistriss Henley depicts a wife driven almost to madness with frustration by a husband who is always—calmly, forgivingly, intolerably—in the right, and Scott tells us that Isabelle made her own husband, evidently in some sense satirized in the novel, copy the manuscript out. “We learn from a passing reference that he suffered from writer’s cramp,” writes Scott. “Did that strange, that too-fixed expression of benignant calm still illumine his features while he copied this sentence from the opening of her tale: ‘Mr. Henley will not be recognized; he will doubtless never read what I have written…’?” The mock-solemn rhetorical question is a favorite trick of Scott’s style. But notice that what he is picturing here would have been a great unkindness on Isabelle’s part, surprising on the part of someone Scott himself says was “kindly but not tender.”9 It is true that Charrière did sometimes copy out her manuscripts and once complained of writer’s cramp, but I can find no evidence in Godet’s pages that Isabelle played this ruthless trick on him and should feel differently about her if she had done so.

This Issue

January 15, 1998