Isabelle de Charrière – Belle de Zuylen

21 December 2012

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière, Quentin de la Tour, 1771. Photo: Musée Antoine Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin.

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I am absolutely fascinated by the literary ladies of the eighteenth century, in particularly those erudite, worldly salonnières in the stamp of Madame du Deffand, Julie de Lespinasse and Madame Roland. Gifted with enquiring, imaginative minds and dazzling wit, their wonderful letters and writings live on today as a reminder of what was a more intellectual age when good conversation and a clever turn of phrase was valued on its own merits and rightly so.

Isabelle de Charrière, the subject of C.P. Courtney’s excellent recent biography, was not precisely a salonnière but she maintained a copious and fascinating correspondence with the likes of Benjamin Constant and James Boswell as well as writing a formidable amount of pamphlets, opera librettos, plays, poems and novels (she wrote and anonymously published her first novel, Le Noble, at the age of twenty two), all of which displayed her keen and unconventional intellect.

It’s a shame that Isabelle’s work is not better known as she had a most delightful turn of phrase and lively interest in current affairs with her writings inspired by the events of the French Revolution being of particular interest, with her turning a wry, often sympathetic but always candid eye at both sides. Although her own leanings were decidedly counter-revolutionary, she was still able to be acerbic about the behaviour of the aristocratic emigrés that she met on the continent, whom she sadly concluded had learned nothing from the events of 1789.

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière, Jens Juel, 1777. Photo: Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Isabelle herself was not French but was born on the 20th of October 1740 in Castle Zuylen in the Netherlands, thus her rather fanciful soubriquet of ‘Belle de Zuylen’. I find it interesting and rather darkly amusing that so many of her contemporaries, such as Boswell for example, believed that commenting on her intellect and wit as marks of’un-Dutchness’ was a compliment but so it was. Isabelle herself seems to have preferred to emphasise how cosmopolitan she was and how at home she felt herself to be in any country or milieu of society, remarking that ‘Je voudrais être du pays de tout le monde’. Certainly she spent much of her life travelling around continental Europe with the backing of her enlightened and rather wealthy parents who bestowed on their daughter just the sort of unconventional upbringing that was bound to make her blossom.

I didn’t actually know much about Isabelle at all other than that she had been instrumental in the publication of her hero Rousseau’s Confessions but was charmed by C.P. Courtney’s biography, which was recently very kindly sent to me by the Voltaire Foundation for review. It’s a hefty tome but definitely rewards a close reading as it draws on Isabelle’s letters and writings to give an unparalleled view of the intellectual workings of a sophisticated woman from the late eighteenth century as well as a fascinating look through her eyes at the ever changing and vibrant society that she was well placed to observe. I expected this to be a very difficult read but found myself enthralled and also a little bit in love with Isabelle.

This wonderful book usually retails for £80 from the Voltaire Foundation but is currently available for £44 until the 28th of February. That is rather a lot of money for a biography but if you are at all interested in literary women of the eighteenth century then I would definitely recommend forking out for this one.

Sculpture of Isabelle de Charrière, Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1771.

(This was meant to be a much longer review but we’ve been stricken by norovirus and all my documents and files are on temporary hiatus on my Time Capsule after my four year old took out my laptop yesterday in an incident that I will gloss over for the benefit of my more sensitive readers but which will never fail to make me shudder when I recall it. Many thanks to Claire T at the Voltaire Foundation for my review copy – I’ll be posting more fully about Isabelle de Charrière when everything is back to normal here!)

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