Isabelle de Charrière

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Isabelle de Charrière
Isabelle de Charrière - Quentin de La Tour.jpg
Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, 1771.
Born (1740-10-20)20 October 1740
Castle Zuylen, Utrecht Netherlands
Died 27 December 1805(1805-12-27) (aged 65)
Le Pontet, Colombier, Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Pen name Belle van Zuylen, Belle de Zuylen, Zélide, Abbé de la Tour
Occupation Novelist, poet, playwright
Nationality Dutch

Isabelle de Charrière (20 October 1740 – 27 December 1805), known as Belle van Zuylen in the Netherlands, née Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken, and [Madame] Isabelle de Charrière elsewhere, was a Dutch writer of the Enlightenment who lived the latter half of her life in Switzerland. She is now best known for her letters and novels, although she also wrote pamphlets, music and plays. She took a keen interest in the society and politics of her age, and her work around the time of the French Revolution is regarded as being of particular interest.

Early life[edit]

Isabelle van Tuyll van Serooskerken was born in Castle Zuylen near Utrecht in the Netherlands, to Diederik Jacob van Tuyll van Serooskerken (1707–1776), and Helena Jacoba de Vicq (1724–1768). Her parents were described by the British author James Boswell, student Law in Utrecht and one of her suitors, as "one of the most ancient noblemen in the Seven Provinces" and "an Amsterdam lady, with a great deal of money". Isabelle was the eldest of seven children.

In 1750, Isabelle was sent to Geneva and travelled through Switzerland and France. Having spoken only French for a year, she had to relearn Dutch on returning home to the Netherlands. However, French would remain her preferred language for the rest of her life, which helps to explain why, for a long time, her work was not as well known in her country of birth as it otherwise might have been.

Isabelle enjoyed a much broader education than was usual for girls at that time, thanks to the liberal views of her parents who also let her study subjects like mathematics. By all accounts, she was a gifted student. Always interested in music, in 1785 she began studying with composer Niccolò Zingarelli.[1]

At the age of 14 years old she fell in love with the roman-catholic polish count Peter Donhöff. He was not interested in her. Disappointed she left Utrecht for 18 months.[2]
As she grew older, various suitors appeared on the scene only to be rejected or to withdraw themselves because she was superior. She saw marriage as a way to gain freedom but she also wanted to marry for love. Eventually, in 1771, she married Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière de Penthaz (1735-1808), the former tutor of her brother Willem René abroad (1763-1766). Since then she was known as Isabelle de Charrière. They settled at Le Pontet in Colombier (near Neuchâtel) in Switzerland with also her father-in-law François (1697-1780) and her two unmarried sisters-in-law Louise (1731-1810) and Henriette (1740-1814). The couple also spent significant amounts of time in Geneva and Paris.


Isabelle de Charrière kept up an extensive correspondence with numerous people, including intellectuals like David-Louis de Constant d'Hermenches, James Boswell, Benjamin Constant and Ludwig Ferdinand Huber.

In 1760, Isabelle met David Louis de Constant d'Hermenches (1722–1785), a married Swiss officer regarded in society as a Don Juan. After much hesitation, Isabelle's need for self-expression overcame her scruples and, after a second meeting two years later, she began an intimate and secret correspondence with him for about 15 years. Constant d'Hermenches was to be one of her most important correspondents.

The Scottish writer James Boswell was a frequent visitor to Castle Zuylen in 1764, when he studied law in Utrecht. He became a regular correspondent for several years. After leaving the Netherlands, going on Grand Tour, he wrote her that he was not in love with her. She replied: "We agree, because I have no talent for subordination". In 1766 he proposed to her after meeting her brother in Paris.

In 1786, Mme de Charrière met Constant d'Hermenches' nephew, the writer Benjamin Constant in Paris. He visited her in Colombier for several times. They wrote a epistolary novel together. They began an exchange of letters that would last until the end of her life.
She had also an interesting correspondence with her German translator Ludwig Ferdinand Huber.


Isabelle de Charrière wrote novels, pamphlets, plays and composed music. Her most productive period came only after she had been living in Colombier for a number of years. Themes included her religious doubts, the nobility and the upbringing of women.

Her first novel, Le Noble, was published in 1762. It was a satire against the nobility and although it was published anonymously, her identity was soon discovered and her parents withdrew the work from sale. Then she wrote also an selfportrait for her friends: Portrait de Mll de Z., sous le nom de Zélide, fait par elle-même. 1762.

In 1784 she published two novels, Lettres neuchâteloises and Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiée par son amie. Both were epistolaries, a form she continued to favour. In 1788, she published her first pamphlets about the political situation in the Netherlands.

As an admirer of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she assisted in the posthumous publication of his work, Confessions, in 1789. She also wrote her own pamphlets on Rousseau around this time.

The French Revolution caused a number of nobles to flee to Neuchâtel and Mme de Charrière befriended some of them. But she also published works criticising the attitudes of the aristocratic refugees, most of whom she felt had learned nothing from the Revolution.

She wrote or at least planned words and music for several musical works, but none survive beyond fragments. She sent a libretto of Les Phéniciennes to Mozart, hoping that he would set it, but no reply is known. All of her musical works are included in volume 10 of her Œuvres complètes; these include six minuets for string quartet, nine piano sonatas, and ten airs and romances.[1]

Scientific publications of the original texts[edit]

  • Œuvres complètes, Éd. J-D. Candaux, C.P. Courtney, P. Dubois, S. Dubois, P. Thompson, J. Vercruysse, D.M. Wood. Amsterdam, G.A. van Oorschot, 1979-1984. 10 vols. 8190 p. ISBN 9789028205000
  • Die wiedergefundene Handschrift: Victoire ou la vertu sans bruit. Hrsg. Magdalene Heuser. In: Editio. Internationales Jahrbuch für Editionswissenschaft. 11 (1997), p. 178-204.
  • Early writings. New material from Dutch archives. Éd. Kees van Strien, Leuven, Éditions Peeters, 2005. VI-338 p. ISBN 978-90-429-1646-3
  • Correspondances et textes inédits. Éd. Guillemette Samson, J-D. Candaux, J. Vercruysse et D. Wood. Paris, Honoré Champion, 2006 423 p. ISBN 978-2-7453-1310-2


  • Letters written from Lausanne. Translated from the French. Bath, printed by R. Cruttwell and sold by C. Dilly, Poultry, London, 1799. 2 vols. viii, 175 p. + 200 p. Print On Demand by Gale Ecco, Print Editions, 2010.
  • Four tales by Zélide. Translation by S[ybil].M[arjory].S[cott-Cutting] with an introduction by Geoffrey Scott. [The Nobleman, Mistress Henley, Letters from Lausanne, Letters from Lausanne-Caliste]. London, Constable, 1925. xxix, 263 p. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, N.Y., 1970. Reprint by Turtle Point Press, New York, 2009. 304 p.
  • Letters from Mistress Henley published by her friend. Translation Philip Stewart and Jean Vaché. New York, The Modern Language Association of America, 1993. xxix, 42 p.
  • Letters from Switzerland. [Letters from Neuchatel, Letters from Mistress Henley, Letters from Lausanne, Letters from Lausanne-Caliste]. Ed., translation and biography James Chesterman. Cambridge U.K., Carole Green Publishing, 2001. xii, 276 p.
  • Three women. A novel by the abbe de la Tour. Translation Emma Rooksby. New York, The Modern Language Association of America, 2007. xii, 176 p.
  • The Nobleman and Other Romances. [The Nobleman; Letters from Neuchâtel; Letters from Mistress Henley Published by Her Friend; Letters from Lausanne: Cécile; Eaglonette and Suggestina, or, On Pliancy; Émigré Letters; Fragments of Two Novels Written in English: A Correspondence, Letters from Peter and William; Constance's Story; Saint Anne], Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Caroline Warman. Cover ill. Joanna Walsh. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012. XXXIII, 439 p. ISBN 978-0-14-310660-9


  • Boswell in Holland, including his correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (Zélide). Ed. Frederick Pottle. 428 p. London: William Heinemann, 1952.
  • Letter of Isabelle de Charrière to James Boswell 27 March 1768. Published in The General Correspondence of James Boswell (1766–1769), ed. Richard Cole, Peter Baker, Edinburgh University Press, 1993, vol.2, p. 40-41.
  • There are no letters like yours. The correspondence of Isabelle de Charrière and Constant d'Hermences. Translated, with an introduction and annotations by Janet Whatley and Malcolm Whatley. Lincoln NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2000. xxxv, 549 p.



  1. ^ a b Marius Flothius. "Belle van Zuylen". In Macy, Laura. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.  (subscription required)
  2. ^ First letter to Count Dönhoff


  • Philippe Godet: Madame de Charrière et ses amis. Genève, A. Jullien, 1906 (xiii,519 p. + 448 p.). Genève, Slatkine Reprints, 1973. Print-on-demand by Nabu Press, U.S.A., 2010.
  • Geoffrey Scott. The portrait of Zélide. London, Constable, 1925. xiii, 215 p. Scott on Zélide : the portrait of Zélide. Introduction by Richard Holmes. London, Flamingo, 2002. Reprint by Turtle Point Press, New York, 2010. 256 p. with an introduction by Shirley Hazzard, afterword by Richard Dunn.
  • Constance Thompson Pasquali, Madame de Charrière à Colombier : iconographie, Neuchâtel, Bibliothèque de la Ville, 1979
  • C.P. Courtney. A preliminary bibliography of Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1980. 157 p.
  • C.P. Courtney. Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). A secondary bibliography. Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1982. 50 p.
  • C.P. Courtney. Isabelle de Charrière and the 'Character of H.B. Constant'. A false attribution. In: French Studies (Oxford), 36 (1982), no. 3, p. 282-289.
  • C.P. Courtney, Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). A biography. Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1993. 810 p.
  • C.P. Courtney, Belle van Zuylen and Philosophy. Utrecht, Universiteit Utrecht, 1995. 32 p.
  • Jacquline Letzter and Robert Adelson, Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001. xvii, 341 p.
  • Vincent Giroud and Janet Whatley, Isabelle de Charrière. Proceedings of the international conference held at Yale University, 2002. New Haven CT. The Beinecke rare book and manuscript library, 2004. v, 151 p.
  • Monique Moser-Verrey, Isabelle de Charrière and the Novel in the 18th century. Utrecht, Universiteit Utrecht, 2005. 32 p.
  • Nicole Pellegrin, Useless or pleasant? Women and the writing of history at the time of Belle van Zuylen (1740–1805). Utrecht, University Utrecht, 2005. 32 p.
  • Suzan van Dijk, Valérie Cossy, Monique Moser, Madeleine van Strien, Belle de Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière: Education, Creation, Reception. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2006, 343 p. ISBN 978-90-420-1998-0
  • Lettre de Zuylen et du Pontet 1976-2005

External links[edit]