Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen)
Author: C. P. Courtney
Publication Date: 1993
Isabelle de Charrière, formerly best known for her friendship with James Boswell and Benjamin Constant, is now recognised as one of the most fascinating literary figures of her time, a brilliant letter-writer and gifted novelist.
Cecil Courney’s biography chronicles her life in a lively, comprehensive and scholarly fashion and makes full use of the original sources, notably Belle’s extensive correspondence with many of the leading figures of her time.
Part one covers the first thirty years of Belle de Zuylen’s life from her birth in 1740 into the sheltered, leisurely and elegant milieu of an old-established Dutch aristocratic family. Her early intellectual development leads her to challenge accepted ideas and to explore in writing realms of experience undreamt of in the philosophy of the convention-ridden society in which she lives. Moving through her correspondence with Constant d’Hermenches and Boswell and the story of her many suitors, the account of this period ends in her late and unremarkable marriage (1771) to her brother’s former tutor, Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière.
The second part is devoted to Belle’s life after her marriage. She takes up residence at Le Pontet, the Charrière family home near Neuchâtel, travels in Switzerland and Holland, forms a mysterious romantic attachment to a young man who later abandons her and, after a period spent in Paris (1786–1787), resolves never to set foot again outside Le Pontet. It is here that Belle creates a haven for intellectual activity, whose members, including the young Benjamin Constant, are brought intensely to life in her inimitable correspondence and in this thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of one of the most engaging figures of the eighteenth century.
The superlative biography […] can be read with ease, and restores to her full importance a woman who was in more ways than one a true representative of her age.
Not only do we see the evolution of one of the great women novelists of the last decades of the eighteenth century, but we are taken with authority through the political intrigues and sentimental relationships which were so much part of her life. The book is a mine of information yet, constantly, is a pleasure to read. No study of Mme de Charrière will be possible without reference to this work.
Il faut vous peindre pour la postérité, sans quoi c’est un vol qu’on lui ferait.
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