Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken

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Entry by Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau and Suzan van Dijk, 2002

Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken, known as Belle de Zuylen, was born on October 20, 1740, in the castle of Zuylen, near Utrecht, Holland. She was the eldest daughter of Diederik Jacob, Baron van Tuyll van Serooskerken, and Helena Jacoba de Vicq. She had four brothers and a sister. She began learning French at an early age: from 1748 to 1753, she had a Swiss governess, Jeanne-Louise Prévost, and the two spent a year in Geneva around 1750. On their return journey, they stopped off in Paris, where they met the artist Quentin de la Tour, who was to paint Belle's portrait in 1766. Jeanne-Louise Prévost left Holland in October 1753, but carried on a correspondence with her former pupil until 1758, encouraging her to read and copy extracts from the books she admired. Belle also studied alongside her brothers, learning Latin, studying painting and music in some depth, reading the seventeenth-century French classics, and keeping abreast of contemporary literature. On February 28, 1760, she attended a ball in The Hague, where she met David-Louis Constant d'Hermenches (1722-1785), a colonel in a Swiss regiment in the service of the States General. The two began writing to each other, at first in secret. The correspondence lasted until 1775, helping Belle's epistolary talent to blossom. From 1764 to 1768, she also corresponded with James Boswell, later Samuel Johnson's biographer, who introduced her to the works of Adam Smith. She wrote verse and "portraits" that she distributed among her circle of acquaintances, and in 1762 published The Nobleman, a satire on the prejudices of her social class. The 1763 edition was withdrawn from sale by her parents. In 1764, she wrote a comedy entitled Justine, since lost. These years were also marked by a search for a husband for Belle. She turned down a dozen or so offers before resigning herself in 1771 to marrying her brothers' tutor, Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière de Penthaz (1735-1808), a Swiss gentleman with neither title nor fortune. She spent the second half of her life, until her death on December 27, 1805, in her manor, Le Pontet, in Colombier in the principality of Neuchâtel, publishing her writings under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière.

Her literary career took off in 1784-1785 when she published her first two novels, Lettres neuchâteloises and Lettres de Mistriss (sic) Henley. Her next works were the Lettres écrites de Lausanne, a comedy, and a comic opera, since lost. During a visit to Paris in 1786-1787, she published three collections of harpsichord sonatas. She also met Benjamin Constant and began corresponding with him. They carried on exchanging letters intermittently until 1805, suspending their correspondence during Constant's affair with Madame de Staël. Isabelle developed a keen interest in pre-revolutionary politics, and on her return to Switzerland, she produced a prolific amount of political pamphlets and essays, such as Observations et conjectures politiques and Lettres d'un évêque à la nation. However, she was concerned at the excesses of the Revolution and its repercussions elsewhere in Europe. Her worries are reflected in her letters to Constant and in pamphlets such as Lettres trouvées dans la neige (1793). Her concerns also prompted her to begin writing novels again, describing the Revolution and the Emigration, for example Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d'émigrés, and the post-revolutionary period, Trois Femmes being one of the most ambitious of these. She carried on writing and publishing novels to the end of the century, with titles such as Sir Walter Finch et son fils William. During this period, she continued her voluminous correspondence. From the 1790s on she exchanged letters with her family in Holland and young men and women she helped educate-her passion for teaching lasted to the end of her days. Isabelle de Charrière also wrote 26 comedies, operas, and lyrical tragedies, most of which were left unfinished and unpublished.

During her lifetime, her work, while appreciated by her Swiss friends and acquaintances, did not attract much attention in France, although several of her novels were translated into German. It was Sainte-Beuve who declared her letters to be masterpieces of the epistolary art. Thanks to biographies by the Swiss author Philippe Godet and the Dutch author Simone Dubois, her fascinating character and her writings have finally received the critical attention they deserve.

(translated by Susan Pickford)


- 1762 : Le Noble. Conte dans Journal étranger, combiné avec l'Année Littéraire, août 1762, no.8, Amsterdam, van Harrevelt, 1763, p.540-74 -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1784 : Lettres neuchâteloises, Amsterdam (= Lausanne), 1784 -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1784 : Lettres de Mistriss Henley, publiées par son amie, Genève, 1784 -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1785 : Lettres écrites de Lausanne, Toulouse (= Genève, Bonnant), 1785 -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1787-88 : Observations et conjectures politiques, Les Verrières, Jérémie Wittel -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1789 : Lettres d'un évêque français à la nation, Neuchâtel, Fauche-Borel -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1793 : Lettre d'un Français, et réponse d'un Suisse (Lettres trouvées dans la neige), Neuchâtel, Fauche-Borel -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1793 : Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d'émigrés, Paris (= Lausanne, Durand) -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1795 : Trois femmes, in Monthly Magazine, septembre 1796 -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1799 : Sainte-Anne, dans L'Abbé de La Tour ou recueil de nouvelles et autres écrits divers, t.III, Leipzig, Wolf -- Voir infra, OC.
- 1799 : Sir Walter Finch et son fils William, Genève, Paschoud, 1806 -- Voir infra, OC.
- Oeuvres Complètes [OC], édition critique J.-D. Candaux, C.P. Courtney, P.H. Dubois, S. Dubois-De Bruyn, P. Thompson, J. Vercruysse et D.M. Wood, Amsterdam, G.A. van Oorschot, 1979-1984, 10 vol. (t.I à VI: Correspondance, t.VII: Théâtre, t.VIII et IX: Romans, contes et nouvelles, t.X: Essais, vers, musique)
- Bibliographie complète dans Courtney -- Voir infra.

Selected bibliography

- P. Godet, Madame de Charrière et ses amis, Genève, A.Jullien, 1906, 2 vol.
- C.P. Courtney, Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen). A biography, Oxford, Voltaire founfation, 1993.
- Une Européenne: Isabelle de Charrière en son siècle. Actes du Colloque de Neuchâtel, 11-13 novembre 1993, Neuchâtel, Attinger, 1994.
- Y. Went-Daoust, Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen): de la correspondance au roman épistolaire, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1995.
- M. van Strien-Chardonneau, «Lettres (1793-1805) d'Isabelle de Charrière à son neveu, Willem-René van Tuyll van Serooskerken. Une éducation aristocratique et post-révolutionnaire», in Rapports. Het Franse boek, 70, 2000, p.86-93.


- «Ah, si cette demoiselle avait la bonté d'écrire en néerlandais! Quel avantage si le bourgeois se mettait à lire grâce à elle» (son contemporain Frans van Lelyveld, fondateur de la Société des lettres néerlandaises; cité d'après H. Stouten dans Histoire de la littérature néerlandaise, Paris, Fayard, 1998, p.379).
- «C'est le ton extrêmement personnel dans certains de ces récits, qui paraît préjudiciable à la juste appréciation de ses oeuvres, non seulement à Genève en 1800, mais aussi dans les Pays-Bas actuels. [...] A cause de l'intérêt que représente sa vie, Belle de Zuylen est souvent en proie à une attention qui concerne exclusivement sa personne» (J. Stouten, in M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen (éd.), Nederlandse literatuur, een geschiedenis, Groningen, Nijhoff, 1993, p.370; trad. SvD).
- «[...] Assurément toute l'oeuvre de Mme de Charrière ne vaut pas Caliste. Hollandaise, elle avait peu de facilité à manier la langue française. [...]» (J. Larnac, Histoire de la littérature féminine en France, Paris, Kra, 1929, p.169).
- «Of all the women novelists of eighteenth-century France, Isabelle de Charrière (1740-1805) is arguably the greatest» (M. Hall, dans S. Stephens (éd.), A History of women's writing in France, Cambridge, Cambridge University press, 2000, p.113).
- «Toutes les opinions de Mme de Charrière reposaient sur le mépris de toutes les convenances et de tous les usages» (B. Constant, dans Le Cahier rouge, cité d'après C. Calame, «Une étude de moeurs», intr. aux Lettres neuchâteloises, éd. I. et J.-L. Vissière, Paris, La Différence, 1991, p.7.

Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken
Spouses Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière de Penthaz
Also known as Isabelle de Charrière
Belle de Zuylen
Madame Charrière de Saint-Hyacinthe
Birth date 1740
Death 1805
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
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