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Belle van Zuylen: An Emancipated Woman of the Enlightenment
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Belle van Zuylen: An Emancipated Woman of the Enlightenment

Her statement 'I have no talent for subservience' is typical of the liberal Dutch writer Belle van Zuylen, who, after an excellent upbringing, came into contact with many great minds of her time. She wrote novels, pamphlets, plays and libretti for operas, but she owes her reputation mainly to her letters, which have appeared in the Netherlands since 1979. Belle van Zuylen has become known as an independent, emancipated woman of the Enlightenment.

Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Belle van Zuylen’s official name) was born at Slot Zuylen, near Utrecht, in 1740. She died in Colombier, near Neuchâtel in Switzerland, in 1805. Her aristocratic family belonged at the time to the most prestigious and influential elite in the Dutch Republic, where she spent the first half of her life. Yet I should not try to present her as a truly Dutch author. At an early age she stated that she would like to be ‘du pays de tout le monde’ (a citizen of the world) and while this may have been a somewhat casual remark, it is true that Belle van Zuylen always remained so independent, intellectually, that it is next to impossible to classify her as ‘typically this or that’ or to give her some convenient label.

Although marriage was not a top priority for her, she married Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière (private teacher of some of her brothers) in 1771 and spent the rest of her life primarily in Colombier, a village in her husband’s native Switzerland. Especially during her Swiss years, she published several novels, plays, and essays, and also wrote some musical compositions, but as far as I am concerned, she deserves to be remembered and studied in the first place because of her extensive correspondence. In her letters, written over the years to all kinds of people, all kinds of topics were discussed, including her reactions to the many turbulent events that shook Europe, especially in the 1780s and 90s.

Van Zuylen can hardly be seen as a Dutch writer, but she always remained interested in her native country

I should point out that Belle van Zuylen hardly lived in Europe’s major intellectual centres but often preferred to observe people and situations from a distance. Leven op afstand (Living at a distance) is the subtitle of her biography by Simone and Pierre Dubois, which is an apt description. She wrote almost exclusively in French, which at the time was, of course, common in aristocratic circles. I mention all of this to emphasize that Belle van Zuylen can hardly be seen as a Dutch writer the way we look at contemporaries of hers like Wolff, Deken, Bellamy, Bilderdijk, or Kinker. Yet she always remained interested in her native country, especially at times of socio-political upheaval.

To illustrate the international character of her numerous contacts, let me mention three men with whom, at different times in her life, she corresponded extensively. First and foremost, there is David-Louis Constant d’Hermenches, a Swiss colonel in the army of the States-General (het Staatse leger). He was 18 years her senior, married, and reputed to be a Don Juan. The way in which Belle and d’Hermenches met, was unusual and considered scandalous: with the words ‘Monsieur, vous ne dansez pas?’, it was Belle who invited d’Hermenches to dance, at a ball in The Hague by the duke of Brunswick. With d’Hermenches, though, whom she met in person only three times or so, Belle felt free over the course of some 15 years to discuss all kinds of personal topics as well as broader societal issues.

Another correspondent was James Boswell, from Scotland, who studied law in Utrecht in the 1760s and today is remembered in particular for his Life of Samuel Johnson. And much later there was Benjamin Constant, nephew of Constant d’Hermenches and 27 years her junior ‒ he was to become an influential politician in France and the author of the still well-known novel Adolphe.

Belle van Zuylen’s privileged position in society obviously gave her many advantages, yet also restricted her because of the importance attached by most members of the nobility to tradition and conformity (as witness the incident at the ball in The Hague). She did not completely ignore those expectations, but her writings abound with observations and comments in a broad, cosmopolitan context. In her Observations et conjectures politiques, for example (a collection of essays dating from 1788), she discusses the turbulent political situation in her native country, yet frequently uses the perspective of fictitious foreign observers. The text contains some platitudes and the extent to which her knowledge of specific events was reliable, may be questioned of course. Without being able to go into any detail here, I do want to mention that Belle van Zuylen was particularly critical of Wilhelmina of Prussia (the stadtholder’s wife), whom she blamed for being vengeful instead of generous and for allowing foreign powers to have too much influence on Dutch internal affairs. The collection also contains an essay called Bien-Né, in which she severely criticizes the king of France, without naming him. This led to the arrest of at least one Parisian bookseller, who had also published several other texts by other authors that French authorities did not appreciate.

In her novel 'Trois femmes', Belle van Zuylen discusses the impact of French émigrés who had fled their country

In her novel Trois femmes, written in the mid-1790s and situated primarily in Germany (where it was first published in a German translation before appearing in French in London), Belle van Zuylen discusses, among numerous other topics, the impact of French émigrés who had fled their country in large numbers because of the revolution and subsequent horrors, but whose arrival in other parts of Europe was not necessarily perceived to be a blessing (one can’t help thinking of today’s influx of migrants, although the circumstances inevitably are not entirely the same). The major criticism vis-à-vis the émigrés (mostly members of the aristocracy) was that they were often unable or, worse yet, unwilling to adapt themselves to their new situations and continued to take their privileges for granted. Belle van Zuylen definitely shared this criticism (of members of her own class), not only in this novel but in several of her plays as well.

Belle van Zuylen despised the idolatry associated with Voltaire

The eighteenth century is of course the century of what we have come to call the Enlightenment. Belle van Zuylen was most interested in the discussions and writings of, especially, the French philosophes, although she was also well informed about writers in England such as David Hume, whom she met once, and German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (whose categorical imperative, which she found too abstract, inspired her to write Trois femmes). Returning, however, to the French philosophes, I note again that, while agreeing with many of the ideas put forth by various thinkers, she kept her distance. And although both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, whose writings she knew well, lived close by, she did not know them personally and never corresponded with either one of them. After Rousseau’s death she did, however, assist her friend Du Peyrou in preparing the publication of part II of Rousseau’s Confessions. As for Voltaire, Belle was reluctant to pay him a visit. She despised the idolatry associated with him, especially when he held court so to speak at Ferney, and she refused to contribute to the adulation. They did meet just once, when Voltaire was quite old and not feeling well, which made the visit rather unpleasant and meaningless.

Scepticism was one of Belle van Zuylen’s strongest characteristics

Scepticism was one of Belle van Zuylen’s strongest characteristics and although she understood the reasons that had led to the French revolution, she was not optimistic about long-lasting, positive changes. In a brief comment, again in Trois femmes, she notes for instance, without expressing any surprise, that while priests had fallen from their pedestals and had lost much of their influence, those pedestals were now occupied by the new rulers, who were being idolized as much as the clergy used to be revered. Ultimately she believed, I think, that the best most individuals can hope for is to accomplish something meaningful on a small scale. In that respect, Voltaire, with his observation in Candide that ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ (we must cultivate our garden) did indeed appeal to her.

Belle van Zuylen was proficient in several languages and for a while (I now return to the 1760s) worked on a French translation of James Boswell’s Account of Corsica. She abandoned that project, however, for reasons that she explained in a letter to Constant d’Hermenches [June 1768; translation taken from Pottle’s Boswell in Holland]:

I will write with much pleasure what you ask of me: it will be a little extract from
an interesting book which I am fond of but which I am no longer translating.
I
was far advanced in the task, but I wanted permission to change some things
that were bad, and to abridge others which French impatience would have found
unmercifully long-winded. The author [Boswell], although he had at the moment
almost made up his mind to marry me if I would have him, was not willing to
sacrifice a syllable of his book to my taste. I wrote to him that I was firmly
decided never to marry him, and I have abandoned the translation.

The possibility of a marriage alluded to in this quotation had preoccupied Belle and Boswell intermittently between 1764 and 1768. In several of their letters (a topic in itself) they tried very hard to convince each other that they were not in love, yet it is obvious that both were more intrigued by each other than they were willing to admit. Eventually Boswell did send a lengthy marriage proposal, but it contained so many demands that Belle’s father wisely decided that this would not be a good match for his daughter. Boswell, conformist par excellence, was especially concerned that Belle would not hesitate to embarrass him and his family, for instance by expressing doubts about the wisdom of accepted religious beliefs, and if she were to become his wife, he wanted everything she would write to be checked by her father and her brothers.

As I mentioned, Belle married Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière in 1771. Her husband has often been portrayed as a nice man who was inferior to his wife not only in social rank but, more important, intellectually inferior as well. In other words, he did not quite deserve her. I strongly disagree with such a view. Charrière was an intellectual in his own right. With Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, the German translator of some of Belle van Zuylen’s work, he discussed many political and philosophical topics. And Huber was not ‘just a translator’; he was highly influential across Europe as editor of the prestigious German journal Friedens Praeliminarien. Moreover, there are letters from Mr. de Charrière to the Englishman Dudley Ryder, who was to become a major statesman in his country. In these letters Charrière makes it clear that he greatly admires England’s political system and is sad to observe that the countries on Europe’s mainland are unable, at that time at least, to implement England’s example of great stability. I also admire in Mr. de Charrière the fact that he did indeed give his wife complete freedom to write and publish, which is quite different from the extremely tight control that James Boswell wanted to exert.

Both she and her husband were part of a broad intellectual community across Europe

I made this ‘aside’ about the husband to emphasize that Belle van Zuylen was not a lonesome figure who worked in isolation. Both she and her husband were part of a broad intellectual community across Europe, within which there were all kinds of networks, some well-organized, others very loose, and of course without the perspective that we have today and that allows us, rightly or wrongly, to put people and ideas in groups and categories.

Speaking of categories, not only is it impossible to place Belle van Zuylen, even in hindsight, neatly in this or that group, the same applies, for part of his life, to the third correspondent that I mentioned at the beginning: Benjamin Constant. He (only 19 years old at the time) and Belle (46) met in Paris in the mid-1780s. His education had been disorganized and unusual, to say the least, as he had been raised primarily by successive tutors, in different countries (with one of these tutors he, still a young child, even spent time in a brothel in Brussels). Young Constant was stunned by Belle, this much older woman who very much spoke her mind. ‘All her opinions were based on disdain for everything that was conventional’ [I’m translating loosely]. Belle van Zuylen, in turn, was delighted to meet a decidedly non-traditional young man who deliberately made fun of everything and everybody, and they only reinforced each other’s inclination to mock generally accepted traditional behaviour. Later on, Constant lived for some time with the Charrières in Colombier, but ever restless, he travelled across Europe, got married, divorced, and eventually distanced himself from Belle van Zuylen and became more interested in Germaine de Staël, who was his own age, politically influential, and who helped him become a politician in his own right (she was after all the daughter of Jacques Necker, finance minister in France before and during some of the revolutionary years, and of Suzanne Curchod, who had hosted a highly influential salon in Paris ).

At the time of Belle van Zuylen’s death in 1805, Constant remembered her fondly in his Cahier rouge (his diary), but elsewhere in the same Cahier he wrote [my translation]: ‘I’m convinced that without these conversations [with her] my behaviour would have been much less crazy.’ While we can only speculate about the accuracy of this claim, it is obvious that Belle van Zuylen did not go through life unnoticed.

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