Isabelle de Charrière Essay - Critical Essays

Charrière, Isabelle de


Isabelle de Charrière 1740-1805

(Born Isabelle-Agnès-Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serookskerken van Zuylen) Dutch-born Swiss novelist, essayist, dramatist, short story writer, librettist, and poet.

Part of the French feminine literary tradition of Marie de Sévigné, Germaine de Staël, and George Sand, Charrière is noted for the originality and boldness of her work, specifically in her challenge to the traditionally female roles of eighteenth-century society. Identified by some critics as one of the subtlest and most compelling novelists of the century, Charrière has been praised for her innovation in both theme and form, and has attained prominence as an early advocate of gender equality.

Biographical Information

Charrière was born into Dutch nobility and raised in aristocratic fashion at the family castle outside Utrecht. The first of seven children, she was educated both at home and abroad, studying in both Geneva and Paris under the tutelage of her Swiss governess, Jeanne-Louise Prevost, learning several languages and studying the writings and philosophies of numerous thinkers, developing a fierce independence of mind and spirit. In 1760 she met and began a relationship with a married Swiss colonel serving in the Netherlands, Baron Constant d'Hermenches. Although the two rarely saw each other, their affair lasted nearly fifteen years. The same year Charrière met the baron she also wrote her first novel, Le Noble (The Nobleman), a scathing satire of the aristocracy. When it was published in 1763, the novel caused immediate scandal, and Charrière's parents withdrew it from publication almost as soon as it appeared. Realizing the futility of attempting to publish her work on a wide scale, Charrière turned her literary talent to letter-writing and small self-circulated publications. In the meantime, she was courted by Scottish author James Boswell, to whom she responded curtly in a letter dated 17 January 1768: "I have sufficient mental ability to manage without a husband and without a household; I do not need, as they say, to be looked after." In 1771 Charrière did marry Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière, her brothers' governor, and a man who promised her the wide range of freedom within marriage she demanded. They moved to his manor in Switzerland, Isabelle bringing her two unmarried sisters to live with her. By 1783 she resumed writing and began traveling around Switzerland as well as to Paris and London, where she was presented at the royal court and was the guest of philosopher David Hume. The publication of her novel Lettres neuchâteloises in 1784 marked the beginning of an immense literary outpouring which characterized the later part of her life. In 1787 Charrière began a relationship with nineteen-year-old Benjamin Constant, nephew of Baron d'Hermenches and son of author Samuel Constant, to whose Le mari sentimental she had responded directly in her own Lettres de Mistriss Henley (Mistriss Henley, 1784). Despite a later break, the two remained in close correspondence until Charrière's death in 1805.

Major Works

Charrière is best known for her epistolary novels of the 1780s. Lettres neuchâteloises weaves a chance encounter, an accidental pregnancy, and the interaction of a poor seamstress, a merchant's son, and the daughter of a noble French family into a commentary on the social costs of privilege. Mistress Henley takes the stifling marriage relationship described by Constant and interprets it from the woman's point of view. The principal action takes place as a pregnant Mrs. Henley faces admonishment by her husband for her independent actions, and the silencing of her voice in the matter of the child's upbringing. Notably, it is in this work that Charrière first used an intentionally ambiguous ending, with Mrs. Henley saying, "In a year, in two years, you will learn, I hope, that I am reasonable and happy, or that I am no more." In Lettres écrites de Lausanne (Letters from Lausanne, 1785), a widow writes of the pleasures and difficulties of raising a daughter on her own and seeking a suitable marriage for the girl that would allow her the freedom she so values. Importantly, the daughter recognizes this difficulty as well, and, in the end, matrimony and society living are rejected. And in what was to become her most popular work, Caliste, ou suite des Lettres écrites de Lausanne (Caliste, 1787), Charrière describes a relationship ruined by humility, complacency, and cowardice. While the work, which was published in her final years, is not as well known, it is notable for its variety and depth. During 1787 and 1788, Charrière published Observations et conjectures politiques, a series of political writings considering the respective causes of the French royalists and revolutionaries. She also examined the themes of the Revolution in a play, L'émigré, and another epistolary novel, Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d'émigré (both 1793). Additionally, Charrière produced a study on Immanuel Kant's notion of duty in her 1796 novel, Trois femmes, and explored philosophies of education in works such as Les Ruines d'Yedburg (1799) and Sir Walter Finch et son fils William (published posthumously in 1806). Independent of her published work, Charrière was a prodigious letter-writer; collected, her correspondence comprises most of her ten-volume Oeuvre complètes (1979-84).

Critical Reception

Widely published and translated, even in her own time, Charrière's work has received a great deal of critical attention. Early studies included two extensive efforts by noted nineteenth-century critic C. A. Sainte-Beuve. Her first biographer, Philippe Godet, in his Madame de Charrière et ses amis (1906), attributed much of her writing to biographical experience rather than literary skill; and this perception was seconded in the first English-language biography of Charrière, Geoffrey Scott's The Portrait of Zélide (1926), a study based largely on Godet's account. More recent biographies, however, have recognized her importance as both a literary figure and as an early advocate of gender equality. Critic Joan Hinde Stewart calls her work "powerfully seductive" in both form and style, and Susan Jackson adds that Charrière "provides a shining example of feminist revisionism already at work in the eighteenth century." Stewart describes her writing as "a delicate weave of inconspicuous circumstances and almost infinitesimal occurrences." This same characteristic critics such as Susan Lanser contrast with the larger, more general issues that figure prominently in the work of her contemporaries. While some critics praise the originality of her characters and themes, others, such as Jenene Allison, claim otherwise: "Relative to conventional figures, Charrière's heroines seem at first glance quite innovative. Considered more closely, they are better described as refutations of the conventional." Despite continuing debate over her literary reputation, critics generally commend Charrière's boldness and recognize her importance to the feminist literary tradition.

Principal Works

Le noble [The Nobleman] (novel) 1763

Lettres neuchâteloises (novel) 1784 Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie [*Mistriss Henley] (novel) 1784

Lettres écrites de Lausanne [*Letters from Lausanne] (novel) 1785

Caliste, ou suite des Lettres écrites de Lausanne [*Caliste] (novel) 1787

Observations et conjectures politiques (essays) 1787-88

L'émigré (drama) 1793

Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d'émigrés (novel) 1793

Trois femmes (novel) 1796

Les Ruines d'Yedburg (novel) 1799

Sainte-Anne (short story) 1799

Sir Walter Finch et son fils William (novel) 1806

Oeuvres complètes 10 vols. (novels, drama, essays, short stories, letters, and poetry) 1979-84


Geoffrey Scott (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Four Tales, by Isabella A. (Van Tuyll) de Charrière, translated by Sybil Marjorie Scott, Books for Libraries Press, 1926, reprinted 1970, pp. xi-xxvii.

[In the following essaya 1970 reprint of a work originally published in 1926Scott connects numerous events in the author's life to those which appear in her fiction.]

The four tales here translated [The Nobleman, Mistress Henley, Letters from Lausanne, and Letters from LausanneCaliste] have, I think, a dual interest. As literature they possess a quiet but genuine merit, and fill a graceful if inconspicuous niche in the cold temple of...

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Susan K. Jackson (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Novels of Isabelle de Charrière, or, A Woman's Work is Never Done," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. XIV, 1985, pp. 299-306.

[In the following essay, Jackson discusses the theme of women 's work in Charrière 's novels, noting that her conveying of "Everywoman 's experience of everyday life . . . provides a shining example of feminist revisionism already at work in the eighteenth century. "]

If, as popular wisdom would have it, a woman's work is never done, then the eighteenth century witnessed no more womanly works than the novels of Isabelle de Charrière. In his Portrait of Zélide, Geoffrey Scott singles out Caliste, where...

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Marie-Paule Laden (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'Quel Aimable et Cruel Petit Livre': Madame de Charrière's Mistriss Henley," in French Forum, Vol. XI, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 289-99.

[In the essay that follows, Laden discusses Mistriss Henley as an epistolary autobiography in which Charrière provides a detailed account of living in a male-dominated society.]

The socio-literary issues surrounding the status of women writers in the 18th century come together in the epistolary works of Madame de Charrière.1 Born in Holland, Mme de Charrière spent most of her life in Switzerland and wrote in French. Her literary reputation is as ambiguous as the nature of her literary form; she...

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Alix S. Deguise (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Mme de Charrière: Travel and Uprooting," in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. XIII, No. 1, February, 1989, pp. 42-8.

[In the essay below, Deguise traces the themes of travel and displacementimportant literary devices for the epistolary novelthroughout Charrière's oeuvre.]

The valuable introduction to the ten-volume edition of Isabelle de Charrière's Oeuvres complètes reveals that the author traveled more in reality and in spirit than had been previously thought. At the age of ten she spent several months in France and Geneva with her governess, Mlle Prévost. Many of the letters she wrote during her six-month stay in England in 1767...

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Susan S. Lanser (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Courting Death: Roman, romantisme, and Mistress Henley 's Narrative Practices," in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol XIII, No. 1, February, 1989, pp. 49-59.

[In the following essay, Lanser discusses Mistriss Henley in relation to Samuel de Constant's novel of 1783, Le Mari sentimental, contrasting the triviality of Charrière's domestic detail with the larger questions of adultery and death found in Constant's work.]

In 1972, when PMLA was still publishing in foreign languages, Janine Rossard's "Le Désir de mort romantique dans Caliste"1 inaugurated on this side of the Atlantic what has become a steadily growing...

(The entire section is 5714 words.)

Joan Hinde Stewart (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Isabelle de Charrière Publishes Caliste" in A History of New French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 553-7.

[In the essay below, Stewart lauds Charrière 's form and style, and observes specifically that her novel Caliste "glosses the most urgent concerns of the female novel of the late 18th century."]

The 18th century—and especially its last few decades—saw the publication of a surprising number of novels by women, most of which have been excluded from the canon. Although students of French literature can usually identify Marie-Madeleine de La Fayette, who wrote in the 17th century, and Germaine de...

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Nadine Bérenguier (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "From Clarens to Hollow Park, Isabelle de Charrière's Quiet Revolution," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. XXI, 1991, pp. 219-43.

[In the following essay, Bérenguier compares Mistriss Henley with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1761 work Julie; ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, contrasting Charrière 's narrative innovation with Roussea's more traditional approach.]

"Love is more pleasant than marriage for the reason that novels are more amusing than history."1 In this lapidary maxim, Chamfort effectively captures what characterizes the plots of eighteenth-century novels. By placing novels on the side of love, this observer...

(The entire section is 11730 words.)

Kathleen M. Jaeger (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Charriére and the Androgynous Ideal," in Male and Female Roles in the Eighteenth Century: The Challenge to Replacement and Displacement in the Novels of Isabelle de Charriére, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994, pp. 197-218.

[In the essay below, Jaeger argues that Charriére strives for the equality of male and female voices in her work, rejecting the notion of sex-based difference, and advocating instead the full development of androgynous individual potential]

In her introduction to the feminist edition of Caliste ou Lettres écrites de Lausanne [Paris: Editions des Femmes, 1979] Claudine Herrmann states the following:


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Jenene J. Allison (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "New Heroines: Countering Women's Fiction(s)," in Revealing Difference: The Fiction of Isabelle de Charrière, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 19-39.

[In the following essay, Allison compares Charrière 's work to other eighteenth-century fiction, noting that she not only condemns the existing stereotypes of women but also challenges the very force of stereotyping itself]

The success of Lettres portugaises [The letters of a Portuguese nun] (1669), probably authored by Gabriel de Guilleragues (d. 1685), illustrates well the way in which representations of women can serve to perpetuate a stereotype of woman.1 This brief, monophonic...

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Further Reading


Dubois, Pierre H. "'An Utrecht Lady's Charms': Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière." In The Low Countries: Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands, A Yearbook: 1994-97, pp. 125-30. N.p.: Flemish-Netherlands Foundation "Stichting Ons Erfdeel," 1995.

Offers a brief overview of Charrière's life and response to her work.

Fink, Beatrice. "Isabelle de Charrière: Correspondent, Novelist, and Woman of Independent Mind." Eighteenth-Century Life 13, No. 1 (February 1989): 1-3.

Provides an introduction to a series of articles concerning the life and work of...

(The entire section is 434 words.)