Isabelle de Charrière

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,097 words.)