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Charriere, Isabelle de (1740–1805)

Charriere, Isabelle de (1740–1805)

Dutch-born author of plays, stories, novels and essays, which were largely romantic reflections on her liaisons. Name variations: Isabelle de Charrière; Zelide or Zélide; Abbe de la Tour. Born Isabelle Agnès Elisabeth van Tuyll van Seeroskerken van Zuylen in 1740 at Zuylen, Netherlands; died in 1805; daughter of the Lord of Zuylen; educated at home; married Charles-Emmanuel de Charriere (a mathematician), on February 17, 1771, in Zuylen; no children.

Selected works:

Lettres de Mistress Henley (The Letters of Mistress Henley, 1784); Lettres neuchâteloises (Letters from Neuchâtel, 1784); Lettres trouvées dans des portfeuilles d'emigrés (Letters from an Émigré's Wallet, 1793); Trois Femmes (Three Women, 1797).

Aristocratic life, at her family's castle at Zuylen and mansion in Utrecht, held little interest for Isabelle van Tuyll, the first of seven children. Her young mother had little time for her, and her strict father kept her in social isolation. A childhood governess taught her to speak better French than Dutch, and she longed for a romance that would take her to France. Countless suitors sought to marry her, but she rejected them in 1771 in favor of her brother's former tutor, Charles-Emmanuel de Charriere. His family home in Neuchâtel, Netherlands, on France's border, intrigued her, and she found in him an intellectual peer.

Still Isabelle de Charriere was not in love. In 1762, she had begun a correspondence with David-Louis Constant d'Hermenches. Although his marriage prevented an amorous relationship, she had her strongest emotional bond with him. Married life, shared with an elderly father-in-law and two unmarried sisters-in-law, did not curb her restlessness. "Excessively emotional, and not less fastidious," she wrote, "[I] cannot be happy either with or without love."

De Charriere often wintered in Geneva and tried numerous spas in an attempt to cure a lifelong illness. In 1787, she and her husband moved to Paris in hopes of finding a community for her. There she met Benjamin Constant, the nephew of d'Hermenches. The two began an affair that lasted several years (1787–1796), until Constant was called away from Paris by his family. Although de Charriere wrote a number of novels and some political tracts, she is perhaps best remembered for her liaison with him. Her letters to him would be printed in the Revue suisse of April 1844.

Monsieur de Charriere regularly transcribed his wife's plays and fictional stories, which were veiled accounts of her search for love and intellectual companionship. The de Charrieres returned to Neuchâtel where Isabelle lived out her days. Her scandalous 16-year correspondence with d'Hermenches was published; it documents her lifelong discontent.


Allison, Jenene J. Revealing Differences. University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Scott, Geoffrey. The Portrait of Zélide. NY: Scribner, 1927.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

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