Rebellious in life, but also in love?
Fourteen and smitten
At the age of fourteen, Belle fell in love with her uncle's best friend, the Polish count Peter von Dönhoff. But he considered fourteen too young. Nevertheless, she continued to write him letters. Two years later, he became interested in Belle, but by now she had grown wiser. In one of her letters Belle wrote: 'The feeling was indisputable, most vehement, most insane and most unhappily passionate.'
Little talent for subservience
You were useful as a lady of noble birth. You could be used to contract a marriage with a man from a (more) influential family and thus raise the standing and increase the wealth of your own family. But to be used like that? Not for Belle! She rejected one man after another, including the Scottish author James Boswell who also proposed to her. He wanted to be with her, but she would not then be allowed to correspond with other men without his permission. Her answer? 'I have little talent for subservience.'
Because she did correspond with other men. Secretly, with her lover: Constant d'Hermenches. She asked this baron with a reputation as a womanizer to dance with her at a ball in The Hague. He was 22 years older than her – and not insignificantly – married, too.
Out of the multitude of letters Belle wrote, we still have 2,600 examples.
Switzerland, just like that
At the age of 31, Belle married Swiss-born Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière. Her father was not very enthusiastic about the marriage as the groom was of lower nobility. But he gave Belle the freedom she wanted. She moved to Switzerland, even though she would miss Castle Zuylen. She wrote: 'I cannot think of it without feeling a sense of endearment.'
Invloed in Nederland?
Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière liked to exert some influence on her environment. She gave lessons (harpsichord lessons for her older niece, when Belle was at the age of 15), counselling and good advice (to her brothers, her translator, friends in Switzerland...). And so, in 1787, she published a pamphlet intended as a series of recommendations for the stadholder's court: Sur la générosité et sur les princes. She directed her attention at Wilhelmina of Prussia, and predicted her eternal fame if she would follow her advice: "L'Univers vous admirera". It is not clear whether Wilhelmina has read her work...