Belle van Zuylen
(Isabelle de Charrière)
Feminist moral & political philosophy

Kate Lindemann's 

Women Philosophers


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Isabelle de Charriere


Jens Juel

Belle van Zuylen / Isabelle de Charriere: Chronology

1740 Helena Jacoba de Vicq, who was a wealthy lady from Amsterdam married to a nobleman, Diedrik Jacob van Tuyll van Serooskerken, gave birth to Belle (Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken) near Utrecht in Castle Zuylen, Netherlands. She was the first of seven children.

Little is known of her early life. She was educated at home.

1750 Belle traveled. She went to Switzerland, where she spent time in Geneva, and she went to Paris, France. During this trip she became fluent in French and this became her preferred language for the rest of her life. Her tutor was Jeanne Louise Prevost, a Swiss governess. Through her educational experience Belle van Zuylen became a very independent woman.

1760 She met David Louis de Constant d'Hermenches, a Swiss army colonel. Although he was married the two started an intimate correspondence which lasted for fifteen years.

1762/3 She published a novel highly critical of the nobility, Le Noble, anonymously. When her authorship became known, her parents withdrew her novel from publication. Her response was to limit herself to correspondence and privately circulated works as a way of sharing her ideas.

In this same year James Boswell, a lawyer and biographer of Samuel Johnson who was a frequent visitor at the castle, started correspondence with her. He also proposed marriage but she refused him saying: "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."

1766/67 She traveled to London and was received by many members of English society and was presented at Court. She invited philosopher David Hume for dinner at her lodgings.

1771 at the age of 30 she married Charles-Emmanuel de Charriere de Penthaz, a man who she met while he acted as tutor to her eldest brother. The couple settled at Le Pontet in Colombier, Switzerland.

1783 Belle resumed traveling. She travelled through Switzerland as well as to Paris and London, where she was a guest of David Hume.

1784 Belle van Zuylen published two novels Lettres Neuchâteloises and Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiée par son amie.

1786/87 She moved to Paris for 1 1/2 years and at a salon, met Benjamin Constant, a nephew of David Louis de Constant d'Hermenches. The two developed a friendship and engaged in correspondence. In 1787 Constant spent two months at Van Zuylen's home in Colombier. The two kept up a correspondence for many years afterward.

1789 She helped in the posthumous publication of Confessions by Jean Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher whose work she admired.

Around this time she published some of her own essays about Rousseau's work. During the Revolution she gave hospitality to some nobility who fled to Neuchâtel. At the same time she was critical of them as not having learned anything from the revolution.

1793/94 Van Zuylen was visited again by Benjamin Constant at Colombier for a period of four months.

Works by Belle van Zuylen / Isabelle de Charriere:

Lettres Neuchâteloises

Mistress Henley

1785 Lettres écrites de Lausanne

1787 Caliste, ou suite des Lettres écrites de Lausanne

1787 -1788, Observations et conjectures politiques,

1793 L'émigré, Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d'émigré

1796 Trois femmes,- this work includes a review of Kant's notion of duty.

1799 Les Ruines d'Yedburg

1806 Sir Walter Finch et son fils William (published posthumously).

1979 - 84 Oeuvre Complètes - includes her voluminous correspondence.

Three of her musical composition can be heard by going to: Belle van Zuylen musical compositions

Some of her letters can be read at Project Guttenberg: Lettres

Secondary sources

Allison, Jenene J. "Radical compromise. The political philosophy of Isabelle de Charrière,"  Literate women and the French revolution of 1789 , ed.: Catherine R. Montfort. Birmingham, Alabama, Summa Publications, (1994), p. 129-149. 

Cazenobe, Colette. "Les Lumières au pouvoir. La 'philosophie' d'Isabelle de Charrière à l'épreuve de la Révolution,"Une Européenne. Isabelle de Charrière en son siècle. Actes du colloque de Neuchâtel, 11-13 novembre 1993 éd.: Doris Jakubec & Jean-Daniel CandauxA, avec la collaboration d'Anne-Lise Delacrétaz. (Hauterive-Neuchâtel, Ed. Gilles Attinger, 1994), p. 87-121. 

Courtney, CP. Belle van Zuylen and philosophy,  Utrecht, Faculteit der Letteren, 1995. 

Dijk, Suzan van, "Belle de Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière: philosophe et historienne?" Cahiers Isabelle de Charrière / Belle de Zuylen Papers, 4, 2009, pp. 66-72.

Fisch-Freedman, Gina. Isabelle de Charrière (1740-1805). A philosophical 'impromptu' in the age of reason (Dissertation) City University of New York, 1998. 

Hermsen, Joke J. "Now foolish then wise. Belle van Zuylen's game with sexual identity," Hypatia's daughters. Fifteen hundred years of women philosophers, Linda Lopez McAlister, ed, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 165-180.

Hesse, Carla. "Kant, Foucault and Three Women," Foucault and the writing of history. Papers presented at a conference held at the University of Chicago, October 24-26, 1991, Jan Goldstein, ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 1994), p. 81-98. 

_____. The other Enlightenment. How French women became modern. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 

Rooksby, Emma. "Moral theory in the fiction of Isabelle de Charriere: the case of Three Women" Hypatia January 01, 2005.

Still, Judith Still.  "Isabelle de Charrière's Three Women - Adopting and adapting hospitality after Kant," German Life and Letters, v64 n1 (January 2011): 19-30.

van Strein, Kees, (ed.) Early writings. New material from Dutch archives. Leuven, Éditions Peeters, 2005.

Books by and about Belle van Zuylen/Isabelle de la Charriere 

For her works read:

Her music can be bought on two compact discs:

- The original version of this entry was greatly improved by the contributions of the Dutch Genootschap Belle van Zuylen

This page was updated 24 January, 2016.

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