Belle van Zuylen had a central position in society and corresponded with many intellectuals and artists of her time that were of international importance, something very remarkable for a female artist in the eighteenth century.
Belle van Zuylen, née Isabelle van Tuyll van Serooskerken, was born in a noble family and grew up in Utrecht, on the river Vecht. She lived in Slot Zuylen (Zuylen Castle) till she was thirty-one, except for winters, when the family resided in a house by the canal on the Kromme Nieuwegracht. She was educated at home by Swiss, French-speaking governesses and tutors. Her parents encouraged her to take classes in English, Latin, Italian, music, physics, maths and religion. This partly explains why she was better educated than most women – and most men – in her time.
At twenty-two (1762) Van Zuylen anonymously published her first novel, Le Noble (The Nobleman). She rejected a marriage proposal by James Boswell (1740-1795), who had travelled to Utrecht to study Law. This future biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson tried to court Van Zuylen, and he did not want her to have contact with other men without his explicit consent. For the female author this was unacceptable, since she was keeping up extensive correspondence with men such as Pierre-Alexandre du Peyrou and Benjamin Constant. Van Zuylen declared that she had ‘no talent for subordination’. This famous quote now figures on a plaque on the bridge over the river Vecht, in memory of Belle van Zuylen, who regularly crossed this point travelling between Utrecht and Slot Zuylen.
In his letters, it is clear that Constant thought Van Zuylen’s writing surpassed that of Voltaire. In 1777, Van Zuylen and Voltaire eventually met each other, and both expressed their mutual appreciation. Madame de Staël, a feminist avant la lettre, was also part of Van Zuylen’s literary friends. From 1789-1790, at request of Pierre-Alexandre du Peyrou, Van Zuylen contributed to the ‘correct publication’ of the second part of Rousseau’s Confessions, whom she greatly admired. Between 1978 and 1985, Geert van Oorschot (re)published all works by Belle van Zuylen. According to the publisher, Belle was ‘the greatest Dutch female author in history’. Apart from French, her work was also published in Dutch, English and German.
The Belle van Zuylen Association is committed to keeping alive the intellectual legacy of one of Utrecht’s most important writers, for example by organizing the annual ‘Belle Day’ at Slot Zuylen. Since 2005, Utrecht University and the House of Literature have sporadically been hosting “Belle van Zuylen lectures.” In the spirit of Van Zuylen, leading littérateurs such as Nelleke Noordervliet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jeanette Winterson, Azar Nafisi, Michel Faber and György Konrád have discussed subjects at the interface of literature and society.
Website Belle van Zuylen Association
Website Slot Zuylen
Portrait Belle van Zuylen © Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788) / Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, Switzerland