La Correspondance d'Isabelle de Charrière
De briefwisseling van Belle van Zuylen

Symposium 2021

De ca 900 voor Nederland en het Nederlandse publiek extra relevante brieven (2021)

De tweede stap was de lancering van alle, ca 900, brieven die om inhoudelijke redenen in het bijzonder relevant zijn voor Nederland en voor Nederlandse lezers: de correspondentie daterend van vóór maart 1771, d.w.z. vóór Belle’s huwelijk en vertrek naar Zwitserland; vervolgens de brieven die ná 1771 werden uitgewisseld met Nederlandse familieleden, vrienden en andere contacten. Hieraan hebben wij toegevoegd: die brieven die relevant lijken in het kader van de recentelijk – in juni 2021 – ontstane discussie (1) rond Belle van Zuylen, haar familie, haar Utrechtse tijdgenoten, en de rol die zij mogelijk hebben gespeeld ten opzichte van de handel met/in de koloniën (zie boven: 2.1). Uitspraken over financiële kwesties (bruidsschat, erfenissen, houding t.o.v. geld en luxe), over de relatie tussen Belle en haar familieleden (met wie ze zich niet per se identificeerde), over de politieke situatie in Europa, zijn natuurlijk te vinden dankzij doorzoekbaarheid op woordniveau en via de annotaties, maar hier vooral ook m.b.v. toegevoegde metadata.

Op 23 november 2021 zijn deze ca 900 brieven gepresenteerd. Zie hieronder de video-opnames van het symposium dat bij die gelegenheid (in het Engels) is gehouden in en vanuit de Belle-van-Zuylen-zaal van de Universiteit Utrecht.


  1. Zie “Waarom een digitale editie van deze brieven?“, en Drieënhuizen-Douze 2021 en Van Dijk 2021.

Symposium 2021

Belle de Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière’s correspondence online.
From hand-written letters to an on-line Time Machine

Symposium in the Belle-van-Zuylen-room of Utrecht University
Presentation of the Dutch- and Utrecht-related letters

Utrecht, Academiegebouw Domplein,
November 23, 2021


Suzan van Dijk and Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau:
Launch of Belle de Zuylen’s (794) Utrecht- and Netherlands-related letters in the website Correspondance d’Isabelle de Charrière.

Belle van Zuylen’s (Isabelle de Charrière’s) correspondence is of course at the centre today. Many of these letters were much and explicitly admired by the correspondents, and – since the publication of the Van Oorschot edition – this rich exchange is considered an important source for research about the period, which also allows meeting an exceptional woman reflecting about her own position in it.
However, in spite of being considered important, these letters are clearly under-used, in particular in the Netherlands, her home country, to which Charrière continued referring as “ma patrie”. They belong clearly also to the Dutch cultural heritage, and contribute to answering questions about Dutch history.
The importance of taking them into account was demonstrated some months ago: in a volume about Utrecht’s “colonial history”, the article dedicated to “Belle van Zuylen and colonial affairs” was based much more upon financial archives than upon her own letters – occasioning statements which, at the very least, needed to be confronted to these letters.
True, consulting these over 2500 letters has long been difficult, and, as ”Charriéristes” we should probably have decided much earlier that there was a need to translate, present or comment them ….

From now on these 794 letters from Charrière’s correspondence are accessible online. They include the 199 which had been presented in October 2019 at the The Utrecht Archives (those letters the manuscripts of which are kept in Dutch archives – see). All of the 794 letters are particularly relevant for Dutch readers: they were sent to/by Dutch family members or friends, they discuss the political situation in the Netherlands, Dutch culture and ways of behaving, or discuss issues that are considered relevant in the Netherlands now – such as the financial situation of Belle de Zuylen’s family, and her relationship with and opinions about her family members. We have also started adding Dutch translations to these letters.

The c.1800 remaining letters will be presented in 2023 in Lausanne, thanks to collaboration with the Institut Benjamin Constant. (Date will be specified and communicated).


Session 1 : Women corresponding

Nicole Pohl (Oxford Brookes University):
‘The vast ocean of infinity & Eternity’: Creating the (in)finite archive of Elizabeth Montagu’s Correspondence Online (EMCO).

This paper explores the intricacies and problems of creating a digital archive. The case study is the Bluestocking hostess, entrepreneur, and literary critic, Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) and her approx. 8000 extant letters which are housed in different archives (public and private), and continents. The charity Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO) is an open-access digital project to digitize, annotate, and publish all extant letters written by Elizabeth Montagu to a range of correspondents who were all crucial members of eighteenth-century polite society. EMCO has had to tackle (and is still tackling) different methodological and structural obstacles:
a) to trace all extant letters by Elizabeth Montagu — this process is still ongoing,
b) to marry the extant correspondence located in different archives into one digital archive,
c) to develop tools beyond the transcription/annotation process, fostering novel methods of scholarly research and debate which utilize the opportunities offered by digital resources and methods.

Ineke Huysman (Huygens ING):
Johan de Witt (1625-1672), Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) and their female correspondents.

Early modern women’s correspondence as a source has long been neglected in historiography. This is also true for the early-twentieth-century letter-editions of the Dutch statesmen Johan de Witt (1625-1672) and Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), which focus mainly on their exchanges with male correspondents. Yet, both men did also correspond extensively with women. By outlining a general overview of these two correspondences, I would like to focus on the different types of relationships each of these men maintained with women.

Session 2 : Understanding Isabelle de Charrière and situating her in the cultural landscape

Emma Dunne (University College Dublin):
Analysing the Pursuit of Happiness in the Correspondence of Isabelle de Charrière.

Analysing the Pursuit of Happiness in the Correspondence of Isabelle de Charrière, scholars have frequently pointed out the links between Charrière’s writings and Enlightenment-inspired ideas, such as equality, freedom, and happiness. This paper turns its attention to one of these elements, namely happiness, and proposes an analysis of happiness in Charrière’s correspondence. The paper argues that the pursuit of happiness was a key preoccupation in Charrière’s thought, and that her own idiosyncratic view of contentment can be identified throughout her vast correspondence.
Like many other prevalent eighteenth-century authors, such as Françoise de Graffigny and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charrière considered the notion of happiness in her writings and how it might be achieved, and nowhere is this more evident than in her collection of letters that have thankfully survived her. My research to date has focused on an analysis of the concept of happiness in Charrière’s complete works in order to evoke her overarching perception of happiness, and to situate her vision amongst that of her contemporaries. While happiness is evidently a broad subject, and while Charrière’s perception of it is no doubt underpinned by many different elements, this paper identifies and examines two specific elements: the role of writing and the role of music. Through analysis of Charrière’s letters, and with the help of the online edition of Charrière’s correspondence, this paper aims to demonstrate how both writing and music are central to Charrière’s consideration of contentment, and how both reveal significant details about Charrière’s approach to the pursuit of happiness.

Valérie Cossy (Université de Lausanne):
Never mentee and never mentor: freedom as part of the essence in the letters to David-Louis Constant d’Hermenches and Benjamin Constant.

Charrière’s epistolary relationship with these two members of the Constant family is representative of the originality of her subject-position as a woman writer in the eighteenth century. Her exchanges with the uncle and then with the nephew constitute two singular and self-consistent groups of letters in her general correspondence, each proving equally significant for her development as a publishing author. And, crucially, one must underline the equalitarian tone of her letters to David-Louis Constant d’Hermenches (1722-1785) and, later, to Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). Neither gender nor age inflect the way they wrote to one another. Charrière’s correspondence with them appears to have been, on the contrary, an exceptionally free and transparent mode of exchange, clearly distinct from the conventions regulating the social space. Writing letters to d’Hermenches and Constantinus (as she named them) enabled her to invent and articulate a form of relationship unavailable in real life: freedom of speech between a man and a woman, and between generations. Based on a few examples, this presentation is going to focus on how writing to the Constants may have contributed to the forging by Charrière of her exceptionally autonomous and assertive voice as a progressive female author of the Enlightenment.

Miranda Lewis (Oxford University):
Women’s Early Modern Letters Online (WEMLO) within Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO).

As scholars engaged with the lives, letters, and work of early modern women have observed, all too frequently women slip from the historical record, and numerous details of their lives remain unknown to this day. Women’s letters survive in significantly fewer numbers than those written by or to men, and often it is hard to search for women collectively in library or archive catalogues and indexes.

This paper charts the evolution of Women’s Early Modern Letters Online [WEMLO] within the Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO] union catalogue and examines how we might work collectively to collate and piece back together more about the lives of women and the conversations conducted by and around them. It considers what may be done in a union catalogue to build up more complete pictures of early modern women and to record who was writing about whom when.

Session 3 : Reading and studying early modern correspondences (in Dutch)

Hans Bots (Radboud University Nijmegen):
Madame de Maintenon, an epistolary talent for contemporaries and posterity.

At the end of the 18th century, the literary world appreciated the epistolary style of Mme de Maintenon. For that reason Mme de Charrière recommended her letters to the young Suzanne Moula and in a letter to Ludwig Ferdinand Huber she considers Mme de Maintenon one of the great French authors: her language is pure and her style elegant; for all those who wish to write a good letter, her correspondence is worth imitating.
Thanks to the edition of La Beaumelle the epistolary talent of Mme de Maintenon was widely known in Europe. Several editions have been published since 1752 and have contributed to her letters being regarded as an excellent epistolary model. From Mme de Sévigné onward, that other epistolary talent of the 17th century, until Napoleon Bonaparte the purity and conciseness of her style are generally admired.
Nevertheless the historiography concerning Mme de Maintenon is characterized by a fair amount of mythology: a black myth inspired by distrust about her attitude towards the Huguenots. Mme de Maintenon was allegedly the evil genius who had incited Louis XIV to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. On the other hand she was sometimes considered in a too hagiographic way.
It’s only thanks to the new and integral edition of all her letters that the epistolary talent of Mme de Maintenon can be estimated on its own real merits. Moreover her letters constitute an indispensable source for our knowledge of the European history between 1675 and 1720.

Liliana Melgar (Universiteit Utrecht) and Dirk van Miert (UU and Huygens ING):
From a siloed correspondence to a beautiful research source: Belle and the Big-data Beast.

Belle van Zuylen’s correspondence seems to be rather isolated, in comparison to the larger République des Lettres in Europe at the end of the 18th century. For a correspondence of about 2600 letters the number of her correspondents may seem small. They were mainly her friends and family members, and not those people whom we know as “big names”. It seems as if her correspondence is like a “silo”: a pillar with little connections to other correspondence networks.
However, we may be wrong… In this presentation we will integrate Belle’s letters within a much larger corpus of letter writers (the Catalogus Epistolarum Neerlandicarum) in order to check in how far her own correspondents exchanged letters with others: using this 2nd level network we might get a better understanding of the potential influence Belle van Zuylen may have exerted in the République des Lettres via well connected correspondents. During this research we even made two small discoveries.

Session 4 : Connecting users, readers, students and a scholarly project (Dutch spoken)

Edda Holm (president of the Genootschap Belle van Zuylen)
The role of the Belle van Zuylen Association in making her writings (digitally) available.

The Dutch Belle van Zuylen Association was founded in 1974. At the time the editors of the Oeuvres complètes were preparing the 10-volume edition of her letters (vols. 1-6), her creative works (vols. 7-9, quite some of these had been circulating in manuscript form, and were published for the first time in the OC), and her musical compositions (vol. 10). The Association, created by some of the editors, can be seen as initially kind of a testing platform: by annual meetings and an annual Lettre de Zuylen people were prepared for the publication, one by one, of the volumes – which would take place between 1979 and 1984.
Once the volumes published, meetings, lectures and publications continued to be attended and read. Thanks also to biographies based on her letters Belle van Zuylen became a figure, in particular in Utrecht, her home town.
Around 2010 Suzan van Dijk and Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau, members of the committee, took the initiative – in collaboration with the Huygens Institute – to start preparing a digital edition of the 2552 letters of the OC, which would also include the letters (to be) found later on. This was only possible thanks to the collaboration of a group of members of the Association as a voluntary crowd in this “crowd sourcing project”.

Montserrat Prats Lopez (Open University), Els Rutten and Anja van Putten (participating in the project as crowdsourcers), Maria Schouten (coordination)
Complex Citizen Science: the case of Belle van Zuylen’s correspondence.

The presentation covers the phenomenon of citizen science and in particular the findings of the PhD research by Montserrat Prats López. Citizen science is a new way of carrying out research projects by involving citizens who are non-professional researchers. In this presentation we focus on complex citizen science projects with tasks that are difficult to split and simplify, that are knowledge-intensive and time-consuming, such as the transcription, correction, modernization and translation of old handwritten texts. The findings of the research will be explained by using the project of Belle van Zuylen’s correspondence as example. In the project, volunteers have modernized and translated the OCRd version of Belle van Zuylen’s letters. Anja van Putten, Els Rutten and Maria Schouten, members of the citizen science project ‘Digitizing Belle van Zuylen’s correspondence’ will give details about their experiences in the project.

Fleur Verberne and Marc Smeets (Radboud University Nijmegen, French dept)
On cultural, lexical and semantic translation problems: esprit, entendement, raison.

Since 2020 Nijmegen students of French (second year) participate in the digitizing project Correspondence of Belle van Zuylen. In the context of this translation sub-project, each of the students translates into Dutch a number of letters. This year they worked on the correspondence with Henriette L’Hardy. In this presentation we discuss briefly the role of this translating project within the curriculum French language and culture at Nijmegen University, and then present a number of translation problems we have encountered, and for which we found – as we hope – a solution.

Session 5 : Belle de Zuylen/Isabelle de Charrière in the Utrecht Time Machine (Dutch spoken; slides in English)

Toine Pieters (Utrecht University)
What is the Utrecht Time Machine?

Toine Pieters, director of the project, comments the European Time Machine project, the 10 Dutch Time Machine projects, and the reasons why Utrecht Time Machine can be considered most important. It is a community-based project, and as such comparable to the collaborative work in view of digitizing Belle van Zuylen’s letters. Pieters also situates the UTM project in relation to other projects that were presented in this symposium, and explains why the use of Linked Data is essential to this project.

Simon Dirks (Universiteit Utrecht)
Making the Belle van Zuylen story accessible in the Utrecht Time Machine.

Simon Dirks, assistant of Toine Pieters, explains the way in which took place the collaboration between Time Machine and the Charrière editing project. It included in particular also a group of students taking part in the transdisciplinary Living Pasts program. Initially mainly houses and buildings were presented, together with their history. The letters exchanged by Belle van Zuylen offered a more direct way for visitors to become familiar with Utrecht’s past, while the other way round Utrecht Time Machine offers a possibility for “entering” the letters and become familiar with Belle van Zuylen’s experience. (Keep in mind that this is still Work in Progress….).