This long pursuit, p.12
This Long Pursuit, p.12Richard Holmes
Destroy those Lives that God saw good to make;
Making their stomaches Graves, which full they fill
With murdered Bodies, that in sport they kill.
Yet Man doth think himself so gentle mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruel wild.
Her more general sense of mankind laying siege to Nature is explored in her painful ‘Dialogue between an Oak and a Man about to cut Him down’. The oak is offered all the delights of being turned into a mighty ship ‘to traffick on the Main’, or into a stately house ‘wherein shall Princes live of great renown’. But the noble tree sturdily rejects them all:
Yet I am happier, said the Oak, than Man;
With my condition I contented am.
Thus Margaret Cavendish emerges as a contradictory, but strikingly prophetic, figure at the very heart of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. Poet, polemicist, feminist, satirist, aristocrat, naturalist, stylist, eccentric and survivor, she stands forever at the doors of the Royal Society demanding readmittance. She also knocks at the gates of scientific history, and of biography itself, doffing her wildly feathered cap, requesting better recognition. With an ironic bow perhaps, rather than a submissive curtsey.
She mocked the empirical worldview of the Fellows, clearly implying that it was damagingly male. She challenged an unfeeling attitude to the beauties of Nature; questioned the practice of vivisection; and wondered what rational explanation could be given for women’s exclusion from learned institutions and societies. She interrogated, in her own flamboyant way, the Baconian notion of relentless scientific progress, suggesting alternative Stoic doctrines of patience, kindness and sensitivity. She did all this most effectively in her strange but inventive poems, and her outrageous polemical fiction, rather than in her more formal philosophical works such as Observations on Experimental Philosophy (1668).
Unconventional to the last, she published a proud and tender memoir of her husband, The Life of William Cavendish, relating the story of their exile and return. To this she added an autobiography, unblushingly under her own name, one of the earliest in women’s literature: A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life (1675). This includes wonderfully indiscriminate accounts of her views of science, taste in food, philosophy of life, preferences in love, attitudes to dress and cross-dressing, and favoured books and animals. Naturally, she analyses her own character at length, and obviously revels in its contradictions: ‘I fear my ambition inclines to vain-glory, for I am very ambitious … though I am naturally bashfull … also in some cases I am naturally a coward, and in other cases very valiant … I am not prodigal, but … I am so vain (if it be vanity) as to endeavour to be worshipped, rather than not be regarded …’
One of the final images she leaves of her public self involves her clothes, but in an unexpected way: ‘And though I desire to appear to the best advantage, whilst I live in the view of the public world, yet I could willingly exclude myself, so as never to see the face of any creature (but my Lord) as long as I live, enclosing myself like an anchorite, wearing a frieze gown, tied with a cord about my waist … But I hope my readers will not think me vain for writing my Life …’
For all these things she earned the mocking soubriquet ‘Mad Madge’, a phrase which still clings to her biography, and will instantly summon her up on Google. Even Virginia Woolf described her dubiously in an essay as ‘Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted’ (1925). Yet Margaret Cavendish clearly established herself as an alternative voice of sceptical wit and humane enquiry, unique among seventeenth-century women, and prophesying many others. There is something magnificent about her irrepressible eccentricity. In her own fashion she survived a social revolution, and bore witness to a scientific one.
She also somehow pulled off the posthumous feat of being buried in Westminster Abbey. The expectation of this must have appeased many memories of the ransacked Lucas family tomb in humble Colchester. Her splendid baroque monument, where she lies in state alongside her husband, occupies a well-chosen corner of the Abbey. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, is naturally arrayed in all her silks and lace, with an extravagant hat. But in her hand she holds a simple pen case, a notebook, and a remarkably capacious inkwell.
In July 1764 a striking young woman was sitting at the window of a remote country château in Holland, carefully writing a secret letter. The château – with fairy-tale turrets, a deep moat, and lines of poplar trees stretching to a distant view of canals and windmills – was her family home: the seventeenth-century Castle Zuylen, hidden away deep in the peaceful farmlands near Utrecht.
The young woman was Isabelle de Tuyll, the eldest daughter of the aristocratic de Tuyl de Serooskerken family, governors of Utrecht. The secret letter she was writing was addressed to her newfound confidant, a glamorous Swiss aristocrat and career soldier, the Chevalier Constant d’Hermenches. Isabelle was twenty-three years old, headstrong and unattached. The Chevalier d’Hermenches was married, almost twice her age, and had the reputation of a libertine. He wore a dashing black silk band around his temples, to hide a war wound. Their clandestine correspondence was being smuggled in and out of Castle Zuylen via a compliant Utrecht bookseller.
If it was an unusual situation, then Isabelle de Tuyll (known by the local landowners as ‘Belle de Zuylen’) was a thoroughly unusual young woman. While not classically beautiful, she was extremely attractive, and drew glances wherever she went. She had a full, open face, with large green eyes and wild auburn hair brushed impatiently back from a high forehead. She was tall, commanding, full-bosomed, and restless in all her movements. Not only an accomplished harpsichordist (who composed her own music), she was also an expert shuttlecock player, quick and determined in her strokes, with an almost masculine speed and self-confidence.
Isabelle de Tuyll was also unusually well-educated. Her liberal-minded father, recognising the exceptional talents of his eldest daughter, had spared no expense. As a girl she was given a clever young governess from Paris, Mlle Prévost, and was soon studying French, Latin, Greek, mathematics, music, algebra and astronomy. Later she was tutored by a mathematics professor from Utrecht University. She took a particular delight in reading Voltaire and calculating conic sections. She once remarked nonchalantly: ‘I find an hour or two of mathematics freshens my mind and lightens my heart.’
By the time she was twenty in 1760, Isabelle de Tuyll was being besieged by suitors, proving particularly attractive to rich Dutch merchant bankers and penniless German princelings. But she was too quick and clever for most of them. They bored or irritated her. The first time she ever saw the Chevalier d’Hermenches, at the Duke of Brunswick’s ball in The Hague, typically she broke all the rules of etiquette by going straight up to him and asking, ‘Sir, why aren’t you dancing?’ For a moment he was irritated and offended, but was then quickly charmed: ‘At our first word, we quarrelled,’ he said later, ‘at our second, we became friends for life.’ It was soon after that their clandestine correspondence began.
Though Isabelle was admired by her younger siblings (and adored by her brother Ditie), her parents thought of her with increasing anxiety. In the salons of Utrecht and The Hague she was getting the reputation of a belle esprit, an unconventional free spirit, a rationalist, a religious sceptic – in short, a young person of ‘ungoverned vivacity’. This was all very well for a man, but perilous for a young woman. She might never marry and settle down. Her name ‘Belle de Zuylen’ was now spoken with a certain frisson.
As if to confirm these worries, Isabelle began to write poems, stories and essays. In 1762 she published her first and distinctly rebellious short story, ‘Le Noble’, in Le Journal Étranger. It described a young woman eloping with her lover from a moated Dutch castle, under the disapproving gaze of the ancestral portraits. In fact the ancestral portraits are literally stamped underfoot when they are thrown down to form a pontoon bridge over the moa
Next, more daring, she wrote and circulated among her friends her own deliberately provocative self-portrait. It was now that, perhaps inspired by Voltaire, Isabelle de Tuyll invented her own literary nom-de-plume: the sinuous, satirical and distinctly sexy ‘Zélide’. (Like Voltaire’s adaptation of his family name, ‘Arouet’, ‘Zélide’ seems to have been based on a sort of loose anagram of her nickname, ‘Bel-de-Z’.)
She described Zélide as follows:
You ask me perhaps is Zélide beautiful? … pretty? … or just passable? I do not really know; it all depends on whether you love her, or whether she wants to make herself lovable to you. She has a beautiful bosom: she knows it, and makes rather too much of it, at the expense of modesty. But her hands are not a delicate white: she knows that too, and makes a joke of it …
Zélide is too sensitive to be happy, she has almost given up on happiness … Knowing the vanity of plans and the uncertainty of the future, she would above all make the passing moment happy … Do you not perceive the truth? Zélide is somewhat sensual. She can be happy in imagination, even when her heart is afflicted … With a less susceptible body, Zélide would have the soul of a great man; with a less susceptible mind, with less acute powers of reason, she would be nothing but the weakest of women.
This delightful tangle of self-contradictions, these ‘feverish hopes and melancholy dreams’, these struggles with role and gender, form the heart of Zélide’s early correspondence with the Chevalier d’Hermenches. They are not exactly love letters. But they are highly personal, intense, and sometimes astonishingly confessional. They also leave room for a great deal of lively discussion of local Utrecht gossip, scandal, marriage schemes, reading, and what Zélide called her ‘metaphysics’. Above all, they discuss the future – what is to become of Zélide?
In her remarkable summer letter of July 1764, Zélide set out two possible and radically different directions for her life. What she is most concerned about – this young woman of the European Enlightenment – is sexual happiness and intellectual fulfilment. The two do not necessarily coincide. She puts two alternatives before the Chevalier d’Hermenches.
First, she could be a sexually ‘independent’ career woman in some great city. For instance, she could model herself on the celebrated Parisian wit and beauty Ninon de Lenclos (1620–1705), live a self-sufficient urban life (Amsterdam, Geneva, London or Paris are all considered), take lovers as it pleased her, write books, keep a literary salon, and develop a circle of trusted and intimate female friends. Or second, she could be a married woman in the country. In this role, not at all to be despised, she could fulfil the wishes of her parents, make a good aristocratic marriage to ‘a man of character’, find emotional security in her family, have children, and look after a large country estate in Holland. This too could be immensely fulfilling, provided only that she found a truly loving and intelligent husband, who ‘valued her affections’, who ‘concerned himself with pleasing her’, and above all, who ‘did not bore her’.
‘You may judge of my desires and distastes,’ she wrote to the Chevalier d’Hermenches. ‘If I had neither a father nor a mother I would be a Ninon, perhaps – but being more fastidious and more faithful than she, I would not have quite so many lovers. Indeed if the first one was truly lovable, I think I might not change at all …’
This possibility sounds like Zélide setting her cap at the Chevalier, a thing that she would often contrive to do. But perhaps she was not entirely serious? She continued: ‘But I have a father and mother: I do not want to cause their deaths or poison their lives. So I will not be a Ninon; I would like to be the wife of a man of character – a faithful and virtuous wife – but for that, I must love and be loved.’
But then, was Zélide entirely serious about marriage either? ‘When I ask myself whether – supposing I didn’t much love my husband – whether I would love no other man; whether the idea of duty, of marriage vows, would hold up against passion, opportunity, a hot summer night … I blush at my response!’ Here was a premonition of the choice that has increasingly faced so many women ever since: career or marriage, freedom or faithfulness, or some daring combination of the two.
The extraordinary fascination of Zélide’s life story lies in how this choice worked out in practice over the next forty years. It was not by any means as she had planned it. She did marry and settle on a country estate, but she never had children, and she was desperately lonely for much of her life. Equally, she did write books, notably the influential and tragic love story Caliste (1787), and the proto-feminist novel Three Women (1795). And she did have her hot summer nights. But she was intellectually isolated, and ended by pouring much of her emotional life into letter-writing. The great social changes of the French Revolution came too late to save her. After her death in 1805, at the age of sixty-five, her books and her story were soon apparently forgotten.
Despite all her determination to direct her own life, Zélide’s destiny was shaped and influenced by four very different men. The first was her older and clandestine correspondent the Chevalier d’Hermenches, a close friend of Voltaire’s, the sophisticated familiar of the Swiss and Paris salons, whose powerful influence – both emotional and literary – lasted until Zélide was past thirty. He was a clever man who understood her very well, but he was also an ambiguous friend, who like Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) was perhaps ultimately planning to set her up as his mistress. Zélide may have colluded in this, enjoying what she called ‘the salt’ and flattering attention of his witty letters, flirting with him and cooperating in his mad matrimonial schemes (which seemed perilously like propositions of a ménage-à-trois). He may eventually have ruined her chances of making a happy and truly fulfilling marriage.
The second figure is one of the many rather preposterous suitors who were drawn like moths to Castle Zuylen. This was none other than the young Scottish law student, traveller on the Grand Tour, and would-be seducer, James Boswell Esquire. Boswell came to Utrecht in 1763, at the age of twenty-five, shortly after he had first met Dr Johnson in London. He was satisfactorily deep in his own emotional crisis, struggling with manic-depressive episodes: the mania provoking brief, unsatisfactory sexual encounters, and the depression producing long, soothing and reliable assignations with drink.
But amidst all this he was also discovering his true métier as biographer and autobiographer, and keeping his first secret Journals. Thus the encounter with Zélide struck literary sparks, and ignited one of her best and most scintillating correspondences, with Boswell playing the unlikely role of moral tutor. He undoubtedly brought a great deal of fun, charm and frivolity into her life. He even proposed marriage to her (also by letter) in 1768. She turned him down by return of post; rather exquisitely, on strictly literary grounds, since they disagreed on the way to translate a paragraph of his bestselling book about Corsica.
The third was the man she actually married in 1771 – to everyone’s surprise and against everyone’s advice, and to the Chevalier’s acute irritation. Zélide had reached the critical age of thirty. Her suitor was her younger brother’s tutor: the retiring, stammering, genial, thoughtful, but largely silent and singularly unexpressive Charles de Charrière. He took Zélide away to live on his small country estate of Le Pontet, at Colombier on the Swiss border, surrounded by a walled garden and placid vineyards, and with a distant hazy prospect of Lake Geneva.
Here the youthful figure of Zélide largely disappears from view. Her childless marriage was accounted, perhaps wrongly, as a disaster. But the person who re-emerges some fifteen years later is Zélide transformed into the formidable, if disillusioned, Madame Isabelle de Charrière: moralist, social commentator, unquenchable letter-writer, and author of two lengthy epistolary novels, both published in 1784. Letters Written from Neufchâtel is a topical exploration of questions of birth, privilege and social injustice; while Letters from Mistress Henley
It is at just this point that the fourth, most unexpected and most unaccountable of all the men in her life appears. He was the young, volatile, red-haired French intellectual Benjamin Constant. Madame de Charrière met him on a rare visit to Paris, either in 1785 or 1786. Now the positions were almost exactly reversed from the Zuylen days with the Chevalier d’Hermenches. Benjamin Constant was twenty, while Zélide was married, worldly-wise and forty-six. Zélide’s influence over her protégé was to last for almost a decade, and to produce the last and most remarkable correspondence of her life. When she was finally supplanted in Constant’s affections, it was by the turbulent figure of Madame de Staël. In many ways this finally brought an end to all Zélide’s hopes and plans, and reduced her in the eyes of the world to a kind of tragic, but dignified, silence.
Yet even after her death in 1805, her influence continued to work powerfully, helping to shape both de Staël’s famous novel of passionate awakenings, Corinne (1807), and Constant’s autobiographical masterpiece Adolphe (1816). It was difficult to say whether Zélide (or Madame de Charrière) had in the end failed or succeeded in her life’s plan. Or perhaps it was simply too soon to draw an informed conclusion.
That question, like Zélide herself, was largely forgotten for more than a hundred years. Almost everything except her love story Caliste fell out of fashion and out of print. Despite the presence of both Boswell and Constant in her story, neither French nor English biographers of the nineteenth century were much interested in the lives of women of this period, unless they were saints or strumpets, or somebody’s sister, or Joan of Arc or Queen Victoria. Sainte-Beuve alone considered her worthy of a short essay, commending Zélide for writing fine aristocratic French prose ‘in the manner of Versailles’, but mocking her infatuation with Constant.
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