Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter

Isabelle de Charrière: from real to fictional correspondences — Caroline Warman, Jesus College, University of Oxford


Isabelle de Charrière (1740–1805) is most famous now for the two long and passionate epistolary relationships she had with Constant d’Hermenches over a period of roughly fifteen years (1760–1775) and later with his nephew Benjamin Constant, at its height between 1787 and 1794. The epistolary novel was also her literary form of choice, and she exploited it with great skill, from the multivocal Letters from Neuchâtel (1784) in which three principal characters write to one another and to their friends and family, and the univocal Letters from Mistress Henley (1784), in which Mistress Henley reports her progress through married life to a distant friend, to the wider scale Letters found in émigré notecases (1793) in which a family dispersed by the Revolution writes to each other and debates the events of the day, and their own differing positions. Geoffrey Scott wrote that Charrière’s amorous correspondence was disastrous, as instead of two people, there were in fact four: he theorised a separate epistolary self, of a stranger and more egotistical hue.1 Janet and Malcolm Whatley argued more recently that on the contrary, these correspondences gave ‘their writers a medium in which to shape their inner lives’.2 This paper will explore how Charrière uses the letter form, both in real life and in fiction, and consider its possibilities and its freedoms.

Let me start with an extract from the pithily titled A Correspondance which Isabelle de Charrière wrote in concert with her friend and English pupil, Isabelle de Gélieu, in 1796. It is fictional, but Charrière and Gélieu did send the letters to one another as they went along, with Charrière correcting and suggesting developments. The English is original, and as the reader will see, is idiosyncratic but expressive. Apparently there were more than 30 letters originally but only a very few have survived.3 The letters are exchanged between two young friends, named Emily Fontaine (Charrière) and Harriet Denizet (Gélieu). Emily has been complaining about her mother’s remarriage to a widower with four ‘troublesome babies’, and Harriet has been gently chiding her for being so intolerant. This is what Emily tartly replies:

Letter the fifth

Emily to Harriet

Very well my dear. You first censure me, secondly you admire yourself. In answer I shall only say: That the babies are not my brothers and sisters nor my Mother’s Children but those of Mr Peacock and the first Mrs Peacock the silliest woman on earth. Then I grumble against them and call them what they are troublesome babies but I tell and write stories to them I wash their dirty little faces, fingers &c. As to your Charlotte as she never existed her example is nothing at all to me. Those heroïnes whose virtues are but paper and ink may be what they please, There is no dificulty for them to live and die in the most extraordinary manner. Let Them have fifty children about them they will not suffer of the head ach. I laugh my dear at that part of your sermon. I told my Mother of your reproof on what I said of her. She smiled called me an impertinent girl, But added: Stay but with me and say what you please. Now a word on the apology of your romantick turn. I think it so strongly argued that it might do for stark mad people. How happy is the man that [      ] him self a king, a pope, a god! Adieu My dear. Pray keep a sound little corner in your beautiful head.

Letter the sixth

Harriet to Emily

How you treat me, my Emily! This time you are not kind at all. Lest I should lost altogether your esteem, permit me to intreat you not to judge of my true feelings by what I said in my last letter. Think. Emily, how insipid our correspondence would be, if I did answer to every thing you are pleased to say; Yes my dear; you are in the right; it is just also my way of thinking — I will endeavour to change every thing you disapprove, and the like. I am delighted with censuring and disputing; it is one of my favourite enjoyments; when the person with whom I dispute, is not below my own forces; then the little correcting is fair, and must give no pain, no mortification to either of the wrest[l]ers.4

This lively exchange has a number of features which are relevant to the current discussion. Firstly, the fictional character of the letters is denied; Goethe’s Werther is invoked as the epitome of fictionality, and excoriated for it.5 The down-to-earth tableau of the ‘troublesome babies’ is implicitly contrasted with Goethe’s elevated depiction of hypersensibility. Secondly, each correspondent analyses the quality and character of the letter they have just received; they also advise each other to adopt or follow different models in their mutual attempts to fashion themselves and each other. Thirdly, they offer a model of correspondence as disputation, not simple exchange, which can be characterised by the image Harriet uses of wrestling. In sum, this single pair of letters tells us what a correspondence can be, what it can claim to be, what it can cover, what it thinks about itself, and that it likes to assess itself.


Charrière’s work is a fascinating case of the osmosis between real and fictional correspondences. She is not at all well-known, so she needs a little introducing. She was a member of the Dutch aristocracy, and her name was Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken. She was known by her intimates as Belle de Zuylen, Zuylen being the family castle. In common with contemporaneous aristocratic notions of education, she was taught French from a young age. She came to prefer it to Dutch. The story of her early adulthood is all about whom she would marry, and her letters often loftily discuss what she called her ‘épouseurs’, her ‘suitors’. Various schemes fell through, and she did not wed until she was thirty, and then, to the general dismay of her friends and family, it was no one more exciting than her brother’s ex-tutor, a Swiss gentleman by the name of Charles-Emmanuel de Charrière. Why had it been so difficult to find a partner for someone so manifestly ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, as Jane Austen wrote of her heroine, Emma? The answer is surely in the cleverness. Emma’s cleverness finds expression in nothing more subversive than attempting to make various unsuitable people marry each other. Belle de Zuylen had done worse: she had caused scandal, acquiring a reputation for having independent opinions and for being rather untractable. She not only wrote but also published, at the age of 23, a witty satire of the imbecillity of feudal marriages, which, despite the fact that her parents withdrew it from sale as quickly as they possibly could, was nonetheless read, no doubt circulated in manuscript versions rather more, and was unlikely to recommend its author to many high-born families.6 The epistolary relationship with the already-married Constant d’Hermenches commenced when she accosted him at a ball, and asked him why he was not dancing, a reversal of convention that did not go unnoticed, and although the correspondence was slow to get underway, Belle herself unwilling to risk any damage to her reputation, it became a passionate relationship, for all its secrecy and virtuality. They went to immense lengths to arrange a marriage with one of his friends, the Marquis de Bellegarde, which after years came to nothing. She also conducted a very lively epistolary relationship with Samuel Johnson’s future biographer, James Boswell, and they both considered whether they ought to marry each other; Boswell feared she would never settle down into being the obedient sort of wife he needed. The great affair of her twenties, and the principal subject of her many letters, is therefore the question of marriage. It will also become the principal subject of her novels, and the first works she published, twenty-two years after Le Noble, were the Lettres neuchâteloises and the Lettres de Mistriss Henley, two small masterpieces which both came out in 1784. Thereafter, her output, published and unpublished, was prolific: Lettres écrites de Lausanne, parts 1 and 2, came out in 1785 and 1787 respectively, and overall eight of her twenty-three pieces of fiction were epistolary novels. The Œuvres complètes devotes six volumes to her letters, two to her prose fiction, one to her plays, and a last one to her political writings and to her music.

This paper cannot hope to encompass such a range, and will confine itself to examining various extracts from her correspondence in tandem with some relevant aspects of her epistolary novels. Turning to the letters exchanged with Constant d’Hermenches, we see that the first one, from Belle to d’Hermenches, no sooner evokes the idea of conducting a dangerous epistolary relationship — a dangerous liaison — with him, than it dismisses the idea. She challenges him to maintain his interest in her without any nourishment from letters:

Je vous avoue que j’ai pensé a me le rendre utile par une correspondance qui auroit été suportable pour mon ami et fort agreable pour moi, mais j’y ai vu tant de dangers, et si ce commerce venoit a se decouvrir il causeroit ici une si terrible indignation que j’ai entierement renoncé a cette idée. Nous verons si l’amitié de l’ami peut se soutenir sans rien qui l’entretienne [. . . .]

(Belle to Hermenches, 22 mars 1760, OC, vol.1, p.118)

I will confess to you that it had occurred to me to make use of [your offer] by way of a correspondence that would have been tolerable for a friend and very pleasant for me. But I saw so many dangers in it, and realized that if this exchange were discovered it would cause such terrible indignation here that I have entirely given up the idea. We will see whether the friend’s friendship can be sustained without anything to nourish it [. . . .]7

A couple of years later, their acquaintance is renewed, and she gives in, and does write to him. She is mortified to receive no reply:

Mon Dieu ! que je suis fachée de vous avoir écrit ! Ma lettre envoyée en Angleterre ne poura que vous paroitre insipide, dabord parcequ’elle est longue et mal écrite, et que vous étes peut-être fort occupé de choses agreables, et puis a cause de mes recommendations detaillées sur la manière de me faire parvenir une reponse, qui auront l’air ridicules a present qu’elles ne signifient rien.

(Belle to Hermenches, 27 juillet 1762, OC, vol.1, p.122)

My God! How I regret having written to you! My letter, which was sent to England, will only seem insipid to you; first, because it is long and badly written — and you may be very busy with all sorts of pleasanter things; and then because of my detailed instructions on how to get an answer to me — which will seem ridiculous now that they are pointless.8

As we have already seen in the extract from the Fragments de deux romans en anglais, the idea that a letter would be poorly-written, and therefore insipid, is clearly a powerful anxiety. A letter, whether dangerous or not dangerous, has an aesthetic status, or should aspire to have. It is not merely a communication. D’Hermenches replies:

Quel rafinement de plaisir et de surprise ! je n’en éprouvai jamais une sensation plus flateuse… deux lettres ! et quelles lettres ? de la personne dont je m’occupe le plus et sur laquelle je contois le moins.

(Hermenches to Belle, 7 août 1762, OC, vol.1, p.124)

What exquisite pleasure and surprise! I have never felt so flattered... Two letters! And from whom? From the person who fills my thoughts the most, and on whom I counted the least.9

Hermenches underscores the joint aspects of aesthetics and danger — this latter characteristic is made more explicit by virtue of his reference to intense levels of pleasure — we can see that ‘rafinement’ as a word is not quite as innocent as the ‘exquisite’ of the translation when we remember that Sade often uses it to evoke the differentiated levels of pleasure that his libertines desire to go through. This is not to suggest that Hermenches has some sinister motivation-, but that he, like Sade, uses a libertine vocabulary which values and lingers on an aesthetic of pleasure. Belle’s letters, for Hermenches, come into that category.

They continue to write to one another, but it is logistically difficult to arrange, and they use various different people as letter boxes. One is Cornelis de Perponcher, who is engaged to Belle’s sister. The letters between Belle and Hermenches are enclosed in a further envelope, sent on by Perponcher. On one fell occasion, the ruse is discovered. Belle writes to Perponcher to tell him what has happened:

Cher Perponcher je suis mille fois plus fachée de l’embarras où je vous ai engagé que du chagrin que je me suis causée à moimême Aussi ai-je pris bien plus de peine pour parer a l’un qu’a l’autre. Votre lettre par des bêtises inconcevables est tombée entre les mains de mon cher Père, ma chere Mere soupçonnant qu’elle étoit pour moi l’en a tirée ni l’un ni l’autre ne l’avoit lue, elle me l’a apportée, l’incluse avoit été vue, vous jugez de mon trouble, j’ai dabord fait semblant de n’y rien entendre de ne m’en point soucier et j’ai été jetter les deux lettre dans le feu pour prevenir des details trop facheux si on les demandoit, pour qu’on ne put jamais du moins les éclaircir, puis voyant ma chere Mere peu credule sur mon ignorance et assez tranquile je n’ai songé qu’a vous sauver du blame et m’y abandonnant moimême j’ai tout avoué hormis le nom de l’auteur des lettres, j’ai assuré a ma chere Mere que vous l’ignoriez que c’étoit la premiere fois que vous me rendiez ce service, que j’avois donné votre adresse et arrangé tout cela a votre insu, cependant elle est fachée [. . . .]

(Belle to a Cornelis de Perponcher, 25–26 octobre 1763, OC, vol.1, p.153)

Dear Perponcher, I’m a thousand times sorrier for the predicament I’ve got you into than for the vexation I’ve caused myself; thus I’ve taken more trouble to remedy the one than the other. Your letter, by some inconceivable blunders, fell into the hands of my dear father; my dear mother, suspecting that it was for me, took it from him. Neither of them had read it; she brought it to me; the letter enclosed had been seen. You can imagine my distress. At first I pretended to know nothing about it, and not to care at all, and I went and threw both letters in the fire to avoid explaining details that would be too embarrassing if they were asked for and at least to keep them from ever coming to light. Then, seeing that my dear mother was hardly gullible as to my innocence, and was fairly calm, I thought only of saving you from blame, and taking it on myself. I admitted everything except the name of the author of the letters. I assured my dear mother that you were ignorant of it, that you were doing this for me for the first time, that I had given your address and arranged everything unbeknownst to you. Nonetheless, she is angry [. . . .]10

Having thrown Hermenches’ letter into the fire, the next step in the drama is to persuade him to write another one, not leaving anything out:

De grace d’Hermanches tachez de vous rapeller tout ce que vous m’avez écrit, n’oubliez rien, vos reponses a ce que je disois, les Calas, tachez de vous tout rappeler un un mot [. . . .]

Je ne me console point de votre lettre pleine de jolies choses sans doute, livrée aux flames, heureusement vous pouvez écrire plus d’une bonne lettre.

(Belle to Hermenches, 26 oct 1763, OC, vol.1, p.155, 156.)

For pity’s sake, D’Hermenches, try to recall everything you wrote to me; don’t forget anything; your answers to what I said, the Calas family — in a word, try to remember it all, and then write it to me once again [. . . .]

I cannot console myself for the loss of your letter, no doubt so full of charming things, cast into the flames; fortunately you can write more than one good letter.11

Hermenches was involved in Voltaire’s campaign to rehabilitate the Protestant Jean Calas, who had been executed in March 1762 in Toulouse for having killed his son, it being alleged in that religiously-fraught city that the son had wanted to convert to catholicism. The judgement was finally quashed in March 1765, Calas’s name cleared, and the family rehabilitated. Many liberal-minded intellectuals were shocked by what they denounced as an example of religious intolerance in place of proper justice, and it is not surprising from that point of view that Belle was eager to hear the latest news from someone closely involved in the campaign. At the same time, it is striking that she presents the catastrophic fate of the letter in terms which cannot do other than resonate with the similarly extreme fate of the unfortunate Calas: her letter is ‘livrée aux flammes’ (literally ‘delivered up to the flames’) as he had been executed on the wheel. Her freedom to send and receive letters is similarly subject to the constraints of prejudice. These letters are also precious — they cannot be lost — and we note a further reference to their aesthetic quality: ‘vous pouvez écrire plus d’une bonne lettre’.

Hermenches’ reply comes quickly.

Je suis au désespoir ! vous n’avez que de l’emotion, et du chagrin a mon sujet belle et incomparable Agnes ! et quoi d’agreable ? jamais rien; il faut que cette lettre que j’avois ecrit avec une chaleur qui valoit je crois mieux que le tems que vous m’invities a y mettre, ait peri dans les flames, sans être lue ! [. . .] comment pourai je a present que je suis glaçé de votre aventure, et toujours dans la crainte de quelque nouvel incident, recueillir des pensées du moment auxquelles la fraicheur et le sentiment pouvoit donner quelque energie ? ce seroit un rechaufage tres insipide, et indigne de vous; je sais que je vous disois (par ce que je le pense tous les jours) que pour votre stile et la justesse de votre Esprit je vous mets de pair avec Voltaire, et Mme de Sevigné, mais que vous m’affectez bien davantage qu’eux, parceque votre esprit a plus de vivacité, votre Ame plus de noblesse, et de Simplicité, et qu’a cella se joint ce sentiment cette affection d’instinc, qui font que je vous aimerois pationement quant vous seriés bête.

(Hermenches to Belle, 17 novembre 1763, OC, vol.1, p.156.)

I am in despair! You never have anything but trouble and grief on my account, beautiful, incomparable Agnes! And what pleasure do you get in return? Absolutely none! That letter I had written with a warmth that was worth more than the time that you invited me to put into it — that letter perished in the flames, unread! [. . . .]

How will I be able — now chilled by this mishap of yours, and still apprehensive of some new incident — to recapture thoughts that had been animated by such freshness and feeling? They would be a very insipid warmed-over serving, unworthy of you. I know what I said to you (because I think it every day): that for your style and the justness of your mind I hold you the peer of Voltaire and Madame de Sévigné; but that you touch me much more than they do, because your mind has more vivacity, your soul more nobility and simplicity, together with that feeling, that instinctive affection, that would make me love you passionately even if you were stupid.12

The flames where the letter has ‘perished’ and the contrasting ‘chill’ he feels when he reads what has happened tell us that Hermenches is consciously inscribing his letter within the Petrarchan vocabulary of love. The ‘heat’ with which he first wrote cannot be reanimated now he is cold with fear. What was contained in that first letter is left aside: out of the ashes of the old letter rises an explicitly passionate avowal of love, along with the element which we begin to recognise as its twin, that is, a statement of the quality of her letters, and which relates to the aesthetic of the letter; as Hermenches lists the qualities of Belle’s letter-writing, he also lists qualities which are hers personally, invoking her soul, her mind, and her feeling: letter and letter-writer are indistinguishable. Belle also subscribes to this view of the transparency between person, writing, and letter:

Il n’y point d’homme ni de femme a qui j’écrive comme a vous, avec qui mes lettres suivent si naturellement mon humeur [. . . .]

Le marquis ne me connois que par vous, vous ne me connoissez presque que par mes lettres, j’y veux paroitre telle que je suis [. . . .]

Aimez donc mes lettres, louez les, j’en suis toujours flatée [. . . .]

(Belle to Hermenches, 23 août 1764, OC, vol.1, p.273)

There is no one, man or woman, to whom I write as I do to you, with whom my letters so naturally follow my mood [. . . .]

The Marquis knows me only through you; you scarcely know me except through my letters. I want to appear in them such as I am [. . . .]

Love my letters then, praise them; I am always flattered by it [. . . .]13

She claims that the intimacy which they have achieved through their writing is unique, and she also claims, as he had done earlier in his elated response to the letter-burning, that the letter is spontaneous, as well as an authentic account of what she is really like. At the same time, she makes it clear that her self and her letters are absolutely bound up together: she gives him permission to love ‘her letters’, a remark which may look like a sort of distancing conceit, but cannot be, given the claims she has already explicitly made about her self being in her letters, and they following her moods identically. In the following extract, from later the same year, Belle shows that there are intimate revelations that cannot be directly confided in a letter, and she does so by transcribing a piece of writing that simply ‘tumbled out of her writing case’, and which was a portrait of her relationship with him. What is interesting here is that in an ‘authentic’ letter she resorts to a conceit familiar from the fiction of the time, that is, that the sheaf of papers that contain the narrative was mistakenly left behind, or dropped somewhere, or confided to the editor who engages to take care of them and publish them. It is at once a method of distancing the writer from the narrative at the same time as claiming its authenticity.

J’avois cru que la verité n’avoit pas besoin pour se faire recevoir d’assurances entassées, de protestations de sermens, je vous ai dit que loin de me degouter de vous je vous aimois bien plus depuis que je vous connoissois mieux et comme cela est vrai, vraisemblable, juste, naturel, je pensois en être crue sur le camp et vous avoir persuadé pour jamais [. . . .] Voila d’Hermanches mon histoire vis a vis de vous.

En vuidant ma cassette j’en ai vu sortir ceci je vous l’envoye.

(Belle to Hermenches, 3 octobre 1764, OC, vol.1, p.317)

I had believed that truth, to be accepted, had no need of assurances piled one on another, of protestations, of vows; I told you that far from being disgusted with you, I love you much more since coming to know you better; and since it is true, believable, just, natural, I thought I would be believed at once, and that I had persuaded you once and for all. [. . .] That, d’Hermenches, is my history with respect to you.

While emptying my writing case, I saw this tumble out of it; I am sending it to you.14

We can see that distancing and authenticity are both important here, given that, as Belle admits (or states), this piece of paper is not part of an ordinary letter; it is separate, and not originally destined for Hermenches, although written to him, as if it were a secret that could not bear to be confided. Its secrecy thus confers a status of higher truthfulness and honesty on it, and its explicit subject is also truth and credibility. And these manœuvres are borrowed from fiction, and immediately recognizable as such. Does this therefore make it ironic ? What we have here is an example of a ‘real’ correspondence consciously, and possibly ironically, drawing on fiction pretending to be ‘real’.

A summary of the various features we have seen so far allows us to identify three main characteristics of these letters: depictions of love, explorations of the self, and claims to aesthetic status. The letters are passionate, intimate, private, dangerous, and dramatic: all of these aspects contribute to creating the atmosphere of a clandestine love affair. They also directly invoke the writer’s self, which must be a private self, given that it can only be revealed to one person in the context of a clandestine correspondence. It is also, as we have seen, repeatedly presented as the real self, and by inference takes precedence over other selves the writer may be obliged to deploy. Finally, there is a continuous assessment of style and excellence as well as anxiety about its lack, and at points claims are made about the excellence of the writing, invoking the powerful names of Voltaire and Mme de Sévigné. These statements of the excellence and status of a written correspondence tell us that writing did not need to depend for a sense of its importance on any readers apart from these two. It did not need to be circulated to other readers, let alone published.

All these features lead us to suppose that these letters would make an excellent epistolary novel about the marriage of a young, brilliant and beautiful woman, much desired, who runs various risks and whose self-expression is hampered by a repressive context. We could go one step further and say that they might as well be fictional. Put differently, there is no perceptible difference between these letters and an epistolary novel; the fact that we know that they were real actual letters is the only way we can differentiate them. Yet how real are they ? These letters allowed Belle and Hermenches to create a space of virtual existence which would have been impossible in real life as he was married; they had a virtual relationship, and it might as well have been fictional because it could never become real. So, in fact, their letters are neither real nor fictional.

What status do they have, then? To answer this, we need to consider what a letter actually is. Alain Viala asks and answers this question with the help of Vaumorière’s manual from 1689:

Qu’est-ce qu’une lettre? Un écrit envoyé à une personne absente pour lui faire savoir ce que nous lui dirions si nous étions en état de lui parler.15

What is a letter? A piece of writing sent to an absent person to let him know what we would say to him if we were able to speak to him.

Defining the question in terms of absence proves helpful. In his meditation on love, Roland Barthes writes that

Historiquement, le discours de l’absence est tenu par la Femme: la Femme est sédentaire, l’Homme est chasseur, voyageur; la Femme est fidèle (elle attend), l’Homme est coureur (il navigue, il drague). C’est la Femme qui donne forme à l’absence, en élabore la fiction, car elle en a le temps; elle tisse et elle chante [. . . .]16

Historically, the discourse of absence belongs to woman: woman is sedentary, man is a hunter and traveller; woman is faithful (she waits), man makes moves (he navigates, he seduces). Woman gives shape to absence, she constructs its fiction, for she has the time to do it; she weaves and sings [. . . .]

Thus woman and letter match up.

Jean Starobinski adds a further element to this picture in a seminal article on Charrière: his view is that what characterises her fiction is its lack of conclusion.17 If a letter is synonymous both with absence and with woman, Belle’s letters, and later her fiction, have a further absence, which is any conclusion: there is never any resolution.

These features apply both to her actual correspondences — from one letter to the next the future is completely unpredictable — and to her fictions. In the latter, there are two main forms of absence or lack, firstly, the lack of certainty or inevitability about what will happen, and therefore the absence of an ending, and secondly the absence, or curtailment, of the writing voice itself.

The first point can be powerfully exemplified by the Lettres écrites de Lausanne (1785). The letters in question are written by a mother to her friend about her daughter Cécile’s marriage prospects. The daughter falls in love with an English lord on his grand tour. He seems to be interested in her, but we cannot be sure. Charrière published it without a resolution, as a part 1. Her part 2, now more famous under the title of its heroine, Caliste, takes the story of one of the supporting characters, and does not tell us about what happens to Cécile. A further more historically influenced example is to be found in the Lettres trouvées dans des portefeuilles d’émigrés (1793). In this novel, many characters of differing political persuasions write to each other, try to persuade each other, fall in love, try to be reunited. It is set up to be an idealistic resolution of the revolutionary tensions. But it was published as a part 1 to be continued in August 1793, but for Charrière after the slaughter in the Vendée where part of her plot was set resolution was no longer possible, and it remained unfinished.

The second point, the absence of the writing voice, its falling into silence, is perhaps most powerfully exemplified in her two novels from 1784, Lettres neuchâteloises and Lettres de Mistress Henley. In the former, there are three voices: Julianne, a seamstress from the country, Henri Meyer, a German clerk come to make his way in the world, and Marianne de la Prise, a young lady from a family of ancient nobility, now fallen on hard times. They each write letters, they each have a voice. Julianne’s is uncultivated, and yet she is able to speak. But half way through, she disappears. She had had a voice, and it was a desiring one — her letters relate her responses to a chance meeting with Henri that leads to a disastrous liaison with him. She loses her voice and becomes an object to be managed when she ‘gets in trouble’, that is, falls pregnant. The letter — already an indicator of an absence — itself goes missing — and we are left with a double absence which shouts loudly in the narrative.

Lettres de Mistriss Henley has a different form and is much more brutal. The complete title is Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie. The letters are all from Mistriss Henley to her friend, and all about her marriage and her difficulties in accepting the constraints of married life. The tone grows increasingly desperate and at the end Mistriss Henley says she shall write no longer as there is no point and that in one or two years her friend will know whether she has died or that she has conformed. We assume, because her friend has published them, that she has died, but the conclusion is only elliptically reached. Although we cannot be sure of this, we know that her voice has gone silent.

Do these two examples help us understand the relationship between real and fictional correspondence any better ? We said that the boundaries between Charrière’s real correspondences and her fictional ones were not clearly differentiated. A real letter will use or play against fictional models, and a fictional one will detail domestic activities such as looking after the troublesome babies which are real in the sense that they are a recognizable part of daily life. But both create and develop a voice which is tantamount to having an independent self; it is private, it is amorous, and it is under threat; it does not know what will happen or whether it will survive; sometimes it doesn’t. No form other than the letter can so strongly evoke this sense of precariousness. So far as we are concerned, therefore, it does not seem helpful to use the notions of real life correspondence and epistolary fiction; they arbitrarily divide that which is conceptually and formally continuous. They are equally virtual and equally fragile.

— Caroline Warman, Jesus College, University of Oxford


1 Geoffrey Scott, The Portrait of Zélide, London, Constable, 1925; re-printed in 2004, Harper Perennial, ed. Richard Holmes with the title Scott on Zélide: the Portrait of Zélide, p.133.

2 Isabelle de Charrière, There Are No Letters Like Yours. The Correspondence of Isabelle de Charrière and Constant d’Hermenches, translated with an introduction and annotations by Janet Whatley and Malcolm Whatley, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p.xvii.

3 See Charrière’s letter to Caroline de Sandoz-Rollin, 26 novembre 1796, in Isabelle de Charrière, Œuvres complètes, ed. Jean-Daniel Candaux, C.P. Courtney, Pierre H. Dubois, Simone Dubois-De Bruyn, Patrice Thompson, Jeroom Vercruysse and Dennis Wood, Amsterdam, G.A. van Oorschot, 1979–1984, 10 vols, vol.5, p.259.

4 ‘A Correspondance,’ from ‘Fragments de deux romans en anglais,’ in Œuvres complètes, vol.8, p.495–496. Original spelling and punctuation (although an ‘l’ has been added to ‘wrester’ for ease of comprehension!).

5 Charlotte is the heroine of Goethe’s vastly influential epistolary novel, and monument of romantic literature, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774).

6 See Kees van Strien, ‘The publication history of Le Noble’, Cahiers Isabelle de Charrière/Belle de Zuylen Papers 5 (2010), p.27–34.

7 All translations of the Hermenches correspondence come from Janet Whatley and Malcolm Whatley’s There are no Letters like yours. The Correspondence of Isabelle de Charrière and Constant d’Hermenches, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p.1–2 (translation slightly modified). The French follows the spelling and punctuation of the original, as replicated in the Œuvres complètes.

8 There are no Letters like yours, p.5.

9 There are no Letters like yours, p.7.

10 There are no Letters like yours, p.39.

11 There are no Letters like yours, p.41, 42.

12 There are no Letters like yours, p.42.

13 There are no Letters like yours, p.148.

14 There are no Letters like yours, p.189–90.

15 Vaumorière, Lettres sur toutes sortes de sujets, avec des avis sur la manière de les écrire et des réponses à chaque espèce de lettre Paris 1689, t.1, ch.2 (n.p.) intitulé “ce qu’est une lettre”, quoted by Alain Viala, ‘La Genèse des formes épistolaires en français’, Revue de littérature comparée 218:2 (1981), p.168.

16 Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Paris, Seuil, 1977, p.20.

17 Jean Starobinski, ‘Les Lettres écrites de Lausanne de Madame de Charrière: inhibition psychique et interdit social,’ in Roman et lumières au XVIIIe siècle, ed. Werner Krauss, Paris, Editions sociales, 1970, p.130–152 (p.143).

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