Boswell in Love: His Private Papers and Correspondence With Zélide

“Boswell had gone to London,” writesFREDERICK A. POTTLE,Sterling Professor of English, Yale University, “hoping to transform himself into a high-bred man of pleasure. Though he had the liveliest sense of piety and was strict in attendance at divine service, he prided himself on his intrigues with actresses and women of fashion, and in his frequent street affairs was ashamed rather of the grossness of his debauchery than of its immorality. But on 16 May 1763 he met Samuel Johnson, whose writings he had long admired; he opened his heart to Johnson, was strengthened in his religious faith, and got Johnson to outline a plan of regular study for him. The quest for a commission in the Guards having proved futile, he finally gave in to his father and consented to apply himself to the law. It was agreed that he should spend one winter in study at Utrecht, and that he should then be allowed to visit Paris and some of the German courts.” He was twenty-two when he sailed for Holland. The chronicle which follows is drawn from Boswell in Holland, which will shortly be published by McGraw-Hill.


THE London Journal of James Boswell ends with the entry for 4 August 1763. Boswell continued the record in the same ambitious style during the whole of his stay in Holland, where he went directly from London to study law, but this Dutch journal was lost in his own lifetime. When he left Utrecht in the following June, he packed up many of his papers, including the journal, and left the lot with his friend, the Reverend Robert -Brown, to be sent to him in Scotland after his return from his travels. Mr. Brown appears to have entrusted the parcel to a young Army officer, who perhaps carried it as far as London in his cloak-bag. But when the papers arrived at Auchinleck, the seat of the Boswells, the Dutch journal was missing, and earnest appeals for a search which Boswell made to Mr. Brown and others failed to retrieve it. One hesitates, after the casual recovery of a mass of Boswell’s letters to Temple in a shop at Boulogne, where they were being used as wrappers for small purchases, to say that any manuscript of Boswell’s — especially a large carefully written quarto manuscript of over 500 pages — is lost beyond recall, but at least Boswell himself finally gave up the Dutch journal and nothing has been heard of it since.

There still remain, however, bales of intimate records for reconstructing his life in Holland. There is some journal. He continued the practice he had begun in London of addressing a memorandum to himself each morning before he put on his clothes, and in these memoranda he soon fell into the habit of reviewing the events of the preceding day before setting down his counsels for the day ahead. He posted his journal from these memoranda, often some weeks after the events. The lost journal consequently fell short of covering his stay in Holland by more than three weeks, and we recover journal entries for those last days (24 May-18 June) because he wrote them up after he left the country. He kept a register of letters sent and received, a general expense account, and a special account of sums won and lost at cards. And, finally, a surprisingly large number of the letters which he received and wrote have now come to hand, including a good part of his correspondence with the most remarkable person he met in Holland: Isabella van Tuyll (Belle de Zuylen, also known as “Zélide”). This correspondence, which began just as he was leaving Holland and continued intermittently for the next four years, may safely be called one of the oddest series of love letters ever written.

Boswell, who liked to buttress his resolution by times and seasons, had resolved that he would reform on the day he left England for Holland. He did. For ten months in Holland he was by heroic effort modest, studious, frugal, reserved, and chaste. And he almost went out of his mind.

His melancholy was not, as has been carelessly and cruelly assumed, an affectation, an attempt to imitate Johnson. The fact is that Boswell had been subject to fits of depression long before he met Johnson, from his early boyhood. He was the kind of neurasthenic who gets no sympathy from other people because he seems so healthy. His physical machine was extremely robust and, until he was past middle age, would stand any amount of punishment. As a matter of fact, he found on numerous occasions that he could dispel his gloom by sitting up late or not going to bed at all. What made him at times so desperately unhappy was not the weather, was not lack of exercise, was not acrimonious juices and lax solids (the diagnosis he obtained from a Dutch physician), was not idleness, was not drinking, was not remorse of conscience. It was frustration: frustration of his overweening ambition by any course of life, whether idle or methodically industrious, which did not promise to make him a Great Man soon; frustration of his powerful urges to pleasure by monotony, by unexciting routine.

Be good, be prudent, be sober, be reserved, be industrious, and you will be happy, said his father; and he copied it down and said it. over and over to himself. But suppose you gave the formula a good hard try and it didn‘t work? Suppose you toiled and prayed and hung on by your teeth, and life only got blacker and blacker until you woke in the morning out of dreams that you were about to be hanged or that you were actually suffering the agonies of death? Johnson gave short shrift to Boswell‘s plea that because he was unhappy when he did his duty he ought to be granted a dispensation; life was a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed. But knowing that Boswell bore a very heavy burden he granted him unfailing charity.

The sudden emergence from gloom, the glorious exaltation that one sees at the end of the Utrecht period, is as characteristic as the gloom itself. Boswell never needed a period of convalescence. Make him somehow a Great Man, send him upon a jaunt in which HE can experience change, excitement, constant agitation, and you restore him as by a magic infusion. And he will never get so tired and inelastic that the formula will not work.

From this point on a selection from (he documents tells the story.

Boswell to William Johnson Temple, an Englishman from Berwick ou-Tweed. who had met Boswell in I (..5. I heir common passions were literature and religion, iemple had gone to Cambridge to study law and had kept chambers in the Inner Temple, London, where Boswell had seen a good deal of him in the preceding spring and summer.


MY DEAREST TEMPLE, . . . Could I but see my worthy friend at this moment! Could I but behold the wonder and pleasure which spreads over his countenance! But sea and land conspire to separate us. It is impossible for me to talk to you. I therefore sit down to write. My letter of last night, which is enclosed in this, is the sedate production of a man just recovered from a severe fit of melancholy. The letter which you are now reading is the spontaneous effusion of a man fully restored to life and to joy, whose blood is bounding through his veins, and whose spirits are at the highest pitch of elevation. Good heaven! what is Boswell? Last night lie was himself. Today he is more than himself. Let me think. Am I indeed the same being who was lately so wretched, to whom all things appeared so dismal, who imagined himself of no manner of value? Now I am happy. All things appear cheerful. I am a worthy, an amiable, and a brilliant man. I am at a foreign university town. I am advancing in knowledge. I am received upon the very best footing by the people of rank in this country. Mv days of dissipation and absurdity are past. I am now pursuing the road of propriety. I am acting as well as my friends could wish. I am forming into a character which may do honour to the ancient family which I am born to represent. . . . Thus I explain it. I have constitutionally a tender and a gloomy mind. After being convinced that idleness and folly rendered me unhappy, I determined to alter my conduct. But my enthusiasm determined too much. I proposed to myself a plan so very severe that my feeble powers were crushed in attempting to put it in execution. Hence was I thrown into that deplorable state which my dismal letter from Rotterdam informed you of. You know how I picked up resolution and returned to Utrecht. You know how I have struggled, and how much I have been able to do. But still a black cloud hung over me. Still I was but a distempered creature, who strove to make the best he could of a wretched existence. I had great merit in this. I stood the most grievous shocks. . . . Now when I am clear and happy, let me renew my good resolutions. Let. me above all maintain an uniformity of behaviour. It is certain that I am subject to melancholy. It is the distemper of our family. I am equally subject to excessive high spirits. Such is my constitution. Let me study it, and let me maintain an equality of mind. You have this post a variety of circumstances laid before you. Consider them, my friend, and send me a long letter of kind advice. . . . I shall set out from Utrecht about the middle of June. I shall make the tour of The Netherlands, from thence proceed to Germany, where I shall visit the Courts of Brunswick and Lüneburg, and about the end of August arrive at Berlin. I shall pass a month there. In the end of September I shall go to the Court of Baden-Durlnah, from thence through Switzerland to Geneva. I shall visit Rousseau and Voltaire, and about the middle of November shall cross the Alps and get fairly into Italy. I shall there pass a delicious winter, and in April shall pass the Pyrenees and get into Spain, remain there a couple of months, and at last come to Paris. Upon this plan, I cannot expect to be in Britain before the autumn of 1765. . . . I may perhaps prevail with my father to allow me more time. When a son is at a distance, he can have great influence upon an affectionate parent. I would by no means be extravagant; I. would only travel genteelly. . . . There are two ladies here, a young, handsome, amiable widow with £4000 a year, and Mademoiselle de Zuylen, who has only a fortune of £20,000. She is a charming creature. But she is a savante and a bel esprit, and has published some things. She is much my superior. One does not like that. One does not like a widow, neither. You won‘t allow me to yoke myself here? You will have me married to an Englishwoman? I have now written my most intimate thoughts. Tomorrow I go to The Hague for a week. God bless you. — Write soon. I ever remain, your most affectionate friend,


EDITORIAL NOTE: He had pursued the rich, handsome young widow (a Madame Geelvinck) in a fervent but never quite conclusive courtship during the preceding months. Though he had been friendly with Belle de Zuylen, it was not until the eve of his departure that he began seriously easting her in the role of Mrs. Boswell. Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken, to give her her full style, belonged to one of the oldest families in Holland. Her father, a governor of the Province, was Lord of Zuylen, with a moated castle on the Vecht. In rebellion against the decorum and restraint imposed upon her by her position in society, she had engaged in clandestine correspondences, had printed a satire on the prejudices of rank, and showed a willingness to treat religious orthodoxy and even chastity as open questions. Boswell had lessened the tedium of her life by presenting to her contemplation an object that was moving, animated, and odd. As his departure drew near, she found herself feeling a considerable tenderness for him. The “odd and lovable could not. in her narrow world be lost without a pang.

Sunday 10 June. I sat in all forenoon. At one I had a handsome chaise and drove myself to Zuylen. I was in solid spirits in the old château, but rather too odd was I; for I talked of my pride, and wishing to be a king. Zélide and I were left alone. She owned to me that she was hypochondriac, and that she had no religion other than that of the adoration of one God. In short, she discovered an unhinged mind; yet I loved her. I supped at Brown’s.

[“You would be miserable with her. Vet she is to write, and loves you.” Memorandum for 11 June.]

Monday 11 June. I had sat up all night. Reynst of The Hague met me, and carried me to Oblet‘s, where I found Monsieur and Madame Hasselaer, whom I have an antipathy against, and my dear Zélide, whom I have a sympathy with. My imbecility will never leave me. Zélide was in a fever of spirits. I drove about with her and Madame Hasselaer and had curious reflections to myself. In August last I was a gloomy, deplorable wretch in this dull city. Now I am a fine, gay gentleman, the gallant of fine, gay ladies. After dinner I went about and paid my visits pour prendre congê. . . . At eight Reynst came to me, and from many circumstances well interpreted, he persuaded me that Zelide was really in love with me. I believed it. But I was mild and retenu. Richardson also arrived. I had Reynst and him at supper.

Tuesday 12 June.... I gave a plain dinner to Richardson, Brown, and Carron, after which we went and saw the old library of the canons of Utrecht. We drank tea at Brown’s, where was Hahn, who said that Zélide would be always une malheureuse demoiselle, as she was quite governed by fancy. Richardson and I walked. He said he was surprised to find a physician talk so of his patient, for that from Hahn’s manner of talking, Mademoiselle de Zuylen seemed to be crazy. I was vexed at this. Richardson’s sound, hard knowledge entertained me well. We supped tete a fete.

Thursday 14 June. . . . At two I had a chaise and drove Richardson out to Zuylen, where we dined. Zélide and I had a long conversation. She said she did not care for respect. She liked to have everybody free with her, and that they should tell her her faults. I told her that this was very wrong; for she would hardly find a husband of merit who had not some pride, and who would not he hurt at finding people so free with his wife. I owned to her that I was very sorry to leave her. She gave me many a tender look. We took a kind farewell, as I did of all the family. Monsieur de Zuylen and I talked a long time. I am sure he liked me. He has been exceedingly civil to me. Richardson could not well understand Zelide and me. “It is lucky,”said Mr. Chaplain to me, “that you are to be no longer together; for you would learn her nonsense, and she would learn yours.” He was right. Our airy speculating is not thinking. . . .

Sunday 17 June. Brown’s child was baptized in the English church. Lord Marischal was the parrain. I was sour and gloomy. I was just in a Scots country kirk. We all drank coffee at Madame Brown’s. It was agreeable to see a family happy on the increase of the species, &c. But it gave no pleasure to me. At six Lord Marischai, Madame de Froment, Mademoiselle Kinloch, and I drove to Zuylen, where we drank tea before the gate in the open air. Zélide said to me, 8220; Are you back again? We made a touching adieu.” She gave me a letter which she had written to me, on my departure, and bid me not read it till I was just going. She and I and Madame de Froment in one coach, Madame de Zuylen, Lord Marischal, and Mademoiselle Kinloch in another, went and saw a beautiful campagne on the way to Amsterdam. Zélide seemed much agitated, said she had never been in love, but said that one might meet with un homme aimable, &c., &c., &c., for whom one might feel a strong affection, which would probably be lasting, but this amiable man might not have the same affection for one. In short she spoke too plain to leave me in doubt that she really loved me. But then away she went with her wild fancy, saying that she thought only of the present moment. “I had rather feel than think. I should like to have a husband who would let me go away sometimes to amuse myself.” In short, she seemed a frantic libertine. She said to me, “Sir, if you see the Count of Anhalt, don’t speak to him of me. He may some day be my husband.”1 She gave me her hand at parting, and the tender tear stood crystal in her eye. Poor Zélide! I took hearty leave at Brown‘s. I was sorry to leave the scene of much internal exorcise. I sat up all night.

Monday 18 June. My wakeful night well past, I was in glow of spirits. Zélide’s letter was long and warm. She imagined me in love with her, and with much romantic delicacy talked of this having rendered her distraite. I was honest or simple enough to leave her a short letter, assuring her that I was not amoureux, but would always be her fidèle ami. . . .


Original in French. Translation by Geoffrey Scott, who also translated the two letters following. These originally appeared in t he second volume of Colonel [sham’s privately printed Private Papers of James I lost cell.

{ZCYLEN] Thursday 14June[1764] 11 o’clock In spite of all your philosophy, you are singularly curious, my friend, to find out what my feelings are about you. It would perhaps be more dignified in you not to say so; but 1 have no regard for dignity, and I despise the art which you revere so much. 1 am ready to afford you ibis pleasure because 1 desire your happiness; and pleasure is a part of happiness. Besides, it is natural to me to say what I feel and what I think.

Well, then, I should tell you that there is a man2 in the world (I do not think that you know him) of whom I usually think at night, in the morning, and sometimes during the day. For three or four days past I have thought of him less often. Do you guess why? It is because you, my philosophical friend, appeared to me to be experiencing the agitation of a lover. Had you always shown yourself a cold and grave mortal such as you require my husband to be, you would not have caused me a single minute‘s distraction. I am affected by your departure; I have thought of you all the evening. I find you odd and lovable. I have a higher regard for you than for any one, and I am proud of being your friend. Are you not satisfied? What I find less admirable in you is to have so quickly rid yourself of those generous scruples for which you took so much credit to yourself the other day.3 The circumstances were the same today: my father showed you the same friendship; why did you not reason as you did before? Admit that it is only a question of degree: our inclinations only require a certain degree of force to get the better of our principles and to make us forget our duty; or else they seduce our minds, and then we alter our ideas. It would be a much finer plan to address yourself to my father, adding to each of your letters to him a letter for me, unsealed, in which you shall preach morality and religion. I would not reply to you, because that would not be correct; but you could always go on preaching and it is possible that the improvement you desire might be effected. . . . If you do not like my plan, and I am to go on writing to you, I shall write with the utmost freedom. With libertines I am rigid and reserved, but I can afford to be free with a discreet friend, with a prudent man — so prudent that he would refuse supreme happiness if it wore offered to him, out of fear of not being equally happy all the days of his life. For my own part, I dare not flatter myself that Providence has such riches of felicity in store for me that I have only to choose between them; I think I shall take hold of the first happiness that may present itself. My thought will perhaps be, “If this one does not last, well, after this, . . . another.” . . .


I’TRECIIT, ISJune17(14

You may well believe, my dear Zelide, that I am very much flattered by your interesting letter. But I must admit that you have given me some anxiety. You say that I “appear to you to have the agitation of a lover.” I am extremely sorry for this. My sincerity, or perhaps my extreme simplicity, prevents me from leaving Utrecht without frankly enlightening you on this subject. I have told you several times what my sentiments are towards you. I admire your mind. I love your goodness. But I am not in love with you. I swear to you I am not. I speak strongly because you have given me reason to think that your peace of mind may be involved. In such circumstances one must not stand on ceremony. I am your faithful friend. I shall always be, if you allow me. If I can be of the least use to you, you will have a proof of how much I am yours. To be in correspondence with Zclide will be a great pleasure to me. Good-bye.


[ZUYLEN] Monday evening, 18 June 1764

So much the better my friend; all the better if I made a mistake. I am not the least mortified by having remained in error for three days. Nor am I the least annoyed to have thought less, during three days, of the man I love. Your friendship is more worth having than love. You are to be esteemed all the more that you are able to feel as you describe; I on my side am more flattered that you should feel towards me in that way. As for your peace of mind and my own (as I understood the matter), these were never in danger. What I wrote on Thursday evening was perfectly true when I wrote it: on Friday it appeared to me less true. I had slept well; I was no longer clear whether I had believed you to be in love with me, whether I had believed myself to be a little inclined to love you: all that appeared to me more or less a dream. On Sunday it appeared to me more or less an untruth. I felt some scruple in giving you my letter: I would have liked to have torn off the first page. But that would have been to destroy it all. I thought, “The date is my justification: what I wrote at evening on Thursday is what I thought at evening on Thursday. With Monsieur Boswell, there is no need for prudence. Give him the letter; it is an act of frankness, it is the diary of the heart of a live and feeling woman.” I told you that two or three days’ absence would make us forget the difference that Nature creates between friends of different sexes. You did not need to forget, since you had never remembered. In my case it is already entirely forgotten, but I shall always remember the excellent advice that your pure and disinterested affection prompted. My friendship is yours for ever: count on it, however much you may think me fickle. I count on the stability of your feelings as on that of the rocks which God placed on the surface of the earth when he created the world. On my side I will be a little more tender one day than another, but every day you will be dear to me; every day I shall think as you said yesterday, “I am amusing myself, but if Monsieur Boswell were here it would be better still.” On Thursday I was much touched by your going away. When you had left me, I remained alone for some time in a deep reverie; then I went for a turn in the carriage, and I spoke to my brother of nothing but you. Yesterday there was no reverie: I played comet, and told stories to my father. Yet I was not less fond of you than on Thursday; I was not less inclined to sacrifice a part of my happiness to yours; my heart was not less regretful of your departure. Where, then, comes in the difference? I beg you not to accuse my heart: it is, I fancy, an affair of temperament; it depends on the wind or on the sun, and perhaps on the stomach. Why did Caesar neglect to conquer your islands? “ Perhaps,’ says Pope, “he had not dined.” Whether I have dined or not, I promise YOU that the bottom of my heart will always be the same towards you. I hope, all your life, you will be glad of it and it will never be an enigma to you. ... I am very glad to have told you everything and I will always be equally frank with you. . . .

19 June

I forgot yesterday to thank you for your letter, though these thanks should have been the very first words of mine. Your letter, you now see, was not in point of fact quite so necessary; but the motive which prompted it is worthy of you; that is to say, it was dictated by a most perfect and generous honesty. Not to fall short of you, I will not keep you waiting for this reply, which ought to put your mind completely at ease. I will send it to Bentinck, so that you may get it quickly. I shall not write to you again for some time; clandestine letters keep me up too late. I look to your guidance to cure me of this libertine habit. But you must write to me by daylight everything that comes into your head; thoughts born in England and thoughts born in France, I shall understand them all, for they will all be fellow citizens of my thoughts. Mine belong to every country. Put what you write into a first envelope addressed to me, and enclose that in a cover where my name must not appear, made out To Monsieur Spruyt, Bookseller m the Koor Straat, Utrecht. Allow yourself no imprudence. It is in that sense that my peace of mind is in your hands. Do not forget to write to my father from Berlin. He likes you and will appreciate the attention. Once more, let your letters be long and infrequent. Give me your views on everything interesting you come across. I venture to say that your essays could not be better addressed, nor your confidence better placed, than they are: in the matter of honesty, my fickle head has never wavered for a moment. Good-bye. I shall be your faithful friend so long as I have a head and a heart.

P.S. . . . You are very right to say that I should be worth nothing as your wife. We are entirely in agreement on that head. I have no subaltern talents. . . .


This letter runs to seventeen pages and was written in English. No copy has been found among Boswell’s papers (he was no doubt intimidated by its length), but Belle kept the original, and it is now preserved, with others of her papers, in the Public Library of Neuchâtel. It is here reprinted in part from Professor Tinker’s edition of the letters of Boswell, i. 45-54.

BERLIN, 9 July 1764

MY DEAR ZÉLIDE,— Be not angry with me for not writing to my fair friend before now. You know I am a man of form, a man who says to himself, “Thus will I act,” and acts accordingly. In short, a man subjected to discipline, who has his orders for his conduct during the day with as much exactness as any soldier in any service. And who gives these orders? I give them. Boswell when cool and sedate fixes rules for Boswell to live by in the common course of life, when perhaps Boswell might be dissipated and forget the distinctions between right and wrong, between propriety and impropriety. . . . Now, Zélide, give me leave to reprove you for your libertine sentiments, of which your letters to me furnish several examples. You say if your husband and you loved each other only a little, “I would certainly love some one else. My spirit is formed to have strong feelings, and will assuredly not escape its destiny.” I hope this love of yours for another is not destined like that of many a fine lady. “If I had neither father nor mother, I would not get married.”And yet. you would have your tender connections. Ah, poor Zélide! Do you not see that you would reduce yourself to the most despicable of all situations? No, Zélide, whatever men may do, a woman without virtue is terrible. Excuse me for talking so freely. I know you mean no harm: you gave way to your fancy. You see, however, whither it leads you, “I should be well pleased with a husband who would take me as his mistress: I should say to him, ‘Do not look on faithfulness as a duly. You should have none but the rights and jealousies of a lover.”‘ Fie, my Zélide, what fancies are these? Is a mistress half so agreeable a name as a wife? ... I beseech you, never indulge such ideas. Respeet mankind. RespeCt the institutions of society. If imagination presents gay caprice, be amused with it. But let reason reign. Conceal such ideas. Act with wisdom. . . . As you and I, Zélide, are perfectly easy with each other, I must tell you that I am vain enough to read your letters in such a manner as to imagine that you really wAs in love with me, as much as you can be with any man. I say was, because I am much mistaken if it is not over before now. Reynst had not judged so ill. You have no command of yourself. You can conceal nothing. You seemed uneasy. You had a forced merriment. The Sunday evening that I left you, I could perceive you touched. But I took no notice of it. From your conversation I saw very well that I had a place in your heart, that you regarded me with a warmth more than friendly. Your letters showed me that you was pleasing yourself with having at last met with the man for whom you could have a strong and a lasting passion. But I am too generous not to undeceive you. You are sensible that I am a man of strict probity. You have told me so. I thank you. I hope you shall always find me so. Is it not, however, a little hard that I have not a better opinion of you? Own, Zélide, that your ungoverned vivacity may be of disservice to you. It renders you less esteemed by the man whose esteem you value. You tell me, “I should be worth nothing as your wife. I have no subaltern talents.”If by those talents you mean the domestic virtues, you will find them necessary for the wife of every sensible man. But there are many stronger reasons against your being my wife; so strong that, as I said to you formerly, I would not be married to you to he a king. I know my self and I know you. And from all probability of reasoning, I am very certain that if we were married together, it would not be long before we should both very miserable. My wife must be a character directly opposite to my dear Zélide, except in affection, in honesty, and in good humour. You may depend upon me as a friend. It vexes me to think what a number of friends you have. I know, Zélide, of several people that you correspond with. I am therefore not so vain of your corresponding with me. But I love you and would wish to contribute to your happiness. . . .

EDITORIAL NOTE: Other letters followed at intervals during the period of Boswell‘s Continental tour, Boswell‘s growing steadily less patronizing. When he arrived in Paris in January, 1766, he wrote a twenty-six-page letter to Belle’s father asking him to decide whether a proposal of marriage would be agreeable to Belle (“I can allow myself the agreeable fancy of her learning with delightful astonishment that it is in her power to have her friend for a husband on certain conditions”)‘ and whether the match would be otherwise suitable. He intended at that time to go home by way of Holland and press his suit in person. But Monsieur de Zuvlen felt unable to transmit the proposal to Belle because matters had not been concluded with the Marquis de Bellegarde; furthermore, Boswell was called directly to Scotland by news of his mother’s death. The correspondence lapsed for some time. Belle visited England In the autumn of and made no effort to get in touch with Boswell. Boswell took the initiative and sent her a letter in the autumn of 1707; she replied in terms that encouraged him to think that the old flame could he rekindled. He was at this time committed to a scheme of marrying a Scots heiress.


UTRECHT, 16 February 1768

What shall I say to you, my friend? Ought I to congratulate you or send you condolences? Everything you tell me is so uncertain that I do not know which impression to fasten on. “You think seriously of marriage — a fine girl — an heiress — an admirable wife for you—but she does not like you — bill she likes nobody else — but you hear a report — but you hope it is not true—” I wish for you everything that you wish yourself, but it would be rash to conclude anything from wlvat you have written. The fact is you do not love conclusions; you love problemswhich can never be solved. The debate you have been conducting for so long concerning our fate if we were married is the proof of this taste of yours. I leave it to you to ponder, my dear Boswell. Aside Irotn the fact that I am not clever enough to decide it, I take little pleasure in discussing so idle a question. I do not know your Scotland. On the map it appears to me a little out of the world. You call it ”a sober country.” I have seen it produce decidedly despotic husbands and humble, simple wives who blushed and looked at their lords before opening their mouths. That is all I know about it, and with so little to go on one can decide nothing. But why should I decide? The problem must remain as it is, and I leave it to you for your amusement. Allow me to remark that you certainly take your time for everything. You waited to fall in love with me until you were in the island of Corsica; and to tell me so, you waited until you were in love with another woman and had spoken to her of marriage. That, I repeat, that is certainly to take one’s time. As for the question how we would do together, that came into your mind at Zuylen, it accompanied you in your travels, and it has been presenting itself in season and out of season ever since. A strictly sensible person who read our letters would perhaps not find you too rational, but, as for me, I do not wish to put my friend under constraint. Everything his singularity prompts him to tell me shall be well received. Imagination is so mad a thing that when one permits one‘s self to say all it has suggested, one necessarily says foolish things, and what harm is there in that? I see none. I read your belated endearments with pleasure, with a smile. Well! So you once loved me! I wish you all the more success and happiness in the choice your heart makes at present. It seems to me that you interest me and belong to me a little more because of that than if you had always been my cold and philosophic friend.

Let us speak of your works. I shall be charmed to translate your Account of Corsica, but you will have to send it to me first. Add to it The Essence of the Douglas Cause. I have as yet read nothing on that subject. I am to receive from London a publication of yours the title of which I have heard given as Appeal to all the People. I shall be glad to be able to give my own judgment on so famous and interesting a cause. You plead very well the cause of marriage, but I could turn all your arguments in favour of celibacy. I have fortune enough so that I do not need a husband’s; I have a sufficiently happy cast of mind and enough mental resources to be able to dispense with a husband, with a family, and what is called an establishment. I therefore make no vows, I take no resolutions; I let the days come and go, deciding always for the better among the things which Fate prcsenls to me with some power of choice. I should be glad if time in its flow might carry away mv thousand little faults of humour and character which I recognize and deplore. Often my progress does not come up to my good intentions. You ask what my life is like. To answer you, I look about me. My room is pretty; people like to come there. My brother is chatting near me with Mr. Baird, a young Scotsman who lives with Mr. Brown. I have good books and I read little, but when I do read, it is the best things in all the genres and it is with a pleasure that makes me forget in turn my toilet and my tasks. I constantly forget the time, I write to my friends. I read this morning one of Clarke’s sermons with Mr. Cudgil or de Horn, an exiled Englishman, who listens severely and corrects from time to time the pronunciation of a word or a syllable. Four times a week I go in the evening with my brothers to Monsieur Hahn’s, who explains and demonstrates to us electrical fire and ordinary fire, and we learn about all of Nature that she permits us to know. That amuses me exceedingly. We have balls where I dance without much pleasure, because I do not have a lover. We have great assemblies: I learn to play cards. One needs a lover if one is to like dancing, one does not need a lover to like gaming. Farewell, my friend, I am going to Mr. Brown‘s. We shall speak of you. He sends you many friendly regards. His wife and her sister are amiable and good, his daughter is pretty as an angel. I am always well received by them all, and love them all. Depend on the sincere and faithful friendship of your most devoted



EDINBURGH, 26 February 1768

MY DEAR FRIEND,I had yesterday the pleasure of a charming letter from you, which shows me myself better than all the little philosophy which I have can do. You know me intimately, and I am sure whatever favour you show to me does not proceed from any mistake, as my faults have not escaped your penetration. But then the same genius which can discern my faults can also discern my good qualities, so that upon the whole I am happy in such a correspondent. You rally me with inimitable pleasantry on my singular and fanciful conduct. But for all that I am not to blame. When I bid you adieu at Zuylen, I was really a stoical friend. I had then been for many months oppressed with melancholy, in short a very hypochondriac. I was still a slave to form and to system, and when all the circumstances of my situation are considered, was I to blame in imagining that I did not love you, and in putting on such airs of coldness? You would have regretted your friend had you known the truth. You would have seen that he acted with a kind of silent heroism, and who knows but you might have delivered him from all his distress and rendered him happy at once? I used to think, how can so wretched a being as I ever propose to a fine woman to pass her days with me? She will see me gloomy and discontented, and her charms will be lost. And yet, will you believe it, my amiable friend? I have had moments of felicity when I almost adored you and wished to throw myself at your feet. But before I could have time to write to you, the evil spirit again darkened my soul, and I saw that I need not hope for any permanent comfort. In this disconsolate state I pursued my travels, the variety of which amused my melancholy thoughts and gave me by degrees more relief and cheerfulness than I ever expected. I need not tell you again that, notwithstanding of that faith which I have ever preserved, my passions hurried me into many licentious scenes. Dare I own that perhaps these contributed in some measure towards the cure of my sickly mind? At Paris I told your brother how much I admired you, and I wrote a long letter to your father asking his candid advice if I should propose marriage to you. But the Marquis de - was then in the field. The death of my dear mother made me return to Britain without seeing you as I intended. I spoke of you to Sir John Pringle; I spoke of you to my father. They both were against my marrying a foreign lady and a bel esprit. Still, however, I admired you, though I could not think of having you for my wife. You came over to London, and Sir John Pringle admired you, but thought you had too much vivacity for being the spouse of a Scotch lawyer or sober country gentleman. In the mean time, I supposed that I was quite indifferent to you. My mind became more composed and firm as I applied to the duties of my employment. I began to think of marriage in a rational way. Mr. Brown came to Scotland, and he talked to me of Mademoiselle de Zuylen till I begin to exclaim against myself for neglecting any possibility of obtaining so superior a lady. But the safe and rational plan of taking a good home-bred heiress, with health and common sense instead of genius and accomplishments, swayed me much; yet I examined my heart, and I saw I could not possibly live with a woman who seemed indifferent. I therefore resolved to have some certainty that the Heiress really liked me. While I waited for certainty, up came a Knight, and being a very pretty man with a handsome fortune, he was a good match for the Heiress; he asked her, and she accepted of him, while I comforted myself on having lost a woman who, though an excellent girl, proved to be not what I wished.4 I am therefore a free man, and you cannot again tell me, “You certainly take your time.” To be plain with you, my dear friend, I want your advice. I am now, I think, a very agreeable man to those who know my merit and excuse my faults. Whether do you think that you and I shall live happier: as distant correspondents, or as partners for life? Friends we shall always be at any rate. But I think it is worth our while to consider in what manner we may have the greatest share of felicity. If you say at once it would be a bad scheme for us to marry, your judgment shall be a rule to me. If you say that the scheme appears rather favourable for us, let us consider it in all lights, and contrive how we could possibly make the old people on each side of the water agree to it. If after all, it cannot be, there will be no harm done. My Account of Corsica will be with you very soon. The Essence of the Douglas Cause and the Appeal to the People are the same. Adieu, my dear, lively, amiable friend. I am much yours,


EDITORIAL NOTE: At least six more letters, three by Belle and three by Boswell, appear to have followed within the next few months. None of them has come to light, but we know the nature of their contents, and can even recover a few sentences from them, from Boswell’s diary and his reports to Temple. The pertinent passages follow. The extracts from the letters to Temple are taken from The Letters of James Boswell, ed. C. B. Tinker, 1924.

(To Temple, 24 March 1768) “Do you know, my charming Dutchwoman and I have renewed our correspondence; and upon my soul. Temple, I must have her. She is so sensible, so accomplished, and knows me so well and likes me so much, that I do not see how I can be unhappy with her. Sir John Pringle is now for it; and this night I write to my father begging his permission to go over to Utrecht just now. She very properly writes that we should meet without any engagement, and if we like an union for life, good and well; if not, we are still to be friends. What think you of this, Temple?”

(To Temple, 26 April 1768) . . I have not yet given up with Zélide. .Just after I wrote to you last, I received a letter from her, full of good sense and of tenderness. ‘My dear friend,‘ says she, ‘it is prejudice that has kept you so much at a distance from me. If we meet, I am sure that prejudice will be removed.’ The letter is in English. I have sent it to my father, and have earnestly begged his permission to go and see her. I promise upon honour not to engage myself, but only to bring a faithful report and let him decide. Be patient, Temple. Bead the enclosed letters and return them to me. Both my father and you know Zélide only from me. May I not have taken a prejudice, considering the melancholy of my mind while I was at Utrecht? How do we know but she is an inestimable prize? Surely it is worth while to go to Holland to see a fair conclusion, one way or other, of what has hovered in my mind for years. I have written to her and told her all my perplexity. I have pul in the plainest light what conduct I absolutely require of her, and what my father will require.5 I have bid her be my wife at present and comfort me with a letter in which she shall show at once her wisdom, her spirit, and her regard for me. You shall see It. . . .

(Diary, 2 May 1768) “Letter from Zélide — termagant.”

(To Temple, 14 May 1768) “So you are pleased with the writings of Zélide. Ah, my friend! had you but seen the tender and affectionate letter which she wrote to me and which I transmitted to my father. And can you still oppose my union with her? Yes, you can; and my dearest friend, you are much in the right. I told you what sort of letter I last wrote to her. It was candid, fair, conscientious. I told her of many difficulties. I told her my fears from her levity and infidel notions, at the same time admiring her and hoping she was altered for the belter. How did she answer? Read her letter. Could any actress at any of the theatres attack one with a keener—what is the word? not fury, something softer. The lightning that flashes with so much brilliance may scorch. And does not her esprit do so? Is she not a termagant, or at least will she not be one by the time she is forty? And she is near thirty now. Indeed, Temple, thou reason est well. You may believe I was perfectly brought over to your opinion by this acid epistle. I was then afraid that my father, out of his groat indulgence, might have consented to my going to Utrecht. But I send you his answer, which is admirable if you make allowance for his imagining that I am not dutiful towards him. I have written to him, ‘“I will take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pounds.” How happy am I at having a friend at homo of such wisdom and firmness. I was eager for the Guards. I was eager for Mademoiselle. But you have happily restrained me from both. Since, then, I have experienced your superior judgment in the two important articles of a profession and iho choice of a wife, I shall henceforth do nothing without your advice.’ Worthy man! this will be a solace to him upon his circuit. As for Zélide I have written to her that we are agreed. ‘My pride,’say I, ‘and your vanity would never agree. It would be like the scene in our burlesque comedy, The Rehearsal. “I am the bold thunder,”erics one. “The quick lightning I,”cries another. Et voilá noire ménage.‘ But she and I will always be good correspondents.”6

EDITORIAL, NOTE: The reader who has immersed himself in the enormous subjectivism of Boswell’s records feels strongly the need of some external ground of reference; of a candid evaluation by some one who knew Boswell well but who was not writing or speaking to Boswell himself. It would be hard to imagine better testimonies than the casual characterizations which occur in the clandestine correspondence between Belle de Zuylen and Constant d’Hermenches. The following extracts are all translated from Lettres de Belle de Zuylen (Madame de Charrière) à Constant d’Hermenehes, edited by Philippe Godet, 1909.

“When I go to the Assembly, I chat and play with a young Scotsman, full of good sense, wit, and naïveté” (February or March, 1764).

“I am waiting impatiently for Boswell in order to hear what you two said to each other. He told me the other day that although I was a charming creature, he would not marry me if I had the Seven United Provinces for my dowry; I agreed heartily ” (8 June 1764).

“I went with my mother and father to Utrecht, where I had nothing to do, solely to be alone with them. In the carriage they spoke only of indifferent matters, and then of Boswell, who has written a letter full of admiration for me, of which he does not wish one word to be repeated to me. I related to them all his reasons for not marrying me. I grew merry, I told them stories (true ones). I told them that at the very most, if I became a great deal more reasonable, more prudent, more reserved, Boswell would try in time to marry me to his best friend in Scotland. We were in very good humour. . . . [She runs over the list of her suitors.] The Comte d’Anhalt is the slave of his king, or is disgusted with my reputation. Boswell will never marry me; if he did marry me, he would repent a thousand times, for he is convinced that I do not suit him, and I do not know whether I would be willing to live in Scotland. His friend — that is all foolishness; I would not begin on that litany of reforms for a man I never saw ” (August, 1764).

“My friend Boswell has just sent me his book, An Account of Corsica. The heroism of the Corsicans, the great qualities of their chief, the genius of the author — all is interesting and admirable. I wish I could toss it to you, provided you would toss it back immediately, for I want to try to translate it. There are here and there singularities in it that you will think ridiculous, and which I do not think too highly of” (27 March 1768).

“I ought to have replied sooner to any letter so pleasing as yours, but I could not. I have been at Amsterdam and I have been translating. When one is busy, one waits for the post-day to write, and when it comes, some little unforeseen occupation obliges one to put off writing again. That is precisely what has always happened since the receipt of your last letter. . . .

“I had anticipated the advice to translate Boswell which you give me. Although your approval has encouraged me, I almost, repent of my agreement with the publisher. But it must be kept. I would never have believed that it was so difficult and wearisome to translate” (28 April 1768).

“I will write with much pleasure what you ask of me: it will be a little extract from an interesting book which 1 am fond of but which 1 am no longer translating. 1 was far advanced in the task, but I wanted permission to change some things that were bad, and to abridge others which French impatience would have found unmercifully longwinded. The author, although he had at the moment almost made up his mind to marry me if 1 would have him, was not willing to sacrifice a syllable of his book to rnv taste. 1 wrote to him that I was firmly decided never to marry him, and 1 have abandoned the translation” (2 June 1768).


By Geoffrey Scott, reprinted from the second volume of Colonel Isham’s Private Papers of James Boswell.

Zelide entered the world nine days before James Boswell. She outlived him by ten years. For a brief moment their paths cross; he is illuminated for us in the clear light of her intelligence, and enacts for us one of his most engaging comedies. On the later and unwritten acts of this drama — Zélide in the circle of Johnson — the imagination may be left to dwell; but the union of Boswell and Zélide was hardly possible in human chemistry. Two characters, and two destinies, could scarcely be more diverse. Boswell entered a world of mirrors and reflections, dependent on others for a realization of himself, and for the exercise of his genius. Zelide, whose independent force declared itself in early rebellion against society, turned scornfully from whatever was tainted by human competition and narrowed her life to a tragic solitude.

Fantastically, three years after the breach with Boswell, she married her brothers‘ former tutor, Monsieur de Charrière, to escape from the restraints of Zuylen. Thereafter she lived with him and his two sisters near Neuchâtel, hedging herself in a disdainful privacy and refusing to know even her neighbour, Voltaire. She relieved the tedium of her life by a rather tyrannical philanthropy, some unhappy love-affairs, the harpsichord, and literary composition. Her novel Caliste had much contemporary success, and was translated into English; it in some measure inspired the Corinne of Madame de Staël To this early specimen of romantic fiction, modern taste will prefer her studies of provincial genre, which, at their rare best, foreshadow Miss Austen. But Zélide’s sure literary talent is shown less in her books than in her correspondence. Her letters to Constant d‘Hermenches, and, later, to Benjamin Constant, place her in the front rank even of eighteenth-century letter writers; their wit is never verbal; truth of feeling and fineness of thought sharpen the edge of their unfailing precision, and the gift of friendship is perilously allied with a surgical insight into character. Boswell, indeed, had fair reason for alarm. Her own emotions, naturally profound, were tortured by her intellect; she could enchant; but more often than enchantment she inspired fear, which she could not explain, and pity, which she scorned. She saw Benjamin Constant, after an intimacy of eight years, reft from her by Madame de Stack She staked all on her intimate life, and, losing, preserved a stoical silence: a Van Tuyll after all, a stickler for old-fashioned good manners; and, to the end, intolerant as Johnson himself of cant, seltdeception, loose-thin king and illogical speech.

When Boswell, with ihe plan of marrying Zélide shaping itself in his mind, wandered on his travels in 1764, he visited the old castle, once Lord Marischal’s, at Colombier; and from its rampart looked down upon the tiled roof of the manor house under which Zélide was to live and die, and on the potager beyond which, for fifteen years on end, she never stepped.

  1. Friedrich Count of Anhiilt was at this time Frederick’s aidede-camp and later became his Adjutant General. He had never seen Belle de Zuylen, but Henri Alexandre de Catt, a Swiss who had been tutor to her brothers and then had gone to Potsdam as reader to Frederick, had sung her praises so effectively that the Count had made overtures ot inarriage and was proposing a trip to Utrecht.
  2. The Marquis de Bellegarde, a man much older than herself, whom she had determined to marry, though she had actually seen very little of him and was finding him a very sluggish suitor.
  3. Boswell had said that he would not correspond with her surreptitiously because of his respect for her father.
  4. “The Heiress” was Miss Catherine Blair of Adamtown, a ward of Boswell’s father; “the Knight,” Sir Alexander Gilmour. But Boswell spoke prematurely. Miss Blair turned down Sir Alexander too, and finally married Sir William Maxwell of Monreith.
  5. They appear never to have written to each other again. Zelide attributed the breach as much to his stiffness about the Account of Corsica as to his determination to preserve the ascendancy of his sex.
  6. He also laid down the law in another matter close to his heart, though he does not think it necessary to say so to Temple. Zélide, who was well along in her translation of his Account of Corsica, had asked him if she might omit certain passages and change others. He peremptorily forbade her to alt or abridge.