|ISABELLE DE CHARRIERE, BENJAMIN CONSTANT AND THE NOVEL|
No commentator has, I believe, examined sufficiently the epigraph to Trois femmes, ‘Cogitans dubito’, which can be glossed as ‘The more I think about things, the more sceptical I become’. This motto has led me to consider in what way Isabelle de Charrière was a sceptic, and how her scepticism may have influenced her choice of characters and situations for her novels. In an unpublished document in the Van Tuyll van Coelhorst Collection in The Hague Isabelle de Charrière speaks of the influence of her Cartesian mathematics tutor Laurens Praalder on her approach to life and to novel-writing. Her aim is to present situations in which it must be the reader’s task to choose between the different courses of action she describes. Her own attitude is deliberately one of methodic doubt: ’Que mes lecteurs fixent leur pensée sur mes doutes et quils se décident’.
A novelist must be undogmatic and impartial in pursuit of the truth: ’Atort ou à raison, je suis davis qu’il est permis de dire tout ce qui est vrai: & de laisser aux auditeurs et aux lecteurs à tirer de toute verité qui leur est presentée lusage qui leur semblera raisonnable, et utile, ce n’est pas à moi à trier pour les autres les vérités qui leur conviennent, c’est à eux à se les adapter; je désapprouve les fraudes pieuses et n’aime guères mieux les dissimulations, les retiscences pieuses.’
At the end of her life Isabelle de Charrière planned to write a defence of scepticism. However, the state of mind of the sceptic who realizes that nothing can be known, who is convinced of nothing, who refrains from passing judgment on anything was, in her life, inimical to Isabelle de Charrière, who was passionate, energetic and decisive. Nevertheless her novels reveal her to have been fascinated by indecision, by delayed choice, by problems where the grounds for opting for one course of action or another are very finely balanced. Those who suffer as a result of this delayed choice are usually women, but beneath the apparently feminist slant of her novels there lies a deeper concern with human freedom.
Isabelle de Charrière’s scepticism and her undogmatic approach to novel-writing; the difficulty characters like William in Caliste find in making decisions - the problem of choosing one course of action which will exclude another; and Isabelle de Charriere’s passionate interest in questions of freedom and suffering: these are a profound link with Benjamin Constant and Adolphe. My discovery this year of a novel written in collaboration by Madame de Charrière and Benjamin Constant, probably in 1787-1788, and to which I have given the provisional title of Lettres de d’Arsillé fils, Sophie Durfé et autres, confirms the importance of Isabelle de Charrière in Constant’s development and the extent of the common ground between them. Set in Lausanne before the French Revolution this epistolary novel is the story of D’Arsillé fils, 20 years old, ambitious, clever, a brilliant salon conversationalist and a proud aristocrat who torments his cousin, Sophie Durfé whose father is a merchant, by his ironic and cruel criticisms of her. Sophie loves him, and he is fond of her, but he constantly postpones improving his behaviour towards her (which becomes especially hurtful when D’Arsille is jealous of a supposed rival). The novel appears to have been abandoned at the point where D’Arsillé is to be sent away to Paris at Sophie’s father’s expense and where a new character, Sir George Lindsay is intending to marry Sophie and take her to England.
In the Lettres de d’Arsillé fils the descriptions, both physical and intellectual, of the central figure closely resemble Benjamin Constant at the age of twenty (which he was in 1787), and the tensions between D’Arsillé fils, his uncle Monsieur Durfé and his cousin Sophie remind us of Benjamin Constant’s difficulties in 1786 with his uncle Samuel de Constant and his cousins, especially Rosalie. There are other elements in the novel which also reflect Constant’s recent experiences, notably his escapade in England and Scotland of the summer of 1787. A remark by Sir George Lindsay to his correspondent ‘le Comte Bachmatief’ compares Lake Windermere in the English Lake District with Lake Geneva, to the disadvantage of the latter, and we recall that Constant had written to Isabelle de Charrière about a boat trip on Lake Windermere (indeed he began a letter-novel in Westmoreland...). The very name of ’le Comte Bachmatief’ can only have been suggested by Constant’s friendship at Edinburgh University in 1783-1785 with a Russian medical student, Iurii Alekseevich Bakhmetev, son of a nobleman, an acquaintance Constant had no doubt been able to renew when he revisited his old friends in Edinburgh in August 1787.
The Lettres de d’Arsillé fils have as their theme a man’s indecision, his reluctance to choose. D’Arsillé fils is well aware of the shortcomings in his character and of the suffering he is causing Sophie by his treatment of her (she has become ‘triste’ and ‘serieuse’). He appears, however, unwilling or unable to change, and asks for the continued forbearance of those he has hurt: ’Ma chere Sophie, ne Soiez plus si sevère: nous sommes destinés à vivre ensemble, quelque tems du moins, longtems j’espere. aimons nous; supportez moi; engagez votre Père à me supporter aussi. à mon âge on est étourdi, on croit n’être que gai, & l’on afflige. j’en suis toujours au désespoir, quand je m’en apperçois après coup. mais que faire alors? des excuses éternelles vous ennuyeroient, & vous ennuyer après vous avoir déplu, ce seroit être trop mal heureux [...] je veux, je dois etre votre ami: vous devez à mon amitié, à ma tendresse vive & Sincère, de me pardonner mes inégalites. il est difficile d’etre longtems loin de vous & toujours sans humeur.’
In exploring these contradictions in the personality of D’Arsillé fils the Lettres provide as it were a missing link between Caliste and Constant’s Adolphe. It is curious that Isabelle de Charrière raised the problem again not long before she died. On 22 August 1805 she wrote to Benjamin Constant about Godwin’s recent novel Fleetwood: ’Je suis précisement de votre avis sur Fleetwood. C’est dommage que les hommes si bien avertis de tout ce qu’ils sont ne puissent pour cela changer en rien.’
The following year Constant began to write Adolphe.
* Voor een Nederlandse vertaling van de volledige lezing zie het tijdschrift Tirade van juni 1981. - A Dutch translation of the complete paper has been published in Tirade, Amsterdam, June 1981.
Lettre de Zuylen et du Pontet, no. 6 (september 1981), pp. 6-7.