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"It is only in the past decade . . . that Isabelle de Charrière's writings have been recognized as the remarkable resource they are: an indelibly fresh register of a whole period, as well as of one woman's exploration of 'how to be yourself without stepping out of the system.'"—Annette Kobak, Times Literary Supplement
— Annette Kobak
In February of 1760, Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll van Serooskerken and her family attended a ball given at the Hague by the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, commanding officer of the military forces in Holland, to mark the marriage of the sister of the Stadholder Willem V. On that evening she met for the first time David-Louis Constant de Rebecque, Seigneur d'Hermenches et de Villars-Mendraz. Belle de Zuylen and Constant d'Hermenches had never been formally introduced, but when she caught sight of the arresting figure—he was in full uniform and wearing his distinctive black headband—she took measures to remedy that. "You took no notice of me, but I saw you," she wrote later. "I spoke to you first—`Monsieur, you're not dancing?'" After that evening she left the Hague for Utrecht quite suddenly. Her first letter to him is yet another initiative on her part, acknowledging the offer of his friendship that he had evidently made to her.
59. To Constant d'Hermenches, March 22, 1760
I will not dissemble, Monsieur; ever rash and imprudent, I will let myself be guided by the trust that some people immediately inspire, and of which you spoke to me one day. This guide may not be very sure, but it is so persuasive that one can be pardoned for following it. If you were ever to make me repent my credulity, I would have reason to hate you, and you may be sure that I would not fail to do so.
The music you would like to send me will be most welcome; Ishall learn it with great pleasure.
I was distressed at not going to the opera, and at leaving without saying goodbye to you; it is to make up for that omission that I am writing this letter. I entreat you, Monsieur, to continue to maintain for me the offer that you made to me at the concert, though I cannot hope to hold it altogether in suspension. I will confess to you that it had occurred to me to make use of it 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 that, and realized that if this exchange were discovered it would cause such terrible indignation that I have entirely given up the idea. We will see whether the friend's friendship can be sustained without anything to nourish it; I am inclined to doubt it—and whatever he says, I have a better opinion of his intellect than of his heart.
This letter requires no answer, and I expect none. If, however, you really want to reply, address the envelope to Mme Geelvinck at the house of the late Mme de Delen; but do not wait long, for the Widow is leaving in a week.
Please send me the music quite openly, by way of my sister, as you said. Let us avoid any air of mystery: nothing is more inimical to secrecy.
I dare not recommend it to you, this secrecy—it would be offensive. But keep in mind that neither my parents nor the public would forgive me for this recklessness if they came to know of it, and be prudent as well as discreet, I implore you.
Will you not find it matter for strange reflections that in spite of all these fears I still find pleasure in sending you all this silliness? Burn it quickly, Monsieur, and forget it; my fears seem to lend it more meaning than it can claim; that displeases me.
Agnes Isabelle de T de S.
If you answer me, do not forget your sacred and solemn promise to be sincere.
No answer to that first letter has been preserved. Belle and d'Hermenches had another opportunity to see each other on June 4, 1762, at a ball given at the Hague by the British ambassador, Sir Joseph Yorke, to celebrate the birthday of King George III.
The complications of conducting a clandestine correspondence figure in these next several letters, and the participants named in this one were to have continuing roles to play. Cornelis de Perponcher de Sedlnitzky (1733-76), a councillor in the Court of Justice of Holland, was courting Belle's sister, Mitie, at this time; he married her in 1763. Count Anthony Bentinck van Rhoon (1734-68) was the husband of Belle's cousin Maria Catharina, née van Tuyll; he was governor of the city of Woerden.
61. To Constant d'Hermenches, July 23-24, 1762
After all, why should I constrain myself, and refuse you something that is essentially innocent, that you've seemed ardently to desire, and which for that very reason I find pleasure in granting you? You have sworn to me that I was running no risk—that there would be no more danger in speaking to you or in writing to you than there would be in simply thinking. Very well, then; I want to believe you—even though in these circumstances your word would not appear to be an altogether sure guarantee. I will adopt, Monsieur, the opinion of you that you have prescribed for me. You may laugh at my credulity, but do not punish me for it—it does you too much honor; and remember the friendship that you so solemnly swore to me. When I absolutely refused to write to you, I did not know that a severe congestion would put you at death's door, and might prevent me from seeing you ever again.
Besides that, I did not know how to go about it in complete safety. My father and my mother watch over me very closely because they love me a great deal; and because I love them very much as well, I am in despair when I cause them grief or anxiety. The conduit through which I am getting this letter to you leaves me nothing to fear on that score; and as for what is called "decorum," since it is founded only on opinion, I see no great evil in violating it when doing so neither alarms virtue nor disturbs good order.
Little by little, this apologia—which I thought I needed to address both to myself and to you, Monsieur—has become very long, and yet I find that nothing less will do; I could even wish it longer, to justify my indulgence—and who knows whether this letter will ever be sent?
Here, then, is the story that I spoke of, and that you have so insistently requested. You will remember, perhaps, that after our first meeting, also, I left the Hague without saying goodbye to you, and I was sorry; whether out of vanity or friendship—or both—I would have liked to carry away with me the assurance of your esteem and your remembrance. To console myself, and to compel you to think about me, I began writing to you the night before my departure. For various reasons, I was unable to finish; I slipped the letter into my portfolio and forgot that it was there. Several days after my return to Utrecht, when I was at the ball, I went to fetch something from it during supper, and all my letters fell out without my seeing it happen. I had already returned to the ballroom when a young man picked them up; my mother asked him for them immediately, and they were given to her. Someone came to tell me about it; I remembered that something could have been found that would cause me trouble, and I was seized by an indescribable anxiety—which I hid as well as I could. In a bantering tone, I asked to have my letters back; I tried to seem cheerful and calm, but with no success. My mother, whether out of suspicion or simply out of curiosity, refused to give them back to me. When I got home, my chambermaid and I (she is devoted to me) racked our brains to find a way to get them back. We could find none that didn't expose me to more risks than the ones I was trying to avoid.
I spent the night in mortal fear, and the next day everything I had dreaded did in fact take place. I won't recount to you our conversation, although it is still vivid in my mind—there are scenes that cannot be erased. To imagine this one, you have only to picture a father and a mother whose morals and ideas of decorum are very rigid; whose daughter and her reputation are infinitely dear to them; and who found in that sign of recklessness a thousand reasons to fear, both for the present and the future. On the other side, there was the most affectionate daughter in the world, and she was in fact a little guilty—even guiltier than they thought, for I did not confess that I had sent yet another letter. From what I had said, they believed that my intention to write had been only a moment's whim, and that it had not recurred. Sincere and scrupulous as I am in the matter of probity, the need to deceive my parents was not the least of my sufferings. I succeeded without much difficulty, but I was almost sorry at my success: when our heart is touched, it is all the more painful to deceive the people who love us. But on that occasion the truth, without doing any good, would have done so much harm that I resisted the inclination to tell it. They asked me whom the letter was addressed to. I absolutely refused to reply, and they did not press me; but was it difficult to guess? I had spoken a great deal about you; I had hardly spoken of anyone else.
So consider, Monsieur, whether I could have given you any other greeting at the theater, or whether I was wrong in refusing to write.
That this episode has left so little distrust in my parents' minds increases my scruples all the more; I showed sincere regret for having been about to do something that would distress them. To reassure them, I pretended to find in such a correspondence many more risks and more impropriety than I really saw in it; is that not a tacit promise?—And if an explicit promise is sacred and inviolable, isn't it at least a little base not to honor this one—especially since my parents rely (or pretend to rely) on the idea that their trust is more likely than anything else to restrain a scrupulous and generous person?
This present letter may be excusable—it's merely explaining to you my conduct—but it seems to me that other letters would not be. I see what one might answer—but even so, would it not be more honorable of me not to write? I could tell you that you would lose nothing by it, and that my letters would hardly give pleasure to a man accustomed to those of Monsieur de Voltaire and his like; but whether that were true or not, you would find in such a speech more affectation than modesty. Besides, it would almost oblige you to answer me; and I would just as soon you did not. —If, however, you wish to anyway, answer me not by the post, but by the boat that comes directly to Utrecht and that leaves Thursdays and Saturdays. I know by experience that they open the letters at the post. The address on the envelope of your letter must be to Monsieur de Perponcher; he is too much a gentleman to lack discretion, and he respects me too much to have scruples about obliging me in this way. You will not have the same fears as you did regarding my friend, and there will be no need of a receipt.
Agnes is much obliged to you for the charming verses. I couldn't send you the little trifles that I've written and that I write every day for my own amusement; I rarely keep a copy. You can ask my cousin Anthony and my friends in Amsterdam for some when you see them.
The first proof of friendship that you must give me is to burn this letter. An accident or a moment's distraction can do as much harm as a deliberate treachery; the safest thing is to burn it. If I did not entreat you out of prudence I would do so out of vanity: I would be annoyed if you read it a second time. It was written with innumerable interruptions, and I doubt that I have ever written anything worse; you will hardly be able to reproach me for having whetted a taste for what I am refusing you.
My eyes are drooping with sleepiness; I must stop. Farewell, Monsieur
The night of July 23, 1762
After next Friday I will no longer expect your letters. I don't know whether Monsieur Perponcher is staying any longer in Utrecht. His address is in the Zaale Straat. There is no need to write, and if you do not write I will certainly not draw any conclusions that might be unfavorable to you or unpleasant for me; but in the name of God, if you write, forget none of the precautions that I advise—no blunders, no carelessness. I shall never forget how I spent the days between the episode I have recounted to you and my receipt of your letter. Your distrust of my friend made you delay longer than I expected; since I did not suspect your fears, I imagined all kinds of accidents and anticipated all sorts of unpleasantness. I do not exhort you to discretion; I judge, Monsieur, of your feelings by my own, and I count on your friendship.
Belle learned that her letter was forwarded to England, where d'Hermenches was visiting his twelve-year-old son, Guillaume-Anne Constant de Villars, who was at school there.
62. To Constant d'Hermenches, July 27, 1762
My God! how I regret having written 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. With only the ladies of the Hague to choose from, a man can't afford to be too particular, but things may be different in London, and there my letter may well make you think that it would have been no crime for me to forget your request and stand by my refusal.
My cousin Bentinck wanted to write to me; I had asked him to give me news of you. All of a sudden, he imagined that his letters were not good enough and that I would judge them too critically; and that is why, Monsieur, I was unaware of your departure; once again I am very sorry. If—in spite of the distance, the joy of seeing your son again, and the pleasure of conversing with sages—you have the time and inclination to write to me, address your letter to the Councillor Perponcher at the Hague and it will be sure to reach me. As for my cousin Anthony Bentinck, I don't want him to know a word of all this.
Here are some verses I have just sent him, which you are free to find quite bad, since I do not offer them as good:
Bien chimérique, honneur frivole!
Combien tu sais nous éblouir!
Aux autels d'une vaine idole
Notre bonheur même s'immole,
Notre raison va s'asservir.
Heureux le mortel assez sage
Pour dédaigner de se faire applaudir,
Qu'après la gloire on ne voit point courir,
Et qui du plus brillant suffrage
Croirait trop payer l'avantage
S'il l'achetait d'un moment de plaisir.
Farewell, d'Hermenches. To be consistent with my reasoning and my virtues of the other day, I must converse with you no longer; if it were only my reputation that forbade it, I would not do such violence to my feelings, and you would have as many of my letters as you could wish.
Addressed as they were to Bentinck, the verses were made the more passable by their aptness: I had reproached him for a kind of humble vanity that was preventing him from doing something that he wanted to do; that led to these reflections on vanity in general.
Will you be put out if we go to Mme Hasselaer's while you are in London? In any case, it's not my doing; I have told you what I know about it.
It seems to me, Monsieur, that I cannot stop using a defensive tone with you—I must be extraordinarily afraid of seeming guilty to you. Still, I have scarcely been susceptible to your threat of confounding me with the majority of women. Someone who scorns them for their sentiments as much as you seem to do, and who, knowing me a only little, would pass such a judgment—such a person would not deserve to have me disabuse him, and would not offend me at all. By the way, the ladies of the Hague tear me to shreds; you may judge whether I'm greatly distressed by it.
This page is the product of idleness; I'm not at home, I am alone, I have no books, and so meanwhile I am finishing this. I have not yet told you how proud I am that you approve of "The Sparrows." Our Muses are to be commended for singing only of friendship.
63. From Constant d'Hermenches, August 7, 1762
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. I will begin by admitting to you, Mademoiselle, that I had judged you unworthy of my feelings for you; your last journey to the Hague had made me conclude that you were as frivolous as you were charming and witty; many little things confirmed this judgment, and I found it a pity that someone as gifted as you should pursue things to wonder at rather than substantial impressions.
What a sudden transition! All my attention is drawn toward the marvels of your heart—there is no doubt it is excellent. You remember my entreaties, my woes; you want to dispel the clouds that made me misjudge you. I would adore you even if you were ugly and sullen!
I can tell you without exaggerating that you write better than anyone I know in the whole world, not excepting Voltaire—so I will take care not to compete with you in that arena. In any case, it is not because of your wit that I attach myself to you: it is because you are good. I want to pay you homage by truth, by simplicity; all the ornaments that wit might add would only detract from feelings such as mine. If I had any wit, it is not on you that I would exercise it—it must serve only to impress fools or address dunces.
Do you imagine that, thinking as I do, I can altogether acquiesce in what you said about regretting having sent me an ill-written letter? —and about distrusting me because of persons with whom I may correspond! I could answer by saying that you have invested a great deal of wit in making the case that you are not as witty as you would like to be; that's like Jupiter complaining that his thunder isn't loud enough ...
But let's proceed to how this is affecting me. I believed you to be quite insensitive to my unhappiness at no longer seeing you, and very busy with new things; I thought that I had been shelved in your memory rather as certain books—books that one had wanted to acquire at any price and then has merely skimmed—get shelved in a library. I said, that's a pity: no one senses better than I do all her worth; no one could be more useful to her; I am not a dangerous connection for her—and yet she simply drops me! She has made me feel how happy one would be to be noticed by her, and then she forgets me ... I must seek out some diversion, since I cannot in turn forget her.
Content enough with what I saw day by day, yet barely affected by a thousand new discoveries, I returned to London after a journey through the provinces. There I find two letters, penned by an enchanting hand ... my eyes tell me what my heart dares not believe. Ten years ago, I would have recounted to you the welcome I gave them, and yet ten years ago I would not have felt so keenly all their worth. I am still in ecstasy; could it be meant for me alone, I ask myself, all this spontaneity, all this trust? When one writes so well, so nobly, with such ease, can it be that one has not yielded more than once to the temptation to make oneself admired? Agnes is a prodigy, compounded of perfections that I had never known! Why must she be confined to the ordinary sphere of her sex—she who has of her sex only its beauty? May she have happiness and pleasures in proportion to the luminous rays of her genius! Criticism must blanch before the superiority of her talents! She has no rivals among men or women. May affectation—that rust that corrodes all the gifts of nature—never debase so much grace and true beauty!
What am I doing in this isle? I have fulfilled the duty that brought me here; what curiosity can make me stay, when I am separated from the rarest production of humanity? Come, let us pack our bags, take our leave, break all engagements. Ye elements, be propitious! I write these words, and I embark on the same ship that is to take them to you ...
So now I'm in Holland, even as you're reading this. But why must we pass through the hands of a Monsieur Perponcher? The more intimate the things I have to say, the less do I like to have them pass through generous hands; mercenary and anonymous confidants are always better—this I know by experience. A bought discretion is safer than a promised one—surely you understand? Someone who shares in a secret out of self-interest will conceal it, just as a person who keeps one out of generosity is tempted to claim credit for it. I would prefer that you simply have someone who puts your letters in the post, and who receives mine; you would be sheltered from conjectures and obligations, and from the need to manipulate.
The episode of the portfolio made me shudder. My God, am I worth it—your being put through such an ordeal? —But can it really be Agnes' mother who would use force to read things that fall out of her daughter's pockets, and who has to be begged to give them back? There are no relationships that authorize such plundering; I have never permitted myself such a thing even in moments when passion might excuse everything.
I have had many misfortunes in my life, lovely Agnes, but you make me forget them all; you reconcile me with life, with human society; if only I could reciprocate in some way all the good you do me! — You see how I write to you—in haste, in the torrent of first sensations. One would need to study and choose his words to answer you as one should; you couch things miraculously.
I will be at the Hague very shortly; if you are staying with Mme Hasselaer, I can go there. I can pass by Utrecht, I can meet at the Widow's; we can write every day. They never open letters at the post—and besides, our language is indecipherable in these climes, believe me.
You are very kind to thank me for my naughty reply to your charming poem "The Sparrows"; I wanted to answer in the requisite form, but I was still too sick; you will certainly have grasped my objections better than I could have expressed them. You have a singular talent for poetry; I especially admire how thoroughly you possess its language and rules. Everything that Anthony has shown me of yours is full of reflections and felicitous phrases ... I cannot get used to seeing your handwriting in his hands; it's like a canary playing up to a hoot-owl.
I hope I will have the happiness of talking to you more freely about all these things; you will be able to judge of my devotion and esteem by my openness.
You have said that there was a question of a marriage for you. Please be good enough to inform me of everything that concerns you; describe to me the state of your soul, your wishes, your pleasures. You have too much spirit and imagination not to need counsel.
Who are these ladies of the Hague who tear you to shreds? I have heard no such thing; I have seen altogether unanimous approbation of your genius, your bearing, your graces. Perhaps you have given short-sighted people the occasion to suspect you of a pretention to being an intellectual; that is a pitfall, when indeed one has a great deal of intellect together with a great deal of honesty. There's a charlatanism for people of wit just as there is for fools: the former hide what they have too much of, the latter make it seem that they have what they don't—and in that consists the equilibrium of Society.
Farewell, adorable Agnes; in truth, all the words of devotion, respect, passion, are too feeble to express everything that I feel for you. I am, until the last breath of my life, the most zealous of your friends and the most submissive of your servants.
Belle and her parents had been visiting Mme Hasselaer at Westerhout, her country house at Beverwijk near Wijk aan Zee in northern Holland. Westerhout will be the scene of several episodes treated in the correspondence. D'Hermenches stopped off there on his way from England, but since Belle had not received his letter, she was disconcerted by his appearing.
64. To Constant d'Hermenches, September 9, 1762
If I had received your letter sooner, Monsieur, my gratitude would have made me risk everything to secure you a better welcome at Mme Hasselaer's; but I had not received it, and I was not even sure that I was one of the reasons for your journey. The anxiety visible in my parents' faces and the excessive attention with which they watched over me made me regard your visit as a misfortune rather than as a pleasure—or, rather, what would have been a pure pleasure in other circumstances was, in these, mingled with pain. After the whist party, when I saw that you really did not want to have supper with us, I was in despair at having offended you; above all, I feared that you might leave the next day without my having the opportunity to set things straight. Fortunately I did see you again, and I made reparations as much as I could and should; I made my apologies to you and you seemed to receive them.
It is in order to complete that regaining of your esteem that I write today; after this, I hope that I will write no more, and that I shall know how to sacrifice an amusement for the sake of prudence and scrupulousness. Many reasons forbid me to write, beyond those I have already recounted. I hear it incessantly repeated, even by those who admire you, that you are the most dangerous of men, and that one cannot be too much on one's guard with you. Besides its being a kind of temerity on my part to prefer my prejudice in your favor to the judgment of the whole world, that very judgment would guarantee the loss of my reputation if an accident or an imprudence made anyone suspect a correspondence between us.
But even aside from public opinion, I see well enough by your letter that this correspondence would not be suitable. The two letters for which you thank me were perhaps already too much, but my motive for writing them was innocent; I only wanted to give you some pleasure and to justify myself. Your esteem was precious to me, and I wanted you to think of me as something other than a completely frivolous person, full of vanity and coquetry, unworthy and incapable of friendship. But by no means did I wish that the possibility of seeing me again would make you leave England ... A friend that I might want to keep would not be so very zealous—he does not express himself as you do; nor could I take everything you say merely as conventional politeness. It seems to me, Monsieur, that either you are, or else you pretend to be, more than a friend ... and I would want neither to sustain a folly nor to be the dupe of a deception. Not only would it be shameful, it would be very risky for me; you have too much art, too many talents; that wit that you seem to disdain, you use with too much advantage. If it is true that you were so preoccupied with me—with my forgetting you—even in England; if it is true that my letters gave you so much joy that they quite precipitated your return; then how do you expect me to regard you as a man who can give me only useful advice, or as a connection that would have nothing dangerous about it? And if it all amounts merely to pretty things said simply for the pleasure of saying them, then what becomes of that truth, that simplicity, all those sentiments on which I should base my so great trust? You see, Monsieur, that I would have to be very blind or very coquettish to consent to this proposal of frequent letters and intimate liaison. It vexes me, I admit, to have to give up the most charming letters in the world, and the pleasure of writing without constraint to a man who would understand me so well—on whom nothing would be lost. Unfortunately there are only a very few things that amuse me; a correspondence like yours would amuse me—it would flatter me and instruct me—and thus the sacrifice of it is difficult.
It is, in fact, such a noble sacrifice that I dare not be entirely sure I will be capable of it; I will try my best, however, and to begin with I will not give you any address for answering me. Your objections to trusting the discretion of friends are very well founded. I will buy someone's discretion to get this letter to you, and any others that I may write you later to show you something or to inform you of some interesting change in my situation. When I want to ask your advice I will give you a safe address.
Permit me to say nothing to you yet about my marrying; that may still be a long way off. I have not yet made any commitment, and I am not on the point of making up my mind.
I was much amused by the canary playing up to the hoot-owl; at least that owl will do no harm, which is better than
A cat with smooth insinuating ways
in whom the canary might fail to recognize the cat-tribe's malice: imprudently romping with him, it could forget the danger and realize it only after it was too late. The canary acts as you say: it is drawn to kindness, and prefers it to wit. You should applaud it for that conduct. You must admit that when you were making that pretty comparison, and took it ill that the hoot-owl should have some of my writing, you had strayed very far from your fine system.
You say that I have invested a great deal of wit in persuading people that I did not have much of it; you invest much too much in proving that you scorn it, and that you'd prefer to have none of it.
I am very glad, Monsieur, that you are pleased with my style and my verses; doubtless there must be some truth in your praises. What you say to me about the pretention to wit is very judicious; I will make the best use of it I can. It isn't really a deliberate pretention: when I am amused I say almost at random whatever comes into my head, and that's not always appropriate. When I'm bored I am unfortunately frank enough to yawn and fall asleep, which is humiliating and unkind. People say that I disdain all ordinary conversation, and that I think that my intellect is superior to everyone else's. People also take it amiss that I want to know more than most women; they do not know that, being subject to a black melancholy, I have no health—nor, so to speak, life—except by continual occupation of my mind. By no means do I believe that a great deal of knowledge makes a woman more estimable, but I cannot do without learning things; it is a necessity under which I am placed by my upbringing and my way of life. Besides, why should I do violence to an innocent taste? So long as I am not at all vain, and do not neglect my duties, what can people reproach me for? Perhaps someone could prove to me that learning is incompatible with our duties; in that case, I ask forgiveness ... But people do me too much honor or too much injury in believing me to be very enlightened; at the very most I have taken a few steps in that direction.
You said to me that evening at Mine Hasselaer's that your letter was no longer worth anything; did you mean that I had destroyed your favorable opinion of me? That I had caused your esteem to vanish, and had extinguished your friendship? I hope not, Monsieur. It may well be that my conduct is inconsistent and heedless, but that, at any rate, is my whole crime.
You say that before you received my letters, you believed yourself to be shelved in my memory like books in a library books that one had wanted to acquire at any price, but then had barely skimmed. That will never be your fate; but you are for me like those rare and precious things that one has been foolish enough to want to acquire and keep at any price, even though one can make no use of them. I have sought too hard to be noticed and then esteemed by you, since we can gain very little by it: we can neither see each other nor write to each other. That is what you must find ridiculous; that is what you should reproach me with—but only as a folly and an imprudence.
I have done nothing, it seems to me, that might make me unworthy of your esteem, and I would be very sorry to lose it a second time. I want to continue to count for something in your thoughts; I hope that you will always take an interest in me, that you will always be my friend. What does it matter if your friendship is useless? ... but perhaps it will be useful to me from time to time. I am very grateful for what you have done in order to see me, although I am sorry you have been to so much trouble, especially since you have had so little success. Your praises flatter me; your good opinion of my heart pleases me.
I was touched by the passage in your letter where you tell me that I make you forget your misfortunes—that I reconcile you with the human race. If what you say is sincere, I regret having to renounce the pleasure of rendering you such a great service. But if to the advantages of fortune, health, superior talents, you join virtue, humanity, true philosophy—you will not need my help to forget your misfortunes, or to love life and humanity. May you henceforth have only happy moments!
Do not count on my letters, Monsieur, for a very long time. Anthony will sometimes be able to give you news of me. That is my conclusion, and the only prudent decision. I will also be able to receive news of you through my cousin—but no more writing. Farewell.
65. From Constant d'Hermenches, September 14 or 21, 1762
Tuesday, at the Hague
Monsieur Perponcher asks me so kindly and so naturally whether I have nothing to send you by way of him, that I think I can do it without your blaming me. —Sublime, almost divine being! —I hesitated, however, all day yesterday, and if he had not come into my room this morning to ask me if my package was ready, I would still be caught in this dilemma—caught between an ardent desire and the fear of displeasing the person who pleases me the most in the whole world, and for whom I have the most respect. I told him that I was having copies made of some verses that I had received, and that if they were ready, I would take the liberty of sending them to you through him; he told me that Obdam is also about to send you something; he gave me his address. Finally, he removed all my scruples about using such a channel, and I confess that the idea of binding myself and being obliged to someone who will soon be a family connection of yours utterly persuaded me.
But my God, what shall I say to you? You make a crime out of the most natural feeling I have ever experienced in my life. Just what are those expressions that bring down on me such harshness from you? You find too much fire, too much force in the exact account I have given you of the emotions your letters have aroused in me. Truly, Mademoiselle, you are unjust—however philosophical, however moderate you may be. Here is my answer: if ever you were to have the happiness of receiving something similar—I don't say from a man you love, but from a woman, and even a woman who would have only your ordinary respect—then pleasure, and admiration, and gratitude would arouse in you emotions like mine.
It seems to you that I am, or that I feign to be, more than a friend. I feign nothing, Mademoiselle; but if preferring you to everything that I know, prizing you for your true worth, feeling that one will be attached to you for life, regretting all the moments that one does not see you, being greedy for the moments when one might meet you—if all that goes beyond what is permissible for being your friend, then I acknowledge myself unworthy of that honor. That blaze of my friendship, which frightens you so, is only in proportion to the thing that is loved. I would be an ordinary friend if you were an ordinary person; and without metaphysicalizing over the word, I think I must tell you that I know of no difference between the true friend and the true lover; the price to be paid in both cases is to love; circumstances and situations dictate the terms of payment. Madame de Sévigné surely loved her daughter as much as Abelard could love Hé1oïse; the touchstone of true feeling is to give everything that one can give, according to one's principles or estate, and to sacrifice everything to the happiness and the well-being of the beloved. That is my idea of perfection in friendship, as in love, and I would have found no being worthy of it had I not known you. If our principles were in accord, if you found that I deserved your entire trust, it would be up to you to limit both my rights and the demonstrations of this sentiment that I have offered you under the name of pure and respectful friendship, which I will sustain until my last breath. And as for that commonplace that you use: How do you expect me to regard you as a man who can give me useful counsels, who would be in no way dangerous? etc. ... Admit that I need not respond. Must one turn for useful advice to someone luke-warm—someone who has more precious interests elsewhere? Do you believe that such a person would go to the trouble it would take to know your interests; would risk all by arguing with you; would persevere to sound the depths of your thoughts? I appeal to your good faith for the answer to that. I know very well that I have never consulted such friends—the world is teeming with them—except on the color of the clothes I wanted to buy, and that I have always lived to regret their flimsy and superficial advice.
Voltaire says somewhere: "Of friends—of friends one has none except one's mistress." And as for me, I tell you this: for a friend—for a useful friend—one has none except him who, while bearing in his heart the makings of an impassioned lover, also has that strength and that self-denial that keeps him within the limits of veneration and friendship. It is thus that Madame Guyon wanted to love God; but Madame Guyon was mad; she deceived herself; she conceived God to be most perfect being available to her senses. Do not take this as a sacrilege—I loathe such things. Please understand me: our hearts require a being such as ourselves, who can understand us, and whose language we know. Therein lies the error of the mystics, and that is what leads them to sacrilege, then to delirium, and then to crime. As for myself, I have proposed it to Agnes to regard me as someone who loves her completely; who knows both the impulsion and the constraints in that word completely, and to whom she can, in consequence, give all her trust. By that, I do not mean to eliminate all precautions, all the restrictions, that prudence dictates; I subscribe to all of them; she knows it, she has seen it. But may she never so insult me as to say that she would trust me more, would have more respect for me, if I were a trivial friend!
I am writing in big letters because our Councillor is supposed to believe that this is a literary work and not a letter; I write hastily because I have spent a long time deliberating whether I would base my response on yours, or follow the impulse of feeling; you see which choice I made, and I have too little time to reread and edit; so please fill in the gaps for me.
I must tell you that never in my life was I as embarrassed and ill at ease as I was in that visit to Beverwijk. I had gone there persuaded that you would be there without your parents—I had been told so positively. I believed for certain that you had received my letter; and I had to believe that you were expecting me, since you had not written to me not to come; it was solely a sacrifice that I made to your peace of mind not to have supper with you the first evening—for, what consideration did I owe people who were conducting themselves so improperly toward me? It was for propriety's sake that I stayed the second day, and I was glad I did. You certainly did everything you properly could to console me, and I will never forget that evidence of the beauty of your character.
How could you even bring up the term "respect" between the two of us? I am bound to respect the most reprehensible thing you might ever have done; you are so far above everyone else in the world, that what would be despicable in you would adorn and do honor to another! At the same time I want to show you my good faith.
Agnes, I have been so unworthy as to suspect you of showing some favor to that handsome flutist—to believe that perhaps you would have preferred that I not come to trouble your Society; and I was furious that your parents should fear my presence on your behalf while they were quite willing to have people believe that you received his attentions.
I wrote to you twenty times during that short stay. I was much disturbed; but I have never varied in my profound veneration for you. Thus, never take that tone with me, it mortally wounds me.
But tell me, I beg you, in what sense is it said that I am dangerous? I see prejudices against me that grieve me: many people avoid me; others, who would be my natural companions, fail to seek me out. I'm not talking about those whom jealousy or petty-mindedness would set against me, but people capable of judging and of feeling. Do they say that I am false or malicious?
I beg you to take as literal everything that I have said to you concerning your mind and your style. I can exaggerate nothing in this respect; I protest that I am utterly astonished at the aptness and the vivacity of your thoughts. You justify very well your taste for the occupations that are not the ordinary ones of your sex, but let me make one annotation: You are in no way permitted to be bored, nor to yawn. To begin with, a mind like yours must find occupation even in the smallest things; moreover, it is for this that the mind has been given to us, that we may work through difficult things. Vanquishing boredom, conforming to the tone of the people around us, is such a thing; and when all is said and done, a distracted and bemused air is what goes with a little head that cannot hold all that it may take in, not a good head that disdains trifles.
After innumerable difficulties, I have received the verses that you gave to Obdam; they are charming, and truly you are a poet; the ones you wrote on friendship are very good—the ideas are sound. The verses should begin only when you are no longer talking of "Sparrows." (There, you see how frank I am.)
Would you like me to send you an act of a tragedy? I had begun writing it purely as a joke on some people—I wanted to make them think it was by Voltaire, and they did; others did too. People are strongly urging me to finish the piece; I sense all the pitfalls, and the difficulty; and I will only undertake it when I am all alone in my forests at Hermenches. If you are willing not to make fun of me, and to give me your opinion, I will send it to the address of Monsieur Perponcher—provided that you prepare him and that you give me the order to do so.
I assure you, Mademoiselle, that it would be a great cheat for you not to write to me; it costs so little, and I feel so keenly its value that not to write would be burying your talents and your genius to absolutely no profit.
I am at your feet.
Here are some pamphlets that I am adding to fatten the packet; I have put in a few things of my own; among others Beaux Génies, etc., and I have arranged them as you find them.
I implore you to see me only as one who wants to do everything to please you; and so that I may not lose those privileges that a cool friendship, it seems, will allow me to hope for from you, cut and prune away pitilessly everything that you find excessive; but never suspect me of falsity. I will be simply a good old fellow of a friend rather than lose you.
Oui, mort coeur s'arrêtant sur un penchant si doux Veut à ce sentiment se borner avec vous.
Ah! if I had time, I would ask you what you mean by virtue in those marvelous words that conclude your letter; I am not lacking in it, if what you mean by it is humanity, beneficence, the forgetting of injuries, fidelity in my commitments, gratitude, respect for true merit; and it is often those very sentiments which sadden me and disturb my daily well-being.
|List of People Mentioned in the Letters||525|
|Short Titles for Cited Works||531|
|MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS|
|David-Louis Constant d'Hermenches (unknown artist)||xxxiv|
|Belle de Zuylen by Maurice Quentin de La Tour||xxxv|
|Northeastern Corsica in the 1760s||410|