The Portrait of Zelide

Geoffrey Scott, Author, Shirley Hazzard, Introduction by Turtle Point Press $13.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-885983-19-0
""[W]ere Madame de Charriere and Benjamin [Constant] lovers? The subject has its pedantries like any other. I will not explore them. Psychologically, the character of their relation is abundantly clear; technically, the inquiry would be inconclusive."" What a relief. For anyone who has waded through any recent 600-, 800-, 1000-page biography (and that's just Vol. I), this slim book is a revelation of psychological acuity, the soul of the biographer's art. In 1925, Scott, an English man of letters, one-time librarian and secretary to Bernard Berenson and author of The Architecture of Humanism, published this biography of Isabelle de Charriere, who wrote using the pen name Zelide. Born Isabella van Serooskerken van Tuyll in 1740, the Dutch girl earned early recognition around Europe for her precocious intellect. She had a dozen or so suitors, including the impossibly egotistical Boswell, but her uncompromising, somewhat perverse devotion to ratiocination led her to marry her brothers' lackluster tutor. Her most renowned relationship, however, took place some 15 years later, when she met Benjamin Constant, a man 27 years her junior. That eight-year relationship informs the bulk of the book and for Scott, the story of Zelide and Benjamin and Madame de Stael, the woman he left her for, is nothing less than Europe's renunciation of reason and the Enlightenment for sensibility and Romanticism. If the book is stained by the occasional outdated prejudice or over-warm metaphor, it is a small price to pay for Scott's keen observations and interpretations. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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