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Two hundred years ago Isabelle de Charrière died in a village of Switzerland, a rather discrete and stoic end for this woman of the Enlightenment who had, during her entire life, cherished a simple way of life. She did not like the Pantheon nor did she think that genius exempted writers from the common duties of humankind. And it is impossible to know how she would consider our academic celebrations, in particular those consisting in remembering authors once every fifty years for the anniversary of their births and also of their deaths. But after a rather untypical literary career and a posthumous reception of her work characterised by a long period of neglect and a belated recognition, Isabelle de Charrière belongs now to the group of authors we identify with the Enlightenment in 2005. To mark the bicentenary of her death with an international conference is an important gesture, even though the arbitrariness of dates makes us smile. A conference serves to confirm the place of her work among the European heritage we deem important to transmit in our classes at University. It pays homage also to the all important contribution of those who, thanks to the publisher G. A. van Oorschot, have literally brought her texts to light by gathering and editing them in the Œuvres complètes (1979-1984): Simone Dubois-De Bruyn et Pierre H. Dubois, Jean-Daniel Candaux, Cecil P. Courtney, Patrice Thompson, Jeroom Vercruysse and Dennis M. Wood.

The international conference organised – at the initiative of the (Dutch and Swiss) “Associations Isabelle de Charrière” – by Suzan van Dijk, Madeleine van Strien-Chardonneau, Yvette Went-Daoust, Margriet Lacy-Bruijn, Marie-Christine Kok Escalle and Magda van Noordenburg was necessary and expected. This book is a first result from the papers presented between 7 and 9 April 2005 at the University of Utrecht and from the discussions, formal and informal, that accompanied them. These proceedings are revealing of what has been achieved in Charrière studies since the publication of the Œuvres complètes but also, simultaneously, of the number of open questions that keep arising like so many open doors onto a work which we have not yet embraced in so far as it requires a perpetual fine tuning of our intellectual habits.

Revising “our” Enlightenment
Often unhappy with herself and with the lack of continuity of her work – what she called its “décousu” – but also pleased to parade a defiant attitude of carelessness towards the constraints of the literary field of her time, Charrière actually challenges our own ways as researchers. Her work, indeed, does not consist simply of some nice womanly novels to add to the programmes of our classes. It consists more fundamentally in a sharp and critical perspective which obliges scholars of the twenty-first century to revise “their” Enlightenment: questioning the implications of universalism, the male-centred nature of discourse, the role of languages and the possibility for voices belonging to cultural minorities like hers of being heard. To read with care her letters, her novels, pamphlets and plays means accepting some modifications to our picture of the Enlightenment which may come out of the process altered in places. Including all or part of her work in the programme of a course or conference obliges us moreover to question the limits of the field of literary criticism such as it has been structured since the nineteenth century, that is, along the lines of national canons. As a Dutch woman who spoke a number of languages, who spent half her life in Switzerland and chose French as her writing language, Charrière presents us with a dilemma: maintaining her hard-earned position as a canonical author by treating her as a “great French writer” while overlooking what ties her in to her native culture (the Netherlands) and to her adopted culture (Switzerland) or looking at the Swiss and Dutch aspects of her work with the risk of her being again relegated to a secondary position in literary history.

Fortunately, by offering “education and creation” as the general theme of the conference, Suzan van Dijk and her colleagues have opened the field of Charrière studies to a number of disciplinary approaches. We were invited to consider not only the writer, the novelist in particular, but also the pedagogue, that is, the woman, the philosopher, the thinker and the musician. Thus the Utrecht conference enabled us to inscribe Charrière in a field of study that was not regulated by the literary canon, making it possible to address the complexity of her cultural position. An important innovation, compared to the first Charrière conference that took place in Neuchâtel in 1993, lay in the fact that the Utrecht conference was held in three languages: French, English and Dutch. Significant efforts and small compromises were thus expected from the participants, but, in this respect too, the option taken by the organisers imposed de facto its own range of questions by multiplying the cultural perspectives on Charrière’s work. Finally, by being largely open to gender related issues, the Utrecht conference made obvious the role that Charrière can play in a reassessment of the Enlightenment by gender studies. The very place where the conference was held, the beautiful Senate room of the University of Utrecht, the walls of which are covered with pictures of exclusively male figures, acted as a constant reminder of the fact that subversion was inseparable from writing and thinking for a woman of Charrière’s time.

A transdisciplinary reading
Education and creation… Rather like Viginia Woolf who had been asked to speak about “women and fiction”, each participant was free to interpret the meaning of the word “and”: the impact of education on creation, education as a creative act, creation as an educational process, creation on one side, education on the other…. The title of the conference was an invitation to think about two concepts that pervade the entire life and the entire work of Charrière and in relation to which she appears to have held an original if not marginal position. Since the publication of the Œuvres complètes, literary criticism has focused on her singularity as a writer: singularity of her aesthetic options, of her novelistic forms, of her publishing strategies or of her characters… Education, for its part, was so far treated essentially from a biographical angle, either as a practical contribution to the Enlightenment or as an ersatz of motherhood, and researchers would go to the correspondence to look for traces of Charrière’s relationships with young men and women to whom she gave lessons and advice. The “teaching devil” in her, her “mischief” as an “opwindeuse” still begged for further analysis and needed to be related to her literary output . The Utrecht conference has opened the way to a truly transdisciplinary reading of Charrière’s production and we could see that the position of critical marginality which characterises her as a novelist applies equally to her as a pedagogue. Without breaking away from the Enlightenment, she is constantly responding to, refining or pushing arguments one step further and testing general statements of all kinds. This is why, by the time we reached the end of the conference, we realised that the processes of creation and reception were inseparable from each other as creation actually meant, as far as Charrière is concerned, “reception and recreation of what had been created”. The necessity to address simultaneously the two ends of the literary process – creation and reception – appeared as obvious as the need to take into account the two ends of her epistolary exchange.

The proceedings of the conference are, therefore, organised along three main headings. In the first part readers will find papers chiefly devoted to education. In the second part, the emphasis bears more on creation, while the third section gathers those reflections raised by the Dutch and European framework of the conference and the questions it raised about the significance of the cultural context of Charrière’s work and its reception.

Each article is preceded by abstracts in both English and French where readers will find the information they need about contents. Considering that the requirements of a conference differ from those of a book, the editors have decided to publish articles in this volume in French or English only. This collection, indeed, will reflect the present state of research in Charrière studies. The editors find it important, therefore, to address these proceedings to the academic community by relying on two international languages. Dutch readers, however, have not been forgotten, the editors keeping in mind that the conference was originally destined to and received by a largely Dutch audience. A further publication of these articles in Dutch is already planned together with the translation of relevant texts by Charrière.

In order to make the reading of Charrière’s texts easier, editors have chosen to adopt a modern form of French spelling for quotations. In the articles in French the spelling of quotations has thus been modernised and in the articles in English quotations have been translated but readers can find them in French in the footnotes. We thank Jo Nesbitt for checking the articles and abstracts in English.

Belle de Zuylen and Utrecht University
The conference has largely benefited from the attention paid by the University of Utrecht to its former fellow citizen. Participants were received not only in the Senate room but also in the “Belle de Zuylen Room”. And the chair which bears her name, the Belle de Zuylen chair, went this spring to Monique Moser-Verrey, a specialist of Charrière, whose oratie inaugurated the conference. In this volume too, her beautiful article shows us the way, so to speak. Focusing on the presence of castles and avenues in Charrière’s works, it makes us understand how this novelistic topography enabled her to imagine and represent new forms of the social contract. Monique Moser-Verrey is professor of comparative literature at the University of Montreal and she has already devoted numerous articles to Charrière. The publication of this book, within such a short time after the conference, owes much to her presence in Utrecht and to her commitment to Charrière studies. We are happy, indeed, to present this book in the very year of the “bicentenaire”, the first copy being destined to to the next recipient of the Belle de Zuylen chair. Following Monique Moser-Verrey, the French historian Nicole Pellegrin is holding it from October until December 2005. As a specialist of the history of women and of gender construction, she devoted her opening lecture to Charrière’s own attitude towards history and the writing of history. This contribution to Charrière studies can be regarded as extending the section devoted to education in the present volume. It is likely, moreover, to indicate interesting paths of research to a Faculty of Letters which has already welcomed gender studies, and to a University which proves to be conscious of the importance of her who might be said the “second female student” of its history.

SvD, July 2008

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