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Portrait de Zélide


Portrait de Zélide is one of the three literary portraits Belle de Zuylen is known to have written. Her self-portrait, unlike the other two describing the Hasselaer cousins, is not a complimentary piece. In it she critically looks at herself, her ambitions, her relations with others and arrives at the conclusion that she cannot be happy.
The Portrait, written in the autumn of 1762, has many themes in common with the letters Belle then wrote to Constant d’Hermenches. She was also influenced by her reading of Rousseau’s Emile: there are striking parallels between his description of Sophie and Belle’s Zélide.
Although Portrait de Zélide never appeared in print, it was generally known in literary circles and looked upon as an oddity. In an extensive analysis written by a friend it is said that Belle has been too hard on herself. There was nothing desperate about her situation. Once she had met the right man she would realize that there was more to life than friends and literary fame.
In answer to these comments two additions were written. Belle had not meant to give readers the impression she was completely selfish. She found it difficult to understand why she had not been criticized for representing Zélide as a model of friendship and concluded by distinguishing herself from the unenlightened majority of people who would never understand her.
Passages from Belle’s Portrait can be found in contemporary character descriptions, but it may well be that it also inspired others to depict their friends not with a string of compliments but as complex human beings like Zélide.

SvD, July 2008

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