Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, including his correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (Zélide)

by James Boswell

Hardcover, 1952




New York, McGraw-Hill [1952]


Door dagboekfragmenten en correspondentie wordt verslag gedaan van het jaar (1763-1764) dat de Schotse auteur James Boswell (1740-1795) rechten studeerde in Utrecht

Media reviews

The present volume chronologically follows BOSWELL'S LONDON JOURNAL, and in it we find young Boswell devoting his energies to becoming a man of dignity, sobriety and in obeisance to his father and Mr. Johnson. He has come to Utrecht to fill out his legal education in an accepted Scotch procedure. This volume contains only a fragment of the journal -- that written after leaving Utrecht -- since the rest of the work was lost during Boswell's lifetime.

User reviews

LibraryThing member thorold
If you wanted to be flippant, you could describe this as an early example of the literature of the gap year. A young man with a wealthy upper middle class Edinburgh background comes to the University of Utrecht for a year to study a bit of law, make contact with his Dutch relatives, fall in love a couple of times, and generally amuse himself.

The charms of this book are that the year is 1763-4; the Scotsman is the endlessly self-obsessed James Boswell; and one of the women he falls in love with is Belle de Zuylen.

Boswell's journal covering most of this period was unfortunately lost en route from Utrecht to Scotland, but Prof. Pottle managed to reconstruct a kind of narrative from other private papers that survived, including Boswell's "memoranda", his French compositions, and letters to and from various friends, which gives the book a curiously fragmented, post-modern feeling. The memoranda are the oddest and most revealing -- little admonitions he writes to himself every morning, analysing what was good and bad about yesterday, and what is going to be better today. Boswell never quite lives up to his own high standards, in particular because he can't resist talking about himself. "Be retenu" is the constant refrain of the memos.

It's a little odd for the modern reader to realise that one of Boswell's objectives in coming to Holland was to improve his French (although, coincidentally, it was also one of my first tasks when I came to live in Holland). Today, you're unlikely to need French unless you want to talk to someone from a Francophone country, but in Boswell's day it was still the international language of polite society. He evidently had to struggle to reach a level at which he could talk to educated Dutch people without making a fool of himself, so he set himself the task of writing two pages of French each day, on whatever subject came into his head. Pottle translated the more interesting of these (he includes one original in an appendix to give us a flavour of Boswell's French), and they tell us quite a bit about Boswell's religious views, his (Tory) politics, etc.

Boswell is very much at the centre of this book -- you won't learn a great deal about 18th century Holland from it, and most of his character sketches of the people he encounters tell us more about Boswell than about them -- but there is one other important character, Belle van Zuylen (known to her friends by the romantic name Zélide, and to French readers as Isabelle de Charrière). She was the same age as Boswell, the intelligent and highly-educated daughter of Utrecht's most prominent aristocratic family, had already published a novel anonymously, and was conducting a clandestine correspondence with the Swiss officer Constant d'Hermenches. Although clearly miles ahead of poor old Boswell both in terms of her intellectual ability and her maturity and social aplomb, for some reason she decided that Boswell was one of the more interesting people in Utrecht that winter, and became friendly with him. There was never anything obviously romantic in their friendship while Boswell was in Utrecht (he was courting one of her friends, a young widow). However, after he left and they began to exchange letters, Boswell started to discuss the idea of marrying Belle. Pottle reproduces their survivng letters, together with letters between Boswell and Belle's father, and between Belle and d'Hermenches, that fill in the gaps in the story. Normally it would just be painfully embarassing to see a gauche young man making a fool of himself, but Boswell is able to dig holes for himself and fall into them with such style, and Belle teases him so gracefully, that it is actually rather fun.
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