Erica Meltzer examines two highly literate ladies
It's lucky for Marie Bashkirtseff that she was born a century and a continent apart from the woman known as Zlide. Any closer, and Zlide might have smacked some humility into sassy young Marie. But as "The Portrait of Zlide," a biography by Geoffrey Scott, and "I Am the Most Interesting Book of All: The Dairy of Marie Bashkirtseff," show, both of these woman were formidable in their own very different ways.
Published in 1925 and out of print for almost 40 years, Scott's "Portrait" depicts the remarkable and ultimately tragic life of Isabella van Serooskerken van Tuyll, born to a wealthy Dutch family in 1740. Known by the name she invented for herself, Zlide was famed for great wit and intellect. She was the epitome of the Enlightenment mind that strove to live rationally. "I find an hour or two of mathematics gives me a freer mind and a light heart; I eat and sleep better when I have grasped an evident and indisputable truth," she writes. A great conversationalist, she was courted by James Boswell, famous for his "Life of Johnson," and many, many others. But the men of her time ultimately found her too intimidating, and most withdrew their suits.
Zlide's tragedy wasn't that she was born before her time, but that she was too much of her time. Her drive to live a life of impeccable logic led her to sacrifice happiness to this abstract ideal. "Her true eighteenth-century mind could not doubt for a moment that logic was the basis of human happiness," Scott writes. "That man is an irrational animal, for whom logic lays a snare; that custom, like the heart, has its own reason; that folly, as a human attribute, is entitled, if not to veneration, at least to a certain tenderness, she could not conceive."
Zlide, tiring of a seemingly hopeless search for a husband, married at age 30 the much older Swiss tutor of her brothers, an upright, virtuous man who shared her interests in history and math. Her choice may have held impeccable logic, but it doomed her to a sterile, frustrating existence at his remote estate.
Scott draws most of his biography from Zlide's voluminous correspondence, particularly the intimate letters of her youth to Constant D'Hermenches, a married man who served as her intellectual mentor and confidant, and her later missives to his nephew, Benjamin Constant. She, in turn, served as Benjamin's mentor and confidant before a violent rupture in their intellectual union. Scott's nuanced appraisal of Zlide's limitations is shrewd and ironic without mocking its subject. His elevated language, rather than feeling dated, matches the tone of the correspondence and lacks the cynicism that a more contemporary voice might have brought to the work.
At just over two-hundred pages, Scott's biography keeps to the spirit of Zlide's letters, skipping over mundane day-to-day realities. As its great heft suggests, Marie Bashkirtseff's diary overflows with details about everything from dogs to dresses. Born in Russia of minor nobility in 1858, she settled in Nice, France with her mother, aunt and cousin in 1871 and began a journal in 1873. She wrote on an almost daily basis, producing thousands of pages before her death of tuberculosis at 25. While Marie's romantic disposition results in endless descriptions of the Duke of Hamilton and her new dress from Worth's, her prose moves quickly and reveals the gems of growing self-awareness that are the reward for reading the diaries of young people.
Marie writes from the assumption that she will be famous for either her voice or her painting and that her diary will therefore be of great interest to the world. Though she intended for her diary to be read, she never censored herself, taking a tack similar to Rousseau one hundred years earlier. In a preface to the diary written months before she died, she writes, "If this book is not the exact, absolute, strict truth, it has no reason to be. Not only do I always say what I think, but never have I dreamed for one moment of hiding what could seem ridiculous or unfavorable about me. Anyhow, I look upon myself as too admirable for censure, even by me."
This descendent of nobility could be a royal pain -- pleading, crying and threatening others when she didn't get her way. That she couldn't go into society because of a lingering lawsuit that tainted her family is one of the great tragedies of her youth. Her worldview is thoroughly aristocratic -- when her grandfather beats a servant, she fumes that he should have done it sooner. (To be fair, she came to support the republic while studying in Paris in 1880.)
A love of learning is perhaps the only thing that Marie Bashkirtseff had in common with Zlide. In stark contrast to Zlide's rigorous Enlightenment intellect, Marie swings from ecstasy to despair and constantly bemoans the latest tragic twist of her fate. While Zlide detested high society and the conformity it required, Marie ached for the chance to enter society. Yet both women often rose early to spend whole days in study and ignored the advice of men who said they wasted their time because they had already learned more than enough to catch a husband.
The Portrait of Zlide. Geoffrey Scott, Turtle Point Press, 227 pages, $13.95
I am the most interesting book of all: The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, Vol. 1. Phyllis Howard Kernberger and Katherine Kernberger, translators, Chronicle Books, 464 pages, $35
Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.