Paul et Virginie, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

I was lead to read this by a concatenation of ideas. I was reading a short-story by Jean-Christophe Rufin, which mentions it, and then I happened to be re-watching Orson Welles’ adaption of Isak Dinesen’s The Immortal Story, where it turns out the central character are called Paul and Virginie.

The novel is something of a French classic, though not sure how much it’s really that known / read in the English-speaking world any more. Two women end up, because of their “bad” life choices, living an idyllic life on Mauritius, where they bring up together their two children, Paul and Virginie, together who are innocent creatures of nature. The children fall in love and plan to marry, but unfortunately the corruption of the outside world (e.g. Europe, and European manners) seeks to prevent this.

It’s all very straight-forward. French society is corrupt; life in a idyllic paradise is innocent. (Much the same attitude, then, as we see in Stendhal, Merimee). The story is fine as it is, though there’s pages and pages of moralising towards the end.

It’s an iconic vision. You can see its influence on things like The Blue Lagoon – and indeed, The Immortal Story (which is itself very much concerned with ideas of innocence and corruption).

Slaves in this novel are all happy to serve their masters; they don’t desire any other life. Indeed, one runaway slave is discovered at one point by Virginie, who leads her back to her master, and merely tells him to be kinder to her. And it’s left at that. – I was expecting the innocent Virginie to be at least a bit disillusioned; – but it seems everything was ok and the matter is never mentioned again.


2 thoughts on “Paul et Virginie, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

  1. I should read this. I believe it is short? On Twitter, the English-language readers who know it read it in graduate school as part of the study of Romanticism.

    The last, chronologically, novel I saw that casually referred to Paul et Virginie as if everyone knew what it was was Women in Love, which is 1920, pretty late, although the reader Lawrence imagined is likely not typical in any way.

  2. I’m very surprised you haven’t read it already.Yes, it’s short, and fairly easy going in French.

    I saw on the Wikipedia page that Women in Love references it – though obviously don’t remember this from my reading of it. Also Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Maupassant, Carpentier, Borges. – It is a sort of archetypal story.

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