Paul and Virginia


In 1788, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737−1814) published a rather short novel, Paul et Virginie (Paul and Virginia), which recounts the youth of two children, who are raised as brother and sister by their mothers on the edge of society, on the island of Mauritius (at that time a French colony known as Île de France). The children’s paradise unravels as they enter their teenage years and their awakening sensuality taints their innocent affection. Virginia is sent to Europe by her mother, who seeks to keep her away from Paul. When Virginia returns, her ship is caught in a storm off the coast of the island. Refusing to take off her clothes in front of the sailors in order to get into the water, Virginia prefers to remain on the sinking ship and drowns as Paul watches. He soon dies of sorrow. Virginia and Paul are followed into death shortly thereafter by their grieving mothers. This “pastorale,” a popular literary genre at the time, was an unprecedented success. Translated into several languages, parodied, and frequently adapted, during the 19th century the book was regarded as a classic and was often recommended to teenagers as it praises virginity and modesty to the point of death. Later readers have been less impressed with the work, which by modern standards seems pedestrian and sentimental. The novel nonetheless retains an important place in the history of French literature, as the violence of the characters’ emotions foreshadows the arrival of romanticism and exoticism. Presented here is an illustrated edition from 1838. It opens with an introduction on Saint-Pierre by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804−69), a highly influential literary critic and historian. The text of Paul et Virginie is followed by some pages of notes and then by La Chaumière Indienne (The Indian cottage). This second work by Saint-Pierre, published in 1791, concerns an English doctor who travels in India where he encounters an outcast, who, despite the injustices he endures, seems to have discovered the secrets of how to live a happy life. The final section of the book consists of 37 pages of illustrated notes on the flora of Mauritius and India followed by an index of the artists and engravers of the volume.

Last updated: July 8, 2015