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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814)

ONE of the most beautiful works in romantic literature is ‘Paul and Virginia,’ by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Upon this short tale rests his literary fame. In bulk, its few score pages are not one twentieth of his collected writings; yet while the others are almost forgotten, this has become a classic. Its success oddly illustrates the fallibility of educated opinion. When composed in 1784, the author read it before a brilliant assemblage at Madame Necker’s. As he proceeded, they yawned; one by one they deserted the room; only some of the ladies present wept. This chilling reception caused him to throw it aside, and very nearly to burn it. In 1788, when he was induced to publish this apparent trifle, it quickly passed through more than three hundred editions, and was translated into every civilized language. Themes for dramas, romances, pictures, and statues were drawn from it; new-born children were named after its young lovers. Napoleon slept with a copy under his pillow during the Italian campaign, “as Homer under that of Alexander”; and Joseph Bonaparte settled a pension of six thousand francs on the author. Perhaps with ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ it has been among the novels that have enjoyed the greatest immediate and lasting popularity. Strangely, too, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ had so profoundly influenced Saint-Pierre as a boy, that after several vain trips to find a desert isle, he made various attempts for the rest of his life to describe it; one of which resulted in this book.

The precision with which it satisfied contemporary longings and tastes was the secret of its wide circulation. Externally it continued the tradition of Richardson, who had launched the novel of sentiment in ‘Clarissa Harlowe,’ and after whom the doctrine had been evolved that a love story should be of necessity pathetic and end unhappily; and it fell into line directly with the sense of the beauty of nature, and the desire for escape from social conventionalities, recently aroused by Rousseau. But fundamentally it was the work of a poet who selected, as the form to body forth his thought, prose instead of verse; but a prose of finely chosen, richly set words, warm with imaginative life and color. Prior to its publication, the popular ideas and ideals then current, while powerfully presented in prose, had failed to reach any worthy expression in poetry. Yet a desire existed that would fly to welcome such a contribution. ‘Paul and Virginia,’ a poem in so many essentials, answered at least the purpose of poetry to its generation; hence its enthusiastic reception. The sorrows of the two young lovers, whose isolated existence sprang from misfortune and was ended by it; the loveliness of their lifelong devotion through childish pleasures and youthful dreams; the luxuriant verdure of their environment, whose rich tropical splendor made the milder French landscape seem pale and wan,—these poetic elements, deeply as they still move us, yet more profoundly affected its contemporaries of all classes. Its pathos gripped their hearts; its gorgeous scenery fired their imaginations. Marie Antoinette, masquerading as shepherdess at Laucret, as farmeress at the Trianon, saw in it a vista of peaceful retirement, dear also to the aristocracy about her; the people, a realm devoid of prince, tyrant, or law; all were stirred at its narration of naïve, perfect love, piteously frustrated. In this modern analogue of the Greek pastoral ‘Daphnis and Chloe,’ Saint-Pierre succeeded in being, as he wished, “the Theocritus and Virgil of the tropics.” He has written the first novel where the background is as important as the characters themselves, and dowered the world of fiction with two types of perennial interest.

Curiously enough, his life is at utter variance with the spirit of his work. Instead of being suave, contented, and tolerant, he was restless and ambitious, in constant vicissitude from his wayward temper. Born at Havre in 1737, he studied engineering, and went to serve in Malta, but was discharged for insubordination. With a few francs, eked out by the bounty of those with whom he lodged, he traveled to Russia, where his handsome mien won him a position in the army. Failure to interest Catherine in a scheme of Siberian colonization, however, caused his resignation; after which, disgusted with foreign favors, he returned to besiege the home government with petitions and memoirs. These brought finally an appointment to Madagascar. The expedition there he abandoned, upon learning that its object was the barter of negroes at the Isle of France. His ‘Voyage to the Isle of France’ (1773), and his ‘Studies of Nature’ (1784–88),—a medley of the social philosophy of his friend Rousseau, and his own crude, pseudo-scientific theories,—made him famous. Louis XVI. created him supervisor of the Jardin des Plantes as Buffon’s successor. While the Revolution stripped him of his honors and position, it made him a professor at the École Normale. After enjoying the uninterrupted favor of Napoleon and King Joseph, he died in 1814 at Éragny-sur-Oise, where was his country-seat.

Aside from the composition of ‘Paul and Virginia,’ Saint-Pierre occupies an important position in the history of literature as a great colorist in words. A minute, sensitive observer of nature, he felt the need of a picturesque vocabulary in French, and this he supplied and handled so effectually that his forest vistas and storm scenes have individualized themselves indelibly on the memory; a rare thing in literature. An ingenious savant has calculated that his palette employs fifty-four distinctly named shades of color; certain it is, his influence upon Chateaubriand, Lamartine, George Sand, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, and Pierre Loti has been decided. Unfortunately his pupils’ fame has overshadowed his own; but notwithstanding, he is by right of priority the father of descriptive writing of nature in France during the nineteenth century.