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Les Mini-lofts de Paul et Virginie (Aparthotel), Wimereux (France) deals
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Citing articles via Google Scholar. This seemed like an unusually wise man, both for our own time and the late 18th century.
My French is bad, so I decided not to take on the multi-volume Etudes , which were once famous. At the end of these volumes, though, Bernardin placed the small novel Paul et Virginie , which he considered a distillation of his ideas about the natural order. The book must still be read in France, because I found several new editions in a foreign language bookstore, although the introduction indicates that it is regarded by French critics as an embarrassment, something like Uncle Tom's Cabin in American literature.
Paul et Virginie was an enormous popular sensation in its day, and admired by everyone from Napoleon it was apparently his favorite book to Alexander von Humboldt , who had it virtually memorized. A copy also made its way into the room of little Emma Rouault, who would grow up to become Madame Bovary. This paragraph is probably the only place where English-speakers regularly encounter the book.
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Saint-Pierre's novel is mentioned at the beginning of the famous fourth chapter -- which, incidentally, I have always found very unconvincing as psychology -- where we hear about the reading that gave rise to Emma's dreams of romance: She had read Paul and Virginia , and had dreamed of the bamboo cabin, of the Negro Domingo and the dog Fidele; and especially she dreamed that she, too, had a sweet little brother for a devoted friend, and that he climbed trees as tall as church steeples to pluck her their crimson fruit, and came running barefoot over the sand to bring her a bird's nest.
The story is simple. The two decide to live near each other and raise their children together, along with their faithful slaves Marie and Domingue, who grow to love each other. The novel's attitude to slavery seems to be that it's fine as long as the masters are nice to them. Their son and daughter are Paul and Virginie.
They are beautiful little children, in touch with the natural world, free from the corrupting influence of civilization, healthy and vigorous. The earth provides everything they need, and they care for their little piece of land and make it blooming and beautiful. As they get older, possibly from lack of other options, they begin to fall in love with each other.
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Their mothers want them to marry one day, but Virginie's mother -- in one of those refreshing bits of openness often found in French novels -- is worried the girl will get pregnant too young. She is also concerned that the two will have no money when they grow up. So, when a rich aunt in Paris offers to make Virginie her heir if her mother will send her back to France, the girl is put on a boat.
As you can imagine, things begin to go wrong when she leaves the island. It is, in many ways, a silly novel.
In addition to its offensive depiction of slavery, long conversations are devoted to dated social criticism, people burst into tears on virtually every page, and its depiction of natural morality is often ludicrous. Virginie, for example, is unwilling to be saved from a foundering ship because it would require that she strip off some of her clothes in front of a male sailor.
And this modesty, which she apparently learned from wandering around the forests of a tropical island, is presented as quite noble and right; only a corrupt, civilized woman would expose herself so shamelessly to save her life. And yet, as easy as it is to mock, the book, somehow, is not dead. Many parts, to my surprise, are still extraordinarily beautiful.
For one, the descriptions. I loved the image of the palms rising above the other trees, and looking from above like a second forest planted on the ground of the lower canopy. So -- if you wipe away the lugubrious melodrama and all the criticism of civilization -- which none of Saint-Pierre's city readers, from Napoleon down, seem to have taken very seriously -- something genuine still remains, and that something is a sense of reverence for the tropical landscape.
Virginie, for example, will never eat a fruit without making sure that she places its seeds in good soil.
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