Unknown to the world but elevated to lofty heights in the world of French Classical Literature, is the love story Paul and Virginie set in the lush tropical background of the island of Mauritius, then named Île de France. Today, all that remains is a stack of rocks and a concrete plaque facing the sea in the village of Poudre d’Or where one can see Ile Dambre, where the final note took place.
To any tourist, it looks just a perfect piece of beach with a black volcanic basalt rocky band which forms a flat island. From the shade of the casuarina trees on the beach, it spells calm tropical dream paradise. But it once had a fierce storm which not only broke a formidable ship under the name of St Geran, but also broke hearts.
Flaubert in Madame Bovary (1856) described how Emma’s experience of literature formed her imagination: “She had read Paul et Virginie, and she had fantasized about the little bamboo cottage, the Negro Domingo, the dog Fidèle, but even more the sweet friendship of some good little brother who would go and gather ripe fruits for you from great trees taller than spires, or who would run barefoot in the sand, bringing you a bird’s nest.”
In Un Cœur simple (A Simple Heart) (1877), he used the names Paul and Virginie for the two children of Madame Aubain, Félicité’s employer. Guy de Maupassant, Honore de Balzac and many others giants of French literature did not fail to mention Paul and Virginie in their works.
Paul et Virginie, a novel by Bernardin de Saint Pierre, was first published in 1788. Written on the eve of the French Revolution, the novel is recognized as Bernardin’s finest work. It records the fate of a child of nature corrupted by the artificial sentimentality of the French upper classes in the late eighteenth century. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre lived on the island for a time and based part of the novel on a shipwreck he witnessed there.
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel criticizes the social class divisions found in eighteenth-century French society. He describes the perfect equality of social relations on Mauritius, whose inhabitants share their possessions, have equal amounts of land, and all work to cultivate it. They live in harmony, without violence or unrest. The author’s beliefs echo those of Enlightment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Today, it remains a beautiful love story in the minds of Mauritians, and a statue of the lovers are present in the main parks across the island.
But, if you havre read this post, please grab a copy of this alluring classic and make voyage to the time of innocence and pure love. It happened once, on an island thsy still call paradise.