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Paul & Virginie : A larger-than-life myth

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In December 1744, the Saint-Géran was smashed to pieces on the coral reefs off the north-east coast of Mauritius. 220 people perished. A bestselling novel, Paul and Virginie, was written about the drama. 275 years later, the myth and the characters seem more real than history itself.

 

Le Saint-Géran, a ship belonging to the Compagnie des Indes set sail from France in March 1744. On board were 12 passengers (including two young women, returning from France, where they had been sent to finish their education), and 180 crew members. They were later joined by 30 slaves who embarked from Gorée Island in Senegal. After a nine-month crossing, the ship drew within sight of Mauritius, then known as Isle de France. During the night, the ship hit the reefs just off the village of Poudre d’Or. Only eight sailors and one passenger survived.

When Bernardin de Saint-Pierre arrived in Isle de France in 1768, the story of this terrible shipwreck was still being talked about. Two years later when the young captain, a King’s engineer, returned to France, he wrote Voyage à l’île de France (Journey to Isle de France), followed by Études de la nature (Nature Studies) in five volumes, which also featured Paul and Virginie. He had penned a tragic love story inspired by the Saint-Géran shipwreck, which immediately became a world bestseller.

 

A pastoral novel with an exotic setting

The public loved this pastoral novel that recounts the ill-fated relationship between Virginie, daughter of Mme de la Tour, an aristocrat whose husband suffered bankruptcy before dying, and Paul, son of Marguerite, a peasant from Brittany who was seduced and then abandoned by a gentleman. The two women raise their children together, making no distinction between the two, in the heart of the beautiful countryside on Isle de France. Mme de la Tour, however, decides to send Virginie to France to stay with her rich aunt. Virginie returns home to be by Paul’s side but perishes before her beloved’s eyes in the shipwreck of the vessel on which she is travelling home, her death ultimately caused by her refusal, out of modesty, to remove her heavy clothing.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s novel chimed with the bourgeoisie who saw it as an expression of Rousseau’s values extolling the virtues of a life surrounded by nature above the corruption of civilisation. The novel embodied the ideology of the Enlightenment and was later mentioned in works by writers such as Lamartine, Flaubert, Maupassant and Balzac. Over the centuries, it also inspired a rich iconography of paintings and various objects from clocks to wallpaper, crockery and tapestries.

A tomb for fictional characters

In Mauritius, Paul and Virginie are very much part of the country’s history despite the fact that there was no one called Virginie on board the Saint-Géran and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre completely invented the story of impossible love. In Poudre d’Or, there is a seafood restaurant called Paul et Virginie as well as a Paul et Virginie Street leading to a beach of the same name. There, looking out to sea, is a gravestone erected in 1944 by the Historical Society of Mauritius, which reads: “Off this coast on the night of the 17 to 18 August 1744 the Saint-Géran perished, a shipwreck that was immortalised by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in his novel Paul and Virginie.” It doesn’t seem to matter that the shipwreck actually happened in December…

A short distance from the shore, 6 metres down, lies the wreck of the Saint-Géran, discovered by divers in 1964. A number of objects found on the ship, including the wrought iron bell that announced to passengers that the ship was sinking, are displayed in the Naval Museum in Mahébourg.

 

Next to the church in Pamplemousses, where Bernardin de Saint-Pierre buried his young hero and heroine, there is a statue of the lovers on what is said to be their grave.

It is a strange place indeed, you might say, that raises fictional characters to the rank of historical figures.

 

Although some see the novel as a cheap romance, Paul and Virginie continues to feed the collective imagination for what it tells us about the impossibility of love between two people from different social spheres, its antislavery stance and what it teaches us about the past botanical riches of Mauritius. It plumbs the depths of historical truths and raises issues that are still relevant today.

By Shenaz Patel
Watercolours Laval Ng