The History of Paul and Virginia; or the Shipwreck
Author: Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
Publisher: T. Maiden, Ann Lemoine
Publication Year: 1802
Book Dimensions: 10.8 x 17.8
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.S36 H 1802
This chapbook, set on the island of Mauritius, tells the forbidden love story of two best friends. The author, Bernardin, lived on this island for a short period and part of this story was inspired by an actual shipwreck he witnessed there.
The volume is 17.8 cm long, 10.8 cm wide. The book lacks a cover and the pages are held together by a half-worn binding spine. The first page is blank and does not include any information like the author’s name or title of the book. This shows that the book had a cover once but was torn off over time. There is a big sticker on the upper left of the first page indicating that the book is the property of the Sadleir-Black Collection. The last page of the book also acts as the last page of the story. There is a relatively larger “FINIS.” printed at the bottom center of the final page. Also printed at the very bottom of this page is “Printed by T. Maiden Sherbourne Lane,” indicating the exact location where the book was produced.
The book does not include any chapters. From beginning to end, the text is continuous and not interrupted by any titles or subtitles which explains why there is not a table of contents page at the beginning of the book.
Turning the pages requires full attention because they are very light and delicate. The first two pages have noticeable discoloration from age. Other pages have some brown and yellow spots resembling fingerprints, but they are mostly in a good condition. Also, on a few pages, there are some deformations in letters that make the reading challenging but not impossible.
At the top of the first page, there is a shortened title of the book, “Paul and Virginia.” This frontispiece page contains an illustration from one of the most thrilling incidents of the book. We see the devastated face of Paul and his companion mourning near Virginia’s dead body. Also, in the background, there is a sinking ship that gives some clue regarding how this incident might have occurred. Below the illustration, there is a caption: “The corpse of Virginia discovered upon the beach” and a page number (41) indicating where in the story this event occurs.
The title page follows, containing the full title of the book, “The History of Paul and Virginia or the Shipwreck.” The title is written with bold and varying font sizes. Some letters have extra inks on them which gives a spillover feeling. The title is followed by the author’s name which is the first and only time it appears. After the author’s name, there is a shipwreck illustration which is a similar version of the frontispiece. At the bottom of the page, the publication details are included which gives information about the publication location, the printer’s name, address of the publication facility, and the publication date. At the very bottom of the page, the price of the book included as “[Price Six-Pence.]”
This chapbook is an abridgement of a much longer novel originally published in French by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Paul and Virginia was first published in 1788 as the fourth volume of Studies of Nature in the French language with the original title of Paul et Virginie. The book was translated to English in 1789, for the first time by Daniel Malthus as Paul and Mary: An Indian Story, published in London. The novel is considered the first extensive exotic novel in France, and nineteenth-century authors quoted the book many times. Even though Bernardin’s most famous work is Paul and Virginia, he published many other books as a volume of Studies of Nature. As a result, he became a very popular literary figure during the French Revolution. The king granted him the administration of “Garden of the King” in July 1972 as a result of his literary accomplishments. After the revolution, Bernardin served as a professor of republican morality in the Ecole Normale Supérievre (Cook).
It is believed that, in 1777, Bernardin read selections from Paul and Virginia before its publication in the salon of Suzanne Necker (Cook). Hence, there is a good possibility that Bernardin started to work on his novel over ten years before its publication date. He finished the luxury quarto editing of the novel in 1806. This edition had gorgeous illustrations and designs but did not sell as much as expected. Cook notes that Paul and Virginia “has never been out of print.”
The story of Paul and Virginia is based on an island. A New York Times article, “The First Idea of Paul and Virginia,” explains that Bernardin was designated as an engineer on Madagascar in charge of the road construction team. After over five months of an exhausting voyage, he learned that he had been called in to manage the slave trade. He refused to go to Madagascar and remained instead on the Isle of France. He could not make any friends there because of his political opinions and lived in a solitary state with his only friend, a dog. He spent most of his time studying botany and natural history, and witnessed the wreck of a St. Gérant ship while he was living there. Everyone in the ship died except seven sailors. The Times article explains that the captain of the ship refused to take off his clothes and swim to the shore even though he had the opportunity. It is suggested that Bernardin watched all the incidents from the shore and that this story inspired the author greatly. When Bernardin wrote Paul et Virginie, he changed very few details of this incident.
Paul and Virginia was performed as an opera many times in Europe and North America, including the 1806 production Paul and Virginia: A Musical Entertainment, in Two Acts written by James Cobb. Even though the main scenario of the book was not changed, Cobb added some new characters to the script that do not appear in the book. Another notable opera adaptation was written by well-known French composer Victor Masse. Another New York Times article, “Affairs in France,” gives important details about how Bernardin’s character of Virginia was shaped. According to this article, in regards to the captain who went down with the shipwreck, “It would not be appropriate for a man of his position and dignity to arrive on shore entirely naked; besides he also has valuable state papers.” By contrast, Bernardin’s fictional Virginia was on the same ship and she actually swam to shore almost entirely naked. Virginia was not actually drowned because of her modesty, but the captain was.
Narrative Point of View
The History of Paul and Virginia is narrated in third person by an anonymous narrator with an omniscient point of view. The novel is written in the past tense without using flourished language. The narrator does not dive into the characters’ psychology; instead, the narrator uses simple expressive sentences to describe characters’ internal features and emotions. The story is told by using many flashbacks via Virginia’s letters to her mother which helps the novel to be more dramatic.
In this manner lived those children of nature. No care had troubled their peace, no intemperance had corrupted their blood, no misplaced passion had depraved their hearts. Love, innocence, and piety, possessed their souls: and those intellectual graces unfolded themselves in their features, their attitudes, and their motions. Still in the morning of life, they had all its blooming freshness: and surely such in the garden of Eden appeared our first parents, when coming from the hands of God, they first saw, and approached each other, and conversed together, like brother and sister. Virginia was gentle, modest, and confiding as Eve; and Paul, like Adam, united the stature of manhood with the simplicity of a child. (19)
In the novel, characters generally express themselves with dialogue, however, from time to time the narrator intervenes to portray their relationship in a wider context. The narration in this passage accounts for the intensity of Virginia and Paul’s affection for each other. The narrator justifies why it is morally and even Biblically right for Paul and Virginia to be together by emphasizing the innocence and purity of their relationship and aligning their romantic relationship with the bond of siblings, both of which are encompassed here by the comparison with Adam and Eve.
The novel starts with a long description of the island of Mauritius. The island is described as having a pleasant unbounded landscape that gives the feeling of having uninterrupted solitude to those who live there. The story of Paul and Virginia starts with the narration of an old man. He begins the story by telling important parts of Monsieur de la Tour’s life.
Monsieur de la Tour is a soldier in the French army. He decides to seek his fortune on the island of Mauritius and arrives there in 1726. He brings Madame la Tour with him to settle down and live a peaceful life. Monsieur and Madame de la Tour come from two different social classes. She belongs to a rich and noble family, while he belongs to an ordinary family without high social status. Even though her parents do not approve of this marriage, they marry without obtaining her parents’ permission. Soon, Monsieur de la Tour travels to Madagascar to purchase a few slaves to help him establish a plantation on the island. After landing in Madagascar, he becomes very ill and, after a while, he dies.
Madame de la Tour lives on the island on her own and learns that she is pregnant. She becomes friends with a young woman named Margaret who was abandoned by her husband when he learned she was pregnant. Margaret gives birth to a boy and Madame de la Tour gives him the name of Paul. After a short while, Madame de la Tour gives birth to a girl. This time, at the request of Madame, Margaret gives her the name of Virginia. The similar destiny of Madame and Margaret provides them with a strong friendship and they start to raise their children together. Paul and Virginia spend all their time together as if they are brother and sister.
After Paul and Virginia enter their teenage years, they begin to see each other as more than a friend. They start to express their emotions to each other with poetic descriptions. Even though both of them know there are sexual and romantic feelings between them, neither of them dares to advance their friendship to a romantic relationship at first. Virginia has a difficult time keeping her affection for Paul to herself. Madame de la Tour understands her daughter’s uneasiness and tells her that God placed them on earth to test their virtue and she will be rewarded after if she can be virtuous in this life. Virginia misinterprets her mother’s advice to be that it is not right to have a romantic relationship with Paul. Hence, she refuses to respond to Paul’s affection for her.
In the meantime, Margaret asks Madame about why do not they let their children marry since they have a strong attachment for each other. Madame de la Tour says that they are too young and poor to start a family together. She believes that they would not live a happy life until Paul comes of age to provide for his family by his labor. Virginia’s aunt wants her niece to return to France in order to give Virginia a proper education and help her to marry a nobleman. She also promises to leave all her fortune to Virginia. Madame de la Tour thinks this would be a good opportunity to separate Paul and Virginia until they come to an age where they can build a happy marriage. Virginia sees her mother’s request as a duty and decides to go to France.
One and a half years passes and, finally, a letter arrives for Madame de la Tour. Virginia says that even though she received a very good education on various subjects, she is still not happy to be so far away. Her aunt forces her to renounce the name of “la Tour” which she refuses to do out of respect to her father. In the meantime, Paul dreams about going to France, to be near Virginia and make a great fortune by serving the king. He believes that then Virginia’s aunt will allow them to get married.
After a while, Virginia sends her mother a letter about her aunt’s ill-treatment of her because of her request to marry Paul. The aunt disinherits Virginia and sends back her to Mauritius during hurricane season. Upon Virginia’s arrival on the island, a terrific hurricane appears. As a result, the ship is torn apart. Even though sailors tell Virginia to take her clothes off to be able to swim, she refuses to do so. She stays in the ship and drowns as Paul watches. After Virginia’s death, Paul’s health starts to decline rapidly. He becomes severely ill and dies two months later.
“Affairs in France.” The New York Times, 26 Nov. 1876, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1876/11/26/84623906.pdf
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Jacques-Henri. The History of Paul and Virginia; or the Shipwreck. T. Maiden and Ann Lemoine, 1802.
Cobb, J. Paul and Virginia: A musical entertainment in two acts. 1806.
Cook, Malcolm. “Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.” Writers of the French Enlightenment I, edited by Samia I. Spencer, Gale, 2005. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 313. Gale, Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1200012581/LitRC?u=viva_uva&sid=LitRC&xid=8404413d
“The First Idea of Paul and Virginia.” The New York Times, 8 No. 1874.
Researcher: Ali Atabay