Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre 1737-1814
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )
Principally known as the author of the most charming of all idyllic romances - Paul et Virginie. Beginning his career as civil engineer he afterwards entered the French army. A quarrel with his official superiors forced him to seek employment elsewhere, and he found it in the Russian service, where his scientific ability received due recognition.
Encouraged by the esteem in which he was held, he formed the project of establishing a colony on the Caspian shores, which should be under just and equal laws. St. Pierre submitted the scheme to the Russian Minister, who, as we should be apt to presume, did not receive it too favourably. He then went to Poland in the vain expectation of aiding the people of that hopelessly distracted country in throwing off the foreigners' yoke. Failing in this undertaking and despairing, for the time, of the cause of freedom, we next find him in Berlin and in Vienna. He had also previously visited Holland, in which great refuge of freedom he had been received with hospitality. In Paris, upon his return to France, his project of a free colony found better reception than in St. Petersburg - owing perhaps, to the not altogether disinterested sympathy of the Government with the recently revolted American colonies. To further his plans he accepted an official post in the Ile de France [Mauritius], intending eventually to proceed to Madagascar, where was to be realised his long-cherished idea. On the voyage he discovered that his associates had formed a very different design from his own - to engage in the slave traffic. Separating from these nefarious speculators, he landed in the Ile de France, where he remained two years. It is to the experiences of this part of his life that we owe his Paul et Virginie, the scenes of which are laid in that tropical island.
Returning home again, he made the acquaintance of D'Alembert and of the other leading men of letters in Paris, and, particularly, of Rousseau, his philosophical master. At the period of the Great Revolution of 1789, St. Pierre lost his post as superintendent of the Royal Botanical Gardens under the old Bourbon Government, and he found himself reduced to poverty; and although his sympathies were with the party of constitutional, though not radical, reform, the supremacy of the extreme revolutionists (1792-1794) exposed him to some hazard by reason of his known deistic convictions. Upon the establishment of the reactionary revolution of the Empire, St. Pierre recovered his former post, and, with the empty honour of the Imperial Cross, he received the more solid benefit of a pension and other emoluments.
His writings have been collected and published in two quarto volumes (Paris, 1836). Of these, after his celebrated romance, perhaps the most popular is La Chaumière Indienne ("The Indian or Hindu Cottage"). His principal productions are Etudes de la Nature ("Studies of Nature"), Vaux d'un Solitaire ("Aspirations of a Recluse"), Voyage à L'ile de France ("Voyage to Mauritius"), and L'Arcadie ("Arcadia"). His merits consist in a certain refinement of feeling, in charming eloquence in description of natural beauty, and in the human spirit which breathes in his writings. Of the Paul et Virginie he tells us :-
"I have proposed to myself great designs in that little work. . . . I have desired to reunite to the beauty of Nature, as seen in the tropics, the moral beauty of a small society of human beings. I proposed to myself thereby to demonstrate several great truths; amongst others this - that our happiness consists in living according to Nature and Virtue."
He assures us that the principal characters and events he describes are by no means only the imaginings of romance. In truth, it seems difficult to believe that the genius of the author alone could have impressed so wonderful an air of reality upon mere fictitious scenes. The popularity of the story was secured at once in the author's own country, and it rapidly spread throughout Europe. Paul et Virginie was successively translated into English, Italian, German, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. It became the fashion for mothers to give their children the names of its hero and heroine, and well would it have been had they also adopted for them that method of innocent living which is the real, if too generally unrecognised, secret of the fascinating power of the book.
It is thus that he eloquently calls to remembrance the natural feasts of his young heroine and hero :-
"Amiable children! thus in innocence did you pass your first days. How often ion this very have your mothers, pressing you in their arms, thanked Heaven for the consolation you were preparing for them in their old age, and for the happiness of seeing you enter upon life under so happy auguries! How often, under the shadow of these rocks, have I shared, with them, of your out-door repasts, which had cost no animals their lives. Gourds full of milk, of newly-laid eggs, of rice-cakes upon banana leaves, baskets laden with potatoes, with mangoes, with oranges, with pomegranates, with bananas, with dates, with ananas, offered at once the most wholesome meats, the most beautiful colours, and the most agreeable juices. The conversation was as refined and gentle as their food."
The humaneness of their manners had attracted to the charming arbour, which they had formed for themselves, all kinds of beautiful birds, who sought there their daily meals and the caresses of their human protectors. Our readers will not be displeased to be reminded of this charming scene :-
"Virginie loved to repose upon the slope of this fountain, which was decorated a pomp at once magnificent and wild. Often would she come there to wash the household linen beneath the shade of the two cocoa-nut trees. Sometimes she led her goats to feed in this place; and, while she was preparing cheese from their milk, she pleased herself in watching them as they browsed the herbage upon the precipitous sides of the rocks, and supported themselves in mid-air upon one of the jutting points as upon a pedestal. Paul, seeing that this spot was love by Virginie, brought from the neighbouring forest the nests of all sorts of birds. The fathers and mothers of these birds followed their little ones, and came and established themselves in this new colony. Virginie would distribute to them from time to time grains of rice, maize, and millet. As soon as she appeared, the blackbirds, the bengalis, whose flight is so gentle, the cardinals, whose plumage is the colour of fire, quitted their bushes; the parroquets, green as an emerald, descended from the neighbouring lianas; partridges ran along under the grass - all advanced pell-mell up to her feet like domestic hens. Paul and she delighted themselves with their transports of joy, with their eager appetites, and with their loves."
In his views upon national education, St. Pierre invites the serious attention of legislators and educators to the importance of accustoming the young to the nourishment prescribed by nature :-
"They [the true instructors of the people] will accustom children to a vegetable régime. The peoples living on vegetable foods, are, of all men, the handsomest, the most vigorous, the least exposed to diseases and to passions, and whose lives last longest. Such, in Europe, are a large proportion of the Swiss. The greater part of the peasantry who, in every country, form the most vigorous portion of the people, eat very little flesh-meat. The Russians have multiplied periods of fasting and days of abstinence, from which even the soldiers are not exempt; and yet they resist all kinds of fatigues. The negroes, who undergo so many hard blows in our colonies, live upon manioc, potatoes and maize alone. The Brahmins of India, who frequently reach the age of one hundred years, eat only vegetable foods. It was from the Pythagorean sect that issued Epaminondas, so celebrated by for his virtues, Archytas, by his genius for mathematics and mechanics; Milo of Crotona, by his strength of body. Pythagoras himself was the finest man of his time, and, without dispute, the most enlightened, since he was the father of philosophy amongst the Greeks. Inasmuch as the non-flesh diet introduces with many virtues and excludes none, it will be well to bring up the young upon it, since it has so happy an influence upon beauty of the body and upon the tranquillity of mind. This regimen prolongs childhood, and, by consequence, human life. (1)
"I have seen an instance of it in a young Englishman aged fifteen, and who did not appear to be twelve years of age. He was a most interesting figure, of the most robust of health, and of the most sweet disposition. He was accustomed to take very long walks. He was never put out of temper by any annoyance that might happen. His father, Mr. Pigott, told me that he had brought him up entirely upon the Pythagorean regimen, the good effects of which he had known by his own experience. He had formed the project of employing a part of his fortune, which was considerable, in establishing in English America, of a society of dietary reformers who should be engaged in educating, under the same regimen, the children of the colonists in all the arts which bear upon agriculture. Would that this educational scheme, worthy of the best and happiest times of antiquity, might succeed! Physically, it suits a warlike people no less than an agricultural one. The Persian children, of the time of Cyrus, and by his orders, were nourished upon bread, water, and vegetables. . . . It was with these children, become men, that Cyrus made the conquest of Asia. I observe that Lycurgus introduced a great part of the physical and moral regimen of the Persian children into the education of those of the Lacedemonians." (Etudes) (2)
- Compare the similar observation of Flourens, Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, in his Treatise on the Longevity of Men (Paris, 1812). He quotes Cornaro, Lession, Haller, and other authorities on the reformed regimen.
- He well expresses the fatal mischief of emulation (in place of love of truth and love of knowledge, for its own sake) in schools in which tends to intensity, if not produce, the selfism dominant in all ranks of the community. Not the least meritorious of is exhortations to Government is his desire that they would employ themselves in such useful works as the general planting of trees, producing nourishing foods, in place of devastating the earth by wars, &c.
Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index