Paul & Virginia
Mauritius’s legendary star-crossed lovers14th Dec 2020
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and we all know that facts have a way of inspiring fiction. But, sometimes, fiction has a way of superseding fact, and nowhere is this more evident than in Mauritius, where you will find monuments to famous people who never actually lived. But, hey, why should we let facts get in the way of a good story?
The French Revolution and the noble savage
While many European countries were scudding about the world in their sailing ships, grabbing colonies left, right and centre for their monarchs, some had more serious problems right at home. In France, for example, the king and aristocracy had to contend with the mass of ordinary people who demanded, in no uncertain terms, ‘equality, liberty and’ – because liberty and equality really only extended to men – ‘fraternity’. And some of the leading thinkers of the revolution, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, harboured sentimental concepts of humanity – the noble savage – uncontaminated by civilisation, believing that subsuming one’s authentic nature to the tyranny of social mores and morality would lead to destruction. Rousseau also penned one of the first novels in French – Julie, or The New Heloise in 1761.
And all that seething discontent that was fomenting in metropolitan France deeply influenced the young botanist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who moved in the same circles as Rousseau. So, in 1768, when he travelled to Mauritius to contribute to the bio-piracy that was an intrinsic part of colonialism, the chances are he had a copy of Julie in his luggage.
The wreck of the St Geran
In 1744 – long before De Saint-Pierre arrived in Mauritius – the St Geran was wrecked on Amber Island off the coast of Mauritius near the village of Poudre d’Or, with the loss of almost all 149 crew and all 13 passengers and 30 slaves. The story of the wreck is part of the founding mythology of the island, and – like all myths – it has developed an energy and reality of its own. Interestingly, though, more recent research has shown that, among the survivors who managed to swim to shore in a five-hour struggle clinging to wreckage, there was one woman. The single female survivor, who was black, and so probably a slave, is not extensively mentioned in the literature, possibly because she did not survive long, dying of exhaustion a few hours after she reached the beach. (One can’t help wondering if she was treated differently to the other survivors, but that question can never be answered.)
The romantic botanist
Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre arrived in Mauritius 17 years after the wreck of the St Geran, so there may have been wreckage still visible, and it’s possible that some of the surviving crew members were still living on the island. So, as he gazed out at Amber Island, he shuddered in horror at the ordeal the passengers and crew had faced as they tried to reach the shore. And his imagination ran wild – combining the newly emerging concept of the noble savage with the romanticism of Julie and the horror of shipwreck, he abandoned his spice thievery for a while, and penned the immortal tale of Paul et Virginie (or Paul and Virginia).
The legend of Paul and Virginia
The story is a simple one – two single mothers (a widow from a noble French family, and an unwed French peasant woman) live in isolation near Poudre d’Or with their children, Paul and Virginia, who grow up good and sweet and innocent, and – eventually – fall in love. But Virginia’s mother, Madame de la Tour, is seduced by the promise of wealth and position, and sends Virginia to France to learn to live in high society and – more importantly – to inherit the fortune of her great aunt. Virginia returns to Mauritius on the ill-fated St Geran, only to be wrecked within sight of the beach, and of Paul who swims out to her. She is given the opportunity to throw off her weighty European-style clothing, and rescue herself by jumping into the sea, but – in her ‘civilised’ modesty – she refuses. So the weight of civilisation drags her to the bottom of the ocean, as Rousseau prophesied – suppressing her authentic nature, and giving in to the tyranny of social mores and morality led to her destruction. Paul, of course, died of a broken heart – as one does.
The legacy of Paul and Virginia
The story of Paul and Virginia is so much a part of Mauritian identity that it’s hard to realise it was a novel, and did not, in fact, happen. There are monuments to, and statues of, Paul and Virginia all over Mauritius, and there’s also a more factually accurate monument to the wreck of the St Geran. But the story lives on in more than marble and bronze. The Veranda Paul et Virginie Hotel and Spa is an adults-only hotel that markets itself as the perfect couple’s romantic hideaway, and the One&Only le St Geran hotel is situated close to the wreck site, but is infinitely more comfortable and luxurious than any 18th-century sailing boat – even before it’s wrecked.
On a less concrete level, as one of the earliest novels in any European language, Paul et Virginie has inspired many subsequent scribes, and has spawned many adaptations and imitations, from the SciFi Alpha Ralpha Boulevard to the teen romance novel Blue Lagoon – and its almost universally panned eponymous movie adaptation that won one Golden Raspberry and four Stinkers Bad Movie awards. But it’s still a sweet story, and if you can’t give in to romance and magic on Mauritius, there’s no hope for you.