This classic French novel, which for the first 100 pages appears to combine the more nauseating aspects of The Blue Lagoon
and Uncle Tom's Cabin
, is trickier than it looks and will leave you crying like a baby.
I must admit that I was completely fooled by this book. As you will see from my comments, during the first half I thought that the author believed in the dreadful system of morality he was apparently trying to sell me. Especially in the episode with the escaped slave, my indignation knew no bounds. The poor woman arrives at Paul and Virginie's door, nearly dead from the savage beatings she has received from her master. Kind-hearted little Virginie takes her in and gives her something to eat. Then she says that they must immediately go back to her plantation, where she will intercede for her.
They set off through the jungle. When they arrive, the master looks Virginie up and down. She's an attractive girl. He listens to her little speech, and, just managing not to smile, says that no harm will come to the slave. But as soon as the children have left, he claps the runaway in irons and torments her even more.
On the way home, the kids get lost. Darkness is falling, and they're scared. But some more escaped slaves are hiding in the forest, and have seen the whole drama. They take pity on the children and lead them home, singing songs in broken French about how the kind White girl helped the slave, so now the Blacks will be kind back.
Well, I didn't realise until later that he wanted my blood to boil: he was a friend of Rousseau, the book was written three years before the French Revolution broke out, and the later course of the book shows that the passage with the slave was foreshadowing. Paul and Virginie are blissfully happy in their island paradise of Mauritius, but they're poor. Virginie's mother comes from a good family, who disinherited her when she married against their wishes. One day, they get a letter from an evil, rich old aunt. She's fatally ill, and wants a companion for her last years. If Virginie comes back to France and stays with her, she'll inherit the aunt's substantial fortune.
Virginie, an obedient girl, feels it's duty to agree to the aunt's request. She sets sail for France, where she is utterly miserable. Paul, who has loved her all his life, is desolate. Cruel tongues spread rumors that Virginie has married a rich nobleman and forgotten him, but it's not true. All she wants to do is come home again.
Finally, the aunt, angry at Virginie's refusal to marry the man she's picked out for her, changes her mind and sends her back to Mauritius. She doesn't care that it's the beginning of the hurricane season and the wrong time to travel. Paul learns that Virginie is returning, and for a few days is beside himself with joy. But a storm blows up and the ship loses its way in the treacherous reefs. It sinks within sight of shore, and Virginie is drowned. Paul, who has unsuccessfully tried to save her, dies of grief not long afterwards.
The author's clear message is: if only they had followed their hearts and not the dictates of convention, this tragedy would never have happened. The first half of the book is ironic. It is merely parodying the moral texts popular at the time, which aimed to instill virtues of conformity and obedience. But I didn't realise that until I was fairly close to the end.
I wonder how many books I have abandoned halfway though, angry or bored, and never discovered that the author was messing with my head and was soon about to reveal the real point.