Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Jacques Henri

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Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Jacques Henri (1737-1814). French Writer.

Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was a precursor of Romanticism and author of the hugely best-selling novel Paul et Virginie, a tale of two children who grow up in a tropical paradise and become chaste lovers.

Born in Le Havre, France, on 19 January 1737 to a family of minor noble status, he received a Jesuit education and planned a life of exotic travel. Inspired by Defoe, Daniel’s Robinson Crusoe, he sailed to Martinique, but found it scarcely idyllic. He later worked as an engineer in Malta, a math teacher in Paris, a newspaper writer in Amsterdam, and a government functionary in such places as Moscow and Mauritius.

In Paris he met Rousseau, Jean-Jacques -- who shared his melancholic type of personality -- and became his disciple. The success of Bernardin’s Paul et Virginie (1788), in which prudish heroine Virginie chooses to drown rather than remove her bulky dress in the presence of a sailor trying to save her during a shipwreck, helped launch an early version of Romanticism glorifying chaste love, primitive society, and exotic nature. In his Voyage to Mauritius (1773) and Nature Studies (1784), Bernardin promoted enthusiastic, nature-inspired religion.

Bernardin held a chair in ethics, and headed the French Academy and the Paris zoo. When wife Félicité Didot died, he wed Désiréé de Pelleporc, 43 years his junior. He died in Eragny on 21 January 1814, just as Romanticism was gaining momentum.

Further Reading:

Jean-Jacques Simon, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre ou le Triomphe de Flore, 1968.

Kenneth T. Rivers

Lamar University