Saint-pierre, Jacques Henri Bernardin De
literary france nature french
SAINT-PIERRE, JACQUES HENRI BERNARDIN DE (17371814), French man-of-letters, was born at Havre on 19th January 1737 and was educated at Caen. After a fashion commoner with English than with French boys, he took an early fancy to the sea, and his uncle, a ship captain, gave him the opportunity of gratifying it. But a single voyage to Martinique was enough for him and he went back to school. He next wanted to be a missionary ; but his parents, who had probably taken the measure of his enthusiasms from his sea experiences, objected, and he became an engineer. He served in the army, but was dismissed for insubordination, and, after quarrelling with his family, was in some difficulty. But in 1761 he obtained an appointment at Malta, which also he did not hold long. The most rolling of stones, he appears at St Petersburg, at Warsaw, at Dresden, at Berlin, holding brief commissions as an engineer and rejoicing in romantic adventures. But he came back to Paris at the age of thirty even poorer than he set out. He then passed two years in literary work, supporting himself in an unknown fashion, and in 1768 (for he seems to have been as successful in obtaining appointments as in losing them) he set out for the Isle of France (Mauritius) with a Government commission and remained there three years, returning home in 1771. These wanderings supplied Bernardin with the whole of what may be called his stock-in-trade, for, though he lived more than forty years longer, he never again quitted France. He was very poor, and indeed it is not easy to discover from his biographers what he lived upon, for, though he was an unwearied solicitor of employments and "gratifications," he received but little, and his touchy and sensitive temperament frequently caused him to quarrel with what little he did receive. On his return from Mauritius he was introduced to the society of D'Alembert and his friends, and continued to frequent it. But he took no great pleasure in the company of any literary man except Rousseau, of whom in Jean Jacques's last years he saw much, and on whom he formed both his own character and still more his style to a considerable degree. His first work of any importance, the Voyage a l'Ile de France, appeared in 1773 and gained him some reputation. It is the soberest and therefore the least characteristic of his books. The Etudes de la Nature, which made his fame and assured him of literary success, did not appear till ten years later, his masterpiece Paul et Virginie not till 1787, and his other masterpiece (which, as much less sentimental and showing not a little humour, some persons may be allowed to prefer), the Chaumiere Indienne, not till 1790. In 1792 he married a very young girl, Felicite Didot. For a short time in 1792 he was superintendent of the Jardin des Plantes and again for a short time professor of morals at the Ecole Normale in 1794. Next year he became a member of the Institute. After his first wife's death he married, in 1800, when he was sixty-three, another young girl, Desiree de Pelleport, and is said to Bye been very happy with her. He still continued to publish, and was something of a favourite with Napoleon. On the 21st of January 1814 he died at Eragny near Pontoise, where he had in his last years chiefly lived and where he had a house, so that he cannot have been ill off.
It has been hinted that Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's personal character was not entirely amiable ; it may be added that his literary character has not in all English eyes sufficed to atone for it. Englishmen, and not Englishmen only, have been found to pronounce Paul et Virginie gaudy in style and unhealthy, not to say unwholesome, in tone. Perhaps Bernardin is not fairly to be judged by this famous story, in which the exuberant sensibility of the time finds equally exuberant expression. Tho Chaumitre and some paqsages in the Etudes de la Nature proper may be thought to exhibit the real merits of his style to greater advantage. The historic estimate (the sole estimate that is of much worth in comparative literary criticism) at once disengages the question from its difficulties. Where Beruardin is of merit and importance is in his breaking away from the (lull and arid vocabulary and phrase which more than a century of classical writing had brought upon France, in his genuine and vigorous preference of the beauties of nature to the mere charms of drawing-room society, and in the attempt which lie made, with as inueli sincerity as could fairly be expected from a man of his day, to reproduce the aspects of the natural world faithfully. After Rousseau, and even more than Rousseau, Bernardin was in French literature the apostle of the return to nature, and, though in him and his immediate follower, Chateaubriand, there is still much mannerism and unreality, he should not and will not lack the credit due.
Aime Martin, disciple of Bernardin and the second husband of his second wife, published a complete edition of his works in 18 volumes (Paris, 1818-20), afterwards increased by additional correspondence, &c. Paul et Virginie, the Chaumfere!lease, &c., have been separately reprinted in innumerable forms.