Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a Voltaire fan?

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France (Amsterdam, 1773) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre returned to France in 1771 following an unhappy posting to Mauritius. In Paris he made new acquaintances, D’Alembert, Julie de Lespinasse, Condorcet and, most significantly in the eyes of posterity, he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This intimacy has ossified critical opinion as it was D’Alembert who aided the publication of his first book, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773) by a printer whom Voltaire termed ‘l’enchanteur Merlin’. Drafted in part in the Indian Ocean, the work was published anonymously with a permission tacite as it criticized French colonial practices. In it Bernardin claimed that his travel writing was innovative as Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon and Rousseau had not provided a model. He demonstrated his extensive reading by asserting: ‘Je sais bon gré à M. de Voltaire d’avoir traité de barbares ceux qui éventrent un chien vivant pour nous montrer les veines lactées’ (a reference to the article ‘Bêtes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Like Voltaire, Bernardin was educated by the Jesuits. He too liked citing Latin authors, particularly Virgil, and also frequently quoted from memory. He stated that D’Alembert had suggested that he compose histories and claimed that he had read Voltaire’s historical writings. He shared the patriarch’s alarm at d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and wrote against it. Despite a staunch belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical and loathed superstition. Like Voltaire, he mocked fears about a comet in 1773, telling Mme Necker: ‘On attend ici la comette pour demain; il y a des églises dont les confessionaux ne désemplissent pas; le peuple est fort inquiet de sçavoir si la terre sera brûlée ou noyée’ (Electronic Enlightenment, BSP_0244). He too was intrigued  by the possibility of ‘éléphants’ (i.e. mammoths) in Siberia. The Revolution saw him produce short works advocating tolerance and social harmony.

Invitation à la Concorde, pour la Fête de la Confédération, du 14 juillet 1792 (Gazette Drouot).

His Invitation à la concorde (1792) appeared in print and as a poster. It proclaims that discord will destroy France but Catholics, Protestants and Jews will thrive ‘autour de l’autel de la patrie’ where ‘chaque religion deviendra citoyenne’. He composed contes in a manner reminiscent of Voltaire. The Café de Surate (1792), depicting often religious prejudices, may have been inspired by a chapter in Zadig, ‘Le Souper’. He read his fictional Voyage en Silésie, with its message of reconciling quarrelsome multinational travellers, in his capacity as professeur de morale républicaine to instituteurs at the Ecole normale in 1795. In the foreword to the first printed edition, he asserted that ‘Mon but était d’inspirer aux hommes, qui sont les mêmes quant au fond, de la tolérance pour les opinions diverses.’

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage en Silésie (Paris, 1807) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin returned to a controversy treated by Voltaire in Lettre XI of the Lettres philosophiques, inoculation. In the Harmonies de la nature (begun in the 1790s), he writes: ‘On a longtemps agité la question, si l’inoculation était utile. J’observerai ici que Jean-Jacques n’a pas osé la décider dans son Emile.’ While acknowledging risks, Bernardin is decisive: ‘Il me semble […] que pour détruire tant d’intérêts particuliers qui s’opposent à l’intérêt général on devrait faire inoculer à la fois tous les enfants […] l’inoculation contribuerait à resserrer entre eux les liens de la fraternité.’ Despite his antipathy to the scientific establishment and, unlike Voltaire, opposed to Newtonian ideas of attraction, Bernardin is generally in favour of scientific advances.

Voltaire loved publishing texts anonymously or with fictional authors. Bernardin, after the Voyage, demanded his name on the title page. Yet, in a text not printed in his lifetime which I am editing for his Œuvres complètes (Garnier), the Fragment sur la théorie de l’univers, he too adopted a ludic pretence. The narrator, a ship’s pilote, recounts Bernardin’s views to a passenger without naming him. All he will reveal is that: ‘Le système dont je vais vous entretenir est d’un Français.’ Subsequently he speaks of ‘l’auteur de la nouvelle théorie’, ‘mon auteur’, ‘Notre auteur’.

Simon Davies, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: colonial traveller, Enlightenment reformer, celebrity writer, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2021).

Bernardin often omits the sources of his references. In a manuscript that I am also editing for his Œuvres complètes, he writes ‘Un de nos poètes a dit: “Dieu mit la fièvre en nos climats et le remède en Amérique.” C’est une pensée de bel esprit.’ The line had appeared in a poem to Frederick the Great (OCV, t.32A, p.412) and in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, t.41, p.394). Bernardin probably found it in the latter as it is mentioned in the Harmonies de la nature.

While Bernardin sympathised with ‘l’infortuné Jean-Jacques’ and knew that his public renown benefited from that association, he believed that sociability was natural. He thought that reform was needed, hence his acceptance of appointments at the Jardin du roi (where he championed initiatives), the Ecole normale and the Institut. He disliked Voltaire’s relations with crowned heads (although he had met Catherine the Great, praised her in his Voyage ‘porté par tout le vent des philosophes qui étaient dans sa faveur’), but was far more sociable than his clichéd reputation. To label him as simply a disciple of Rousseau is misleading. He owed as much to Voltaire as to Rousseau and he supplies an even-handed comparison in his Parallèle de Voltaire et de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrity in the Ancien Régime and the Revolution and the accessibility of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment make him an excellent point of reference for questions still raised about the role and impact of the so-called philosophes in scholarly publications and recently at the Enlightenment Workshops in Oxford. In sum, Bernardin reacted to the challenges of his age and responded in his own distinctive fashion.

– Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.

The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project

Today marks 200 years since the death of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814). Best known for his novel Paul et Virginie, he was also the author of a voluminous correspondence: nearly 2800 letters to and from the author survive detailing the author’s travels to Eastern Europe and Mauritius, and providing insights into the cultural and social life of Paris at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project, the first critical edition of his correspondence, generously funded by the AHRC, the British Academy and the MHRA, is now nearing completion. The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing the letters in batches via Electronic Enlightenment since 2008. The publication in electronic format allows us to update letters as more information becomes available, and also to add new letters as they come to light.

Whilst the correspondence project is almost complete, the first complete critical edition of the author is under way under the general editorship of Jean-Michel Racault. This will replace the early nineteenth-century editions of Aimé-Martin which sometimes contain unreliable texts and lack scholarly annotation. A special Bernardin de Saint-Pierre issue of Nottingham French Studies will appear in 2015.

Further links

  • Anybody taking the ferry from Britain to Le Havre (Bernardin’s birthplace), may wish to see the exhibition on Bernardin: ‘Paul et Virginie, un exotisme enchanteur’, until 16 May 2014.
  • A website hosted by the University of Exeter contains all the manuscripts of the author that are held in the Bibliothèque Armand Salacrou, Le Havre. There are over 10,000 manuscript pages, available to all without password.

-Malcolm Cook