In 1902, Captain Alfred Dreyfus languishes on France’s Devil’s Island, wrongly convicted of betraying military secrets and sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1906, he will be proved innocent and freed from the twelve years of incarceration that have elevated his personal plight to a symbol of justice. In the interim, throughout France and her colonies, his name divides Royalist from radical, Catholic from anticlerical, nobleman from Freemason. Conservative incumbents contrive to preserve tradition; intellectual revolutionaries plot to abolish tyranny. Paradoxically, both parties bear on their standards the convenient, flesh-and-blood metaphor Dreyfus, the embodiment of all good and evil in France’s bitterly torn society.
On the distant Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques, however, the sound of Dreyfus’ name is barely heard over the strains of violins at carnival time. Shadowed by the larger islands of Sainte-Domingue and Martinique, Saint-Jacques succumbed early in the eighteenth century to impoverished French noblemen eager to revive their family names in the new world colony. Against the hillsides of the volcano Salpetriere, the colonists cut their terraces, erected their rococo mansions, and lighted their island with fancy gasoliers. With the helpful passivity of the natives and imported African slaves, they established a peaceful oligarchy and soon reigned in Jacobean splendor over their sugar plantations. They prospered so quietly, in fact, that when the Reign of Terror broke out in the mother country and a guillotine was perfunctorily raised on the island, the abject blacks themselves disassembled the contraption, and the colonists advanced through the next century, forgotten by the revolutionaries at home and secure in their anachronistic haven.
In 1896, Berthe de Rennes fled to Saint-Jacques, a girl of eighteen matured by the death of her father and consequent poverty. At the time of the novel, six years later, she is the much-respected and relied-upon governess of Count Raoul de Serindan’s family on the prestigious estate, Beausejour. The Count’s family is...
(The entire section is 860 words.)