The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One aim of many storytellers is, certainly, to preserve the memory of lives that might otherwise be lost. In The Violins of Saint-Jacques, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s protagonist, Berthe de Rennes, bound for her own grave, strives consciously to achieve this goal, fully aware of the urgency of re-creating an all but forgotten world. Inadvertently, Berthe emerges from her story as the only fully realized character. The British traveler in whom she confides intentionally builds her reliability: natives of Mitylene, her home for the last twenty years, admire her talents as painter and musician and feel indebted to her for ridding them of a corrupt town official years before; the woman servant Phrosoula dotes on her as if she were a holy relic and her paintings, icons; the British traveler himself is entranced by the precision and intelligence of her many stories, some of which he directly verifies through his own travels. In this light, her narrative self-portrait is both trustworthy and empathetic. Reared and trained in France to play the part of the cultivated gentlewoman but never provided the means to live the part, she was welcomed by the comparatively heathen Count Raoul de Serindan as a provider of European grandeur and, at his bidding, governed not only the children but the affairs of the estate as well. In time, the Count’s passion for the natives faded beside his passion for Berthe, just as the impromptu holidays and festivals he contrived gave way to the more decorous and arranged Shrove Tuesday ball. Setting aside childish ways, Berthe’s charges dismissed their native friends and learned to love through subterfuge and social posing.

Ultimately, Berthe perceived the irony and, perhaps, the tragedy of the changes she wrought. Her paintings of the period emphasize the coexistence of incompatible worlds: “Women with parasols and men in boaters and top hats were poised in cushioned aloofness over thin-spoked wheels. Below them bustled a swarm of negroes with pyramids of fruit or bright green sheaves of sugar-cane on their heads.” In retrospect, despite the conflicts inherent in that colonial world, Berthe must admit to imposing a sinister...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Berthe de Rennes

Berthe de Rennes (behrt deh rehn), the governess of the Serindan family, wealthy landowners living in Saint-Jacques. Berthe is an intelligent and independent-minded seventy-year-old Frenchwoman who is highly respected for her talents as a painter, pianist, and storyteller. At the time of the novel, she is retelling the events of her life when she was a young woman of eighteen fleeing from a poverty-stricken existence in France and settling into Saint-Jacques. As governess, she is privy to the romantic entanglements that develop between the other characters, in particular between Count Serindan’s beautiful, young daughter Josephine and Governor Sciocca’s son, Marcel. Berthe senses the calamity that will prevail if this love is revealed, for Josephine represents the social class of decorum and grace, while Marcel embodies the newly emerging political cry of liberation. Just as this class conflict is ready to surface, a volcanic eruption decimates the island, leaving, as almost by chance, Berthe as the lone survivor and, hence, the narrator of the events.

Count Raoul de Serindan

Count Raoul de Serindan (rah-EWL deh sehr-a[n]-DAH[N]), a wealthy landowner whose Beausejour is Saint-Jacques’ most opulent estate. At once the symbol of hedonism and decadence as he parades through the crowds invited to his lavish balls and festivals, he also provides a portrait of a...

(The entire section is 607 words.)