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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: August 2014

1 - “Schwimme mit mir hinüber zu den Hütten unserer Nachbarn”: Colonial Islands in Sophie von La Roche's Erscheinungen am See Oneida (1798) and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788)


Sophie von La Roche's America novel, Erscheinungen am See Oneida (Phenomena at Lake Oneida, 1798), centers on a French aristocratic couple from Flanders who go to live on a remote island in upstate New York. Carl and Emilie von Wattines have fled to the United States from the French revolutionary Terror, in which several of their relatives lost their lives. On advice from a Quaker friend in Philadelphia, they find their way to an island in Oneida Lake. There they live without contact with other Europeans for four years, producing two children and making a modest life for themselves, before moving to a new town founded by Dutch and German settlers on the lakeshore. A narrator traveling in the region pieces their story together from what he learns from them and their friends. At the crux of the tale is how the Wattineses, Crusoe-like, manage to survive in their isolation.

Three factors play a role. First, in spite of being aristocrats, they possess a bourgeois ethic, demonstrating qualities like modesty, hard work, and resourcefulness that help them to thrive. Second, they have brought a whole library of reference books with them, including the entire Encyclopédie and Buffon's Histoire naturelle, to which they frequently refer for how-to information. Finally and most interestingly, Emilie Wattines decides to reach out and make contact with the local indigenous people, the Oneidas, when she is about to give birth.