The first version of the play was written in 1892 following the first version of The City.
A peasant drama followed an urban drama and was constructed around the sacrifice of the heroine Violaine. Thus the conversion episode was completed and the poet pursued his reflection on the place and function of faith and of the Catholic religion in society
The second version of La Jeune Fille VIolaine was written in the same manner as the rewriting of The City in 1899.
Claudel was at that time posted in China where he had been appointed Consul in September 1898 in Fou-Tcheou. Having started the rewriting of his play at the beginning of the year 1899, he took a leave and after travelling through Palestine and Syria, he arrived in France in January 1900. On his return to China in the autumn of that year, he completed his play.
An engineer, Pierre de Craon, who is afflicted with leprosy, arrives early in the morning to the Combernon farm to take his leave. Answering his call, Violaine greets him. Pierre tells her that love is fulfilled through the gift of self, imitation of Christ. After kissing her on the cheek, Pierre leaves.
Violaine’s father, Anne Vercors, who has abruptly decided to go to America, has Violaine engaged to Jacques Hury. Mara, Violaine’s younger sister, stirred by jealousy, slanders her sister by recounting to Jacques the kiss given by Pierre. Violaine, touched by leprosy, shows her fiancé the shameful signs of her disease. Persuaded that Violaine betrayed him, Jacques marries Mara. Mara drives away her sister after depriving her of her inheritance and blinding her with ashes. Violaine takes refuge in the Chevoche region where she lives a miserable life in the forest. Mara comes to ask her sister to heal the son she had with Jacques who was born blind . Violaine restores his sight to the child.
Pierre de Craon, later, on his way back to Combernon finds Violaine agonising on a trail where Mara had tried to kill her.. Violaine confesses everything to Jacques and before dying forgives him and Mara. The play ends with the return of Anne Vercors and the whole family reuniting.
“JFV” has the appearance of a melodramatic tale : Jealousy of a sister towards her older sister, jealousy of a fiancé about his bride to be, usurped heritage, miraculous cure, family crime. However, between 1892 and 1899, without major modifications the meaning of the drama changed. The changes are explained by Claudel’s intellectual and spiritual evolution.
The first version of the +JFV” was written 6 years after Claudel’s conversion in 1886. The second version is marked by Claudel’s theological meditation. During his five years in China, Claudel read Saint Thomas D’Aquin. The conversion drama became the drama of a monastic vocation evoked in the solitary sacrificial figure of Violaine. Claudel transposed the temptation to devote himself to monastic life through the mediation of the theatre as he did in the poems of “Connaissance de l’Est”.
While on leave in France, Paul Claudel made a spiritual retreat during the spring of 1900 in the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes. After two stays at St Martin de Ligugé, as is well known, Claudel returned to China, sailing on the ship Ernest-Simons, where he fell in love with Rosalie Vetch.
From a collective peasant drama, “JFV” becomes a mystical meditation on the meaning of sacrifice, on how one is blessed by submitting to the divine order and in a unique relationship that unites the creator to his creature, as experienced by Violaine, blind, poor and isolated by leprosy.
This is, long before “Break of Noon” and the “Satin Slipper”, a reflection on the meaning of evil around the figure of Mara. Without her, Violaine’s holiness, manifested by the miraculous recovery of the child Aubin, could not have been accomplished. On January 26th, 1908, in a letter to Jacques Rivière, Claudel argued in favour of the usefulness of evil, based on St Augustine’s theory “Etiam Peccata”.
The dialogues of the second version nourished by theoretical readings, particularly in the “Summum” of Thomas d’Aquin” are characterised by a lyrical and didactic style criticised in later years by Paul Claudel himself. He severely judged “The architectural divagations” of Pierre de Craon. They were suppressed in “L’Annonce faite à Marie”. In fact the long description of the church built by Pierre de Craon in Act 4 recalls the development of the text completed at Ligugé in summer 1900, “Développement de l’Eglise”.
The dramaturgic approach
Claudel also reworked his drama according to some dramaturgic imperatives. The plot is barely changed in its major lines, with a family conflict invented to symbolize an interior debate. The play is still set in the poet’s native Tardenois although it is less timeless : Anne Vercors takes the train. Along with the search for realism—very relative—is added that of plausibility: nformed by Pierre de Craon of the death of his brother, Anne leaves for America.
However, there are modifications. As in “The City”, Claudel suppresses secondary characters. Names are transformed to emphasize their symbolism. Bibiane becomes Mara, Jacquin Uri becomes Jacques Hury and the poet Eloi Baube becomes Pierre de Craon.
In the tightened plot Pierre de Craon is given a more determining role. Thus he appears in the 1st Act in a long discussion with Violaine. The encounter with Pierre de Craon builder, engineer and architect will be Violaine’s call to a saintly vocation. The infection of leprosy, Mara’s slanders, Jacques’ jealousy, Anne Vercors’ absence will draw away Violaine from her initial condition. In this version, Claudel enhances his lyrical poetry. The characters are stressed as more allegorical. In Violaine, retired in the forest, image of the cathedral, are superposed the soul, the Church, the chosen spouse of the “Song of Songs ”. Anne Vercors and his long-childless wife, an elderly couple, seem to be drawn directly from the OLD TESTAMENT. Pierre de Craon is an evangelical character, inspired by a spirit of total renunciation to follow Christ’s example.
This second version emphasizes more the paradoxical and mysterious love of Mara, the evil stepmother-like figure who leads the sweet Violaine to sanctity. As in the first version, the mystery of sanctity responds to the mystery of evil: perhaps there lies the strength of the drama.