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Jules Verne: a traveller in the human imagination

Posted in Historical articles, Literature, Space, Travel on Monday, 31 October 2011

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This edited article about literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 852 published on 13 May 1978.

Jules Verne's science fiction, picture, image, illustration

An illustration for Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon by Angus McBride

A number of writers have attempted to look into the future, sometimes with surprising success. H. G. Wells is a name that comes to mind immediately. The other is that of Jules Verne, a far more remarkable man in many respects, inasmuch as his imagination did not have access to the vast fund of scientific knowledge available to Wells.

Although Verne died in 1905, long before technology was fully on the march, he foresaw the airliner, the helicopter, the cinema, television, the Hydrogen Bomb and man’s first attempt to reach the moon, to mention only a few of his prophecies which have become a reality. In this, Jules Verne can truly be said to be the father of science fiction.

Jules Verne, who was born in the French town of Nantes in 1828, led a surprisingly quiet life for a man whose characters were always embarking on some bold and perilous enterprise. His one major adventure took place at the age of twelve, when he tried to run away to sea because a pretty young cousin told him that if he was really in love with her he would bring her back a coral necklace from the Pacific.

After a frantic search, his parents found that he had joined the crew of a three-masted schooner bound for India, as a cabin boy. Hauled off the ship, he was taken home, where he was given a sound beating and locked in his room, on bread and water. He emerged finally, to make the solemn promise, “From now on I will travel only in my imagination.” Although he did travel afterwards, it was all done in a fairly staid manner, as befitted the dignity of a major novelist.

After his graduation, his father insisted that he should study law. Jules ran away to Paris, and from there announced that he was going to devote his life to literature. His father’s answer was to cut off his allowance.

Although he published a number of short stories and wrote the librettos for a number of operettas, literary fame was slow in coming. It was not until he was 35 and married that his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, appeared. Rewritten a number of times on the insistence of his publisher, it made Jules Verne’s reputation overnight.

He signed a contract to write two books every year for the next twenty years, and, from then on, Verne wrote furiously, creating one fantastic plot after another. In these his characters went through the most amazing adventures in the sea and under it, in the air and in the bowels of the earth, meeting every situation with wit and good humour.

Once the money began to flow in, Verne moved to a cottage at Crotoy, on the Somme, and for most of the rest of his life he lived either there or on one of the series of yachts he bought himself, each one more grand than the last.

It was on board one of these boats that he wrote his famous Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It appeared in 1870, when only a few submarines had been built, most of them hand driven. Verne’s submarine, the Nautilus, which plays such an important part in the story, was far in advance of anything then remotely thought of by naval architects.

Although Wells, with his concern for social and human problems, wrote with more depth, Verne’s narrative drive and attention to scientific detail have made him, in many ways, a far more attractive writer, especially for younger people. In all, constantly surrounded by a great mass of scientific books and maps, he eventually wrote more than eighty books which have delighted millions of readers all over the world.

Verne’s difference in approach from that of H. G. Wells is summed up in Verne’s own words, when Wells’ The First Men in the Moon challenged Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

“I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon ball, discharged from a cannon. He goes in an airship which consists of a metal which simply does away with the laws of gravitation. Ca c’est tres joli (that’s all very nice), but show me this metal.”

When his death was announced in the Paris newspapers in large headlines, the whole nation mourned, as did the rest of the world. But if his death was a blow to grown-ups, what must schoolboys everywhere have felt? There would be no more peeps into the future, no more rousing adventures, no more incredible journeys to read about. These pleasures were for the schoolboys and the young in heart of the future, coming to Jules Verne for the first time.

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