Jules Verne

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Jules Verne. Photo by Félix Nadar (1820-1910).
Jules Verne. Photo by Félix Nadar (1820-1910).

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Jules Gabriel Verne (February 8, 1828March 24, 1905) was a French author and a pioneer of the science-fiction genre. Verne was noted for writing about cosmic, atmospheric, and underwater travel long before air travel and submarines were commonplace and before practical means of space travel had even been devised.



Early years

Verne was born in Nantes, France, to Pierre Verne, an attorney, and his wife, Sophie. The oldest of the family's five children, Jules spent his early years at home with his parents, on a nearby island in the Loire River. This isolated setting helped to strengthen both his imagination and the bond between him and his younger brother, Paul. At the age of nine, the pair were sent to boarding school at the Nantes lycée.

There Jules studied Latin, which he later used in his short story Le Mariage de Monsieur Anselme des Tilleuls (mid 1850s). Verne's second French biographer, Marguerite Allotte de la Fuye, formulated the myth that Verne's fascination with adventure asserted itself at an early age to such a degree that it inspired him to stow away on a ship bound for Asia, but that Jules's voyage was cut short when he found his father waiting for him at the next port.

Literary debut

After completing his studies at the lycée, Verne went to Paris to study for the bar. About 1848, in conjunction with Michel Carre, he began writing librettos for operettas. For some years his attentions were divided between the theatre and work, but some travellers' stories which he wrote for the Musée des Familles seem to have revealed to him the true direction of his talent: the telling of delightfully extravagant voyages and adventures to which cleverly prepared scientific and geographical details lent an air of verisimilitude.

When Verne's father discovered that his son was writing rather than studying the law, he promptly withdrew his financial support. Consequently, he was forced to support himself as a stockbroker, which he hated, although he was somewhat successful at it. During this period, he met the authors Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, who offered him some advice on his writing.

Also during this period he met Honorine de Viane Morel, a widow with two daughters. They married on January 10, 1857. With her encouragement, he continued to write and actively try to find a publisher. On August 4, 1861, their son, Michel Jean Pierre Verne, was born. A classic enfant terrible, he married an actress over Verne's objections, and had two children by his underage mistress.

A typical Hetzel front cover for a Jules Verne book. The edition is Les Aventures du Capitaine Hatteras au Pôle Nord, type "Aux deux éléphants".
A typical Hetzel front cover for a Jules Verne book. The edition is Les Aventures du Capitaine Hatteras au Pôle Nord, type "Aux deux éléphants".

Verne's situation improved when he met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, one of the most important French publishers of the 19th century, who also published Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Erckmann-Chatrian, among others. When they met, Verne was 35 and Hetzel 50, and from then, until Hetzel's death, they formed an excellent writer-publisher team. Hetzel's advice improved Verne's writings, which until then had been rejected and rejected again by other publishers. Hetzel read a draft of Verne's story about the balloon exploration of Africa, which had been rejected by other publishers on the ground that it was "too scientific". With Hetzel's help, Verne rewrote the story and in 1863 it was published in book form as Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon). Acting on Hetzel's advice, Verne added comical accents to his novels, changed sad endings into happy ones, and toned down various political messages.

From that point on, and for nearly a quarter of a century, scarcely a year passed in which Hetzel did not publish one or more of his stories. The most successful of these include: Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864); De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865); Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, 1869); and Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days), which first appeared in Le Temps in 1872. After his first novel, most of his stories were first serialised in the Magazine d'Éducation et de Récréation, a Hetzel biweekly publication, before being published in the form of books. His brother, Paul Verne, contributed to the 40th French climbing of the Mont-Blanc, added to his brother's collection of short stories Doctor Ox in 1874. Verne became wealthy and famous. He remains the most translated novelist in the world, in 148 languages, according to the UNESCO statistics.

The last years

On March 9, 1886, as Verne was coming home, his twenty five year old nephew, Gaston, with whom he had entertained lengthy and affectionate relations, charged at him with a gun. As the two wrestled for it, it went off. The second bullet entered Verne's left leg. He never fully recovered. Gaston spent the rest of his life in an asylum, and the incident was hushed up by the media.

After the deaths of Hetzel and his beloved mother in 1887, Jules began writing works that were darker, such as a story of a lord of a castle infatuated with an opera singer who turns out to be just a hologram and a recording, and others concerned with death. In 1888, he entered politics and was elected town councillor of Amiens where he championed several improvements and served for 15 years. In 1905, while ill with diabetes, Verne died at his home, 44 Boulevard Longueville, (now Boulevard Jules-Verne). Michel oversaw publication of his last novels Invasion of the Sea and The Lighthouse at the End of the World.

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote a novel called Paris in the 20th Century about a young man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet cannot find happiness, and comes to a tragic end. Hetzel thought the novel's pessimism would damage Verne's then booming career, and suggested he wait 20 years to publish it. Verne put the manuscript in a safe, where it was discovered by his great-grandson in 1989. It was published in 1994.

Reputation in English-speaking countries

In France he is renowned for writing good French that boys will be interested in reading. In those countries for which his works were accurately translated as well, his scientific and political abilities are also noted. Not so in the English-speaking countries.

The British Empire was often criticised by him, and it just so happened that his first translator was the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier, writing under a pseudonym, who cut out such passages, for example, as the political action of Captain Nemo. Mercier and subsequent British translators especially had trouble with the metric system that Verne used - sometimes they converted the units to Imperial, sometimes they dropped significant figures, sometimes they just kept the metric number and changed the unit to an Imperial one. This made Verne's calculations, exact for his age, into gibberish. Artistic passages and whole chapters were cut in the need to fit the work in the space for publication, regardless of what it meant to the plot.

Hence Verne's work acquired a reputation in English-speaking countries of not being an adult work in any regard. Because he was not considered a littérateur, it was not seen fit to have his works re-translated. So the translations of Mercier and others were reprinted decade after decade. Finally, in 1965, the first translations into English since the nineteenth century were published. But still Verne is not fully rehabilitated in the English-speaking countries.

Hetzel influence

Hetzel's influence on Verne's writings was substantial, and Verne, happy to at last find somebody willing to publish his works, agreed on almost all changes that Hetzel suggested. Not only did Hetzel reject at least one novel (Paris in the 20th Century) completely, he asked Verne to change significant parts of his other drafts. One of the most important changes Hetzel enforced on Verne was to change the pessimism of his novels into optimism. Contrary to common perception, Verne was not a great enthusiast of technological and human progress (as can be seen from his early and late works, created before he met Hetzel and after his death). It was Hetzel's decision that the optimistic text would sell better -- a correct one, as it turned out. For example, the original ending of Mysterious Island was supposed to show that the survivors who return to mainland are forever nostalgic about the island, however Hetzel decided that the ending should show the heroes living happily -- so in the revised draft, they use their fortunes to build a replica of the island. Another thing that Hetzel eliminated from Verne's drafts were his antisemitic views, again visible only in Verne's early (Martin Paz) and late (Hector Servadac) works. Finally, in order not to offend France's then-ally, Russia, the origin and past of the famous Captain Nemo were changed from those of a Polish refugee avenging the partitions of Poland and the death of his family in the January Uprising repressions to those of a Hindu fighting the British Empire after the Sikh War.

Partial list of works


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