Selected products from Jules Verne
Jules Gabriel Verne was born on February 8th, 1828 on Île Feydeau, a small artificial island on the Loire River in Nantes.
His father, Pierre Verne, an attorney, and mother, Sophie Allote de la Fuÿe, a Nantes woman from a local family of navigators and ship owners, also had another son, Paul, later that year followed by three daughters, Anna (1836), Mathilde (1839), and Marie (1842).
At age six, Jules was sent to boarding school nearby. His teacher, Mme Sambin, a widow, often told the story of her husband as a shipwrecked castaway. Jules would use this Robinson Crusoe episode as a theme for many of his later works.
In 1836 at age eight, Jules was sent to École Saint-Stanislas, a Catholic school suiting the pious religious tastes of his father. There Jules learnt and proved an excellent pupil in mémoire (recitation from memory), geography, Greek, Latin, and singing.
Later that year his father purchased a second home in the village of Chantenay on the Loire. Here Jules absorbed a deep and abiding fascination with the river and the vessels that plyed their trade along its length.
He also took vacations at Brains, in the house of his uncle, Prudent Allotte, a retired ship owner, who had travelled around the world. Jules took great joy in playing countless rounds of the Game of the Goose with his uncle, and both the game and his uncle's name would be memorialized in two late novels (The Will of an Eccentric and Robur the Conqueror).
Jules continued his studies at the Lycée Royal in Nantes before going to another religious school in 1842, as a lay student. It was here Jules embarked on his first piece of fiction, an unfinished novel Un Prêtre en 1839 (A Priest in 1839). It describes the seminary in humorous but disrespectful terms.
After finishing classes in rhetoric and philosophy, he took the baccalauréat at Rennes and received the grade "Fairly good" on July 29th 1846.
By 1847, when Verne was nineteen, he was writing works in the style of Victor Hugo, as well as Un Prêtre en 1839 there were two verse tragedies, Alexandre VI and La Conspiration des poudres (The Gunpowder Plot) both were completed.
However, his father took it for granted that his son would eventually inherit the family law practice.
In 1847 Jules was sent to Paris by his father to begin his studies in law. Whilst he was away his cousin, Caroline, with whom he was in love, was married off on April 27th, 1847 to Émile Dezaunay, a man of forty, with whom she would have five children. Jules’s heartbreak at the situation was so evident that even six years later, in a letter to his mother answering a request to visit the Dezaunays in Paris, he spoke sardonically of Caroline's new life and described her as "a little less pregnant than usual."
After a short stay in Paris, where he passed first-year law exams, he returned to Nantes for his father's help in preparing for the second year (provincial law students were required to take their exams in Paris). It was now that he met Rose Herminie Arnaud Grossetière, a young woman one year his senior, and fell intensely in love with her. He wrote and dedicated some thirty poems to the young woman, including "La Fille de l'air" ("The Daughter of Air"), which describes her as "blonde and enchanting, winged and transparent". His passion was reciprocated, at least for a short time, but Grossetière's parents frowned upon the idea of their daughter marrying a young student of uncertain future. They married her instead to Armand Terrien de la Haye, a rich landowner ten years her senior, on July 19th, 1848.
Again this loss of love was a source of deep frustration to Jules. He wrote a hallucinatory letter to his mother, apparently composed in a state of half-drunkenness, in which under pretext of a dream he described his misery; "The bride was dressed in white, graceful symbol of the earnest soul of her fiancé; the bridegroom was dressed in black, mystical allusion to the colour of the soul of his fiancée!" This requited but aborted love affair seems to have permanently scarred the author and his work. His novels include a number of young women married against their will (Gérande in "Master Zacharius", Sava in Mathias Sandorf, Ellen in A Floating City).
In July 1848, Jules left again for Paris, where his father had plans for him to finish law studies and take up law as his profession.
Jules arrived in Paris during a time of political upheaval: the French Revolution of 1848. In February, Louis Philippe I had been overthrown and a provisional government of the French Second Republic taken power. Jules arrived shortly before the election of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as the first president of the Republic, which would last until the coup of 1851, in which Bonaparte had himself crowned ruler of the Second French Empire. In a letter home Jules explained the bombarded state of the city, but assured them that the anniversary of Bastille Day had gone by without any significant conflict.
Despite the obvious upheaval around him Jules used his family connections to introduce himself to Paris society. His uncle, Francisque de Chatêaubourg, introduced him into literary salons, and he particularly frequented those of Mme de Barrère, a friend of his mother. While continuing his law studies, he fed his passion for the theatre, writing numerous plays. Jules was to recall "I was greatly under the influence of Victor Hugo, indeed, very excited by reading and re-reading his works. At that time I could have recited by heart whole pages of Notre Dame de Paris, but it was his dramatic work that most influenced me."
In other family letters of the period Jules is focused on expenses and a number of attacks of violent stomach cramps, the first of many he would suffer from during his life.
In the same year, Jules was required to enlist in the French military, but the sortition process (a random selection from a larger pool) thankfully spared him. He wrote to his father: "You should already know, dear papa, what I think of the military life, and of these domestic servants in livery.… You have to abandon all dignity to perform such functions." Jules's strong anti-war sentiments would remain life-long.
In 1849 Jules came into contact with Alexandre Dumas and became close friends with his son, Alexandre Dumas, fils, and showed him a manuscript for a stage comedy, Les Pailles Rompues (The Broken Straws). Together they rewrote the play and Dumas, through arrangements with his father, had it produced by the Opéra-National at the Théâtre Historique in Paris, opening on June 12th, 1850.
Though writing profusely and frequenting the salons, Jules diligently pursued his law studies and graduated with a licence en droit in January 1851.
Jules’s health suffered again in 1851, when he suffered the first of four attacks of facial paralysis. These attacks, rather than being psychosomatic, were due to an inflammation in the middle ear but were terrifying none the less.
Again in 1851, Jules met up with a fellow writer from Nantes, Pierre-Michel-François Chevalier (known as "Pitre-Chevalier"), the editor-in-chief of the magazine Musée des familles (The Family Museum). Pitre-Chevalier was looking for articles about geography, history, science, and technology, and was keen to make sure that the educational component would be accessible to a large audience using a straightforward prose style or an engaging fictional story. Jules, with his delight in diligent research, especially in geography, was a natural for the job. He first offered him a short historical adventure story, "The First Ships of the Mexican Navy," written in the style of James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels had deeply influenced him. Pitre-Chevalier published it, and in the same year also accepted a second short story, "A Voyage in a Balloon". The latter story, with its combination of adventurous narrative, travel themes, and detailed historical research, would later be described by Verne as "the first indication of the line of novel that I was destined to follow."
Dumas fils put Jules in contact with Jules Seveste, a stage director who had taken over the directorship of the Théâtre-Historique, changing its name to the Théâtre Lyrique. Seveste offered Jules the job of secretary of the theatre, with little or no salary attached. Jules accepted, using the opportunity to write and produce several collaborative comic operas. To celebrate his employment Jules joined with ten friends to found a bachelors' dining club, the Onze-sans-femme (Eleven Bachelors).
For some time, Jules’s father continued to pressurise him to abandon his writing for a career in law. Jules argued, in his letters, that he could only find success in literature. The pressure to plan for a secure future in law reached its climax in January 1852, when his father offered Jules his own Nantes law practice. Faced with this ultimatum, Jules decided conclusively to continue his literary life and refuse the job, writing "Am I not right to follow my own instincts? It's because I know who I am that I realise what I can be one day."
Meanwhile, Jules was spending time at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, researching for his stories and feeding his passion for science and recent discoveries, especially in geography. It was now that Jules met the geographer and explorer Jacques Arago, who travelled extensively despite being blind (he had lost his sight in 1837). The two became good friends, and Arago's witty and innovative accounts of his travels led Jules towards a newly developing genre of literature: travel writing.
In 1852, two new pieces from Jules appeared in the Musée des familles: "Martin Paz," a novella set in Lima, and Les Châteaux en Californie, ou, Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse (The Castles in California, or, A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss), a one-act comedy full of racy double entendres.
In April and May 1854, the magazine published Verne's short story "Master Zacharius," followed by "A Winter Amid the Ice," a polar adventure story whose themes would be widely used again in later novels. Jules’s work for the magazine was cut short in 1856, when he had a serious argument with Pitre-Chevalier and stopped contributing (a position he would maintain until 1863, when Pitre-Chevalier died and the magazine went to a new editor).
While writing stories and articles for Pitre-Chevalier, Jules began tinkering with the idea of inventing a new kind of novel, a Roman de la Science (a novel of science), which would allow him to incorporate large amounts of the factual information he so enjoyed researching in the Bibliothèque. He discussed the project with the elder Alexandre Dumas, who had tried something similar with an unfinished novel, Isaac Laquedem, and who now enthusiastically encouraged Jules’s project.
At the end of 1854, another outbreak of cholera led to the death of Jules Seveste, his employer at the Théâtre Lyrique and, by then, also a good friend. Though his contract only held him to a further year of service, Jules remained connected to the theatre for several years and brought several productions to completion and performance.
In May 1856, Jules travelled to Amiens to be the best man at the wedding of a friend, Auguste Lelarge, to an Amiens woman named Aimée du Fraysse de Viane. Jules was invited to stay with the bride's family and took to them warmly, making friends with them all as well as finding himself increasingly attracted to the bride's sister, Honorine de Viane Morel, a widow of twenty-six with two young children. Hoping to now find a secure source of income, as well as a chance to pursue Honorine in earnest, he jumped at her brother's offer to go into business with a brokerage. Jules’s father was initially dubious, but gave his approval later that year. With his financial situation looking better Jules won the favor of Honorine and her family. The couple were married on January 10th, 1857.
Jules dived into his new business obligations, taking up a full-time job as an agent de change on the Paris Bourse. He awoke early each morning to write before going to the Bourse for the day's work; in the rest of his spare time, he continued to consort with the Onze-Sans-Femme club, all "eleven bachelors" of which had by this time gotten married, and continued to frequent the Bibliothèque to do scientific and historical research, much of which he copied onto note cards for future use, a system he would continue for the rest of his life.
During July 1858, Jules and Aristide Hignard seized an opportunity offered by Hignard's brother: a sea voyage, at no charge, from Bordeaux to Liverpool and Scotland. The journey, Jules's first trip outside of France, deeply impressed him, and upon his return to Paris he fictionalized his recollections to form the backbone of a semi-autobiographical novel, Backwards to Britain. A second complementary voyage in 1861 took Hignard and Jules to Stockholm, and then to Christiania and through Telemark. Jules left Hignard in Denmark to return in haste to Paris, but missed the birth on August 3rd, 1861 of his son, Michel.
Meanwhile, Jules continued to work on the idea of a Roman de la Science, which he developed in a rough draft inspired, according to his recollections, by his "love for maps and the great explorers of the world." It took shape as a story of travel across Africa, and would become his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon.
In 1862, through their mutual acquaintance, Alfred de Bréhat, Jules came into contact with the publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, and submitted to him the manuscript of this developing novel, then called Voyage en Ballon. Hetzel, already the publisher of Balzac, George Sand, Victor Hugo, and other well-known authors, had long been planning to launch a high-quality family magazine in which entertaining fiction would combine with scientific education. He saw Jules, with his meticulously researched adventure stories, as an ideal contributor for such a magazine, and accepted the novel on condition of some needed improvements. Jules made the revisions within two weeks and returned to Hetzel with the final draft, now titled Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was published by Hetzel on January 31st, 1863.
To secure his services for the planned magazine, to be called the Magasin d'Éducation et de Récréation (Magazine of Education and Recreation), Hetzel also drew up a long-term contract in which Jules would give him three volumes of text per year, each of which Hetzel would purchase outright for a fixed fee. Jules, finding both a steady salary and a sure outlet for writing at last, accepted immediately. For the rest of his lifetime, most of his novels would be serialized in Hetzel's Magasin before their appearance in book form, beginning with his second novel for Hetzel, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1864–65).
When The Adventures of Captain Hatteras was published in book form in 1866, Hetzel announced his literary and educational ambitions for Verne's novels by saying in a preface that Verne's works would form a novel sequence called the Voyages Extraordinaires (Extraordinary Voyages), and that Jules's aim was "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe."
Decades later Jules confirmed that this commission had become the running theme of his novels: "My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe… And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty, of style. It is said that there can't be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn't true." He also went on to note the scale of the ambition "Yes! But the Earth is very large, and life is very short! In order to leave a completed work behind, one would need to live to be at least 100 years old!"
Hetzel was a demanding publisher and initially demanded sometimes extensive re-writes. Jules was so happy to find a publisher that he agreed to almost all of the changes. When Hetzel disapproved of the original ending of Captain Hatteras, including the death of the eponymous Captain, Jules re-wrote it so that Hatteras survived. Jules’s next submission, Paris in the Twentieth Century, was rejected as too pessimistic and its contents too subversive for a family magazine.
The relationship between publisher and writer changed significantly around 1869, after arguments on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Jules originally conceived the submariner Captain Nemo as a Polish scientist whose acts of vengeance were against the Russians who had killed his family. Hetzel, did not want to alienate the lucrative Russian market and instructed that Nemo be made an enemy of the slave trade instead. Jules, after fighting vehemently against the change, finally wrote a compromise in which Nemo's past is left mysterious. After this disagreement, Jules became notably distant in his dealings with Hetzel, listening to suggestions but often then rejecting them.
Despite this Jules continued to publish two or more volumes a year. Whilst these were successful the majority of his earnings continued to torrent from the stage adaptations of Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1874) and Michel Strogoff (1876), which he wrote with Adolphe d'Ennery.
He visited the United States in 1867, sailing for New York on the Great Eastern, and his book, A Floating City, was the result of this voyage. Interestingly Jules only stayed for a week in the States taking in a trip up the Hudson River to Albany, then to Niagara Falls before returning to France.
In 1867, Jules acquired a small ship, the Saint-Michel, which he later replaced with the Saint-Michel II and then the Saint-Michel III as his finances further improved. On board the Saint-Michel III, he sailed around Europe.
A State honour arrived at last in 1870. He was appointed as "Chevalier" (Knight) of the Légion d'honneur.
For some years now, since 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 book form. This clever exploitation of his work ensured Jules became both wealthy and famous. Interestingly despite his many connections with some of France’s greatest writers Jules himself felt he had been overlooked as a literary figure. That demotion seemed to go in the exact opposite path to his mounting commercial success. The lack of a nomination for membership in the Académie Française, stung Jules who said "The great regret of my life is that I have never taken any place in French literature."
Though he was raised Catholic and attended several religious schools Jules became, in his later years, a deist, some say this is reflected in his later works.
On March 9th, 1886, as Jules returned home, his young nephew, Gaston, shot at him twice. The first missed, but the second bullet hit his left leg, leaving him with a permanent limp. This matter was hushed up but Gaston spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.
After the death of both his mother and Hetzel, Jules began publishing darker works but still at a prodigious rate.
In 1888, Jules entered politics and was elected town councillor of Amiens, and then served for fifteen years.
Jules was now entering the last period of his life. His works continued to flow albeit at a slower pace. His reconciliation with his son, Michel, was complete though paying off Michel’s debts had caused him the sale of his beloved boat. But Michel was now actively contributing to his father’s works and when the senior Verne died he would continue to contribute and publish his father’s works, ensuring that the work was kept in the public eye and the legacy preserved.
On March 24th, 1905, while ill with diabetes, Jules Verne died at his home at 44 Boulevard Longueville, Amiens. In his desk was a drawer almost full of nearly completed manuscripts.
As a legacy Jules Verne is forever remembered as ‘The Father of Science Fiction’. With his rigorous research Jules was not only able to make his works realistic but also to project forward and predict many new things that would eventually come to pass – either in real life or as the basis for others to use in their own science fiction. Extraordinary indeed.