xxxxxThe French author Jules Verne was the leading pioneer in science fiction. His 50 exciting tales of adventure into the unknown included Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), Mysterious Island (1874), and his best known work, Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873. These Extraordinary Voyages were well researched and proved immensely popular. They also anticipated many future scientific developments, including the atomic powered submarine, flights into space, guided missiles and inventions like helicopters and moving pictures. He also wrote some thirty plays and a large number of short stories and opera librettos, but he had completed his major works by the 1880s. He lived at Amiens from 1872 and was made an officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1892. As we shall see (1895 Vc), his ability to popularize science by flights of fancy and exciting adventure was to be skilfully continued by the English author and social critic H.G. Wells.

JULES VERNE  1828 - 1905  (G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc, E7)


Train: contained in History of the City of Omaha, Nebraska, published 1894, by James Woodruff  Savage and John Thomas Bell – Nebraska State Historical Society, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA, artist unknown.  Bly: by the photographer H.J. Myers, c1890 – Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington.

xxxxxThe French author Jules Verne is rightly regarded as the father of science fiction. Earlier writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, had shown some interest in this genre, but it was Verne who, going well beyond the limits of current scientific knowledge, plumbed the oceans, journeyed to the centre of the earth, and rocketed to the moon. His Extraordinary Voyages - as he called them - were written to entertain (and make a good living in the process), but they provided, too, a fascinating and remarkably accurate glimpse into the future. His home-spun fantasies - immensely popular in his day - anticipated atomic powered submarines, flights into outer space, guided missiles, helicopters and moving pictures, inventions not achieved until well into the 20th century.


xxxxxHe wrote over 50 romantic tales of adventure. Among his most popular are Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Mysterious Island (1874), and Around the World in 80 Days (1873). The last named, which follows the amusing adventures and mixed fortunes of the suave English gentleman Phineas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout, is probably the best known and best loved of all his works. As one would expect such flights of the imagination, coupled with high drama, have provided excellent material for cinema and TV.

xxxxxVerne was born in Nantes, the son of a prosperous lawyer. He attended a local boarding school and then in 1847 was sent to study law in Paris. There, however, under the influence of two of his friends, the established writers Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, he began writing for the stage, much to the annoyance of his father. He did complete his law studies, but then made his living writing opera librettos, comedies and stories. He achieved a modicum of success in 1850 with his play The Broken Straws, but he was obliged to augment his income by other means. He was secretary at the Théâtre Lyrique for a couple of years (1852-1854), and worked for some time as a stockbroker.

xxxxxThe turning point in his literary career came in 1862. In that year he met and became a close friend of the editor and publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel. He saw merit in Verne’s work, but advised him to weave his interest in science and exploration around a tale of adventure, full of exiting incident and with touches of humour. The result was Five Weeks in a Balloon, a fascinating journey across Africa that proved the first of his many scientific fantasies. Published in Hetzel’s bi-weekly Magazine d’Education et de Récréation, it was a huge success and put him on the road to fame and fortune.

xxxxxThere followed a series of imaginary journeys in the same vein. Carefully researched and liberally spiced with exciting adventures, each of these Voyages Extraordinaires proved extremely popular. Though full of fantastic ideas and situations, he managed to make his fantasies have some semblance of possibility, and this made them the more intriguing in an age of growing interest in scientific innovation. Nor were his outlandish ideas very wide of the mark. Captain Nimo’s pirate submarine Nautilus, for example, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea anticipated the nuclear powered Nautilus of the 1950s, and his Mysterious Island of 1870 was full of future inventions, including television and the aqualung. And being shot into space by a large cannon in Earth to the Moon was not far removed from the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s!

xxxxxAll of Verne’s major works had been written by the early 1880s, and after the death of his mother in 1887 his story lines took on a more sombre tone, many of them taking a rather pessimistic view of the future of civilisation. In 1888 he entered politics and served for fifteen years as a councillor in Amiens, the town where he had lived with his wife and family since 1872. In recognition of his contribution to literature he was made an officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1892. In all he wrote 65 novels, some thirty plays and a large number of short stories and opera librettos. His last novel, The Invasion of the Sea, was published in 1905, the year of his death. His science fiction made him a rich man. He visited the United States in 1867, and in the mid 1870s he made a tour of the Mediterranean in his own yacht.

xxxxxAn easy-going, well-loved man, Verne owed much of his success to his self-discipline - he wrote from five to one o’clock every morning - and to the thoroughness of his research. His concern for detail made his stories as feasible and realistic as possible. As we shall see (1895 Vc), his ability to popularize science by flights of fancy and exciting adventure was to be continued in admirable fashion by the English author and social critic H.G. Wells.


xxxxxIncidentally, in his writing Verne was influenced by the American short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose works had been translated into French by the poet Charles Baudelaire in 1854. Towards the end of his career he wrote The Sphinx of the Ice Fields, published in 1897, as a sequel to Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. ……

xxxxx…… In 1863 Verne wrote Paris in the Twentieth Century, the story of a young poet who comes to a tragic end in a world which is obsessed with the advance of technology - typified by glass skyscrapers, petrol driven cars, high speed trains, and a system of global communication (the internet!) - but is fast becoming culturally moribund. It was rejected by Hetzel on the grounds that it was too pessimistic and, so the story goes, the manuscript was discovered in an old trunk by Verne’s great grandson in 1989. It was published in 1994 and became a bestseller in France. ……

xxxxx…… PierrexJules Hetzel (1814-1886) - the man who assisted Verne in his career - was an important French editor who published, amongst others, the works of Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Baudelaire and Georges Sand. He made his name, however, by his illustrated editions of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires, books which are highly prized today. ……

xxxxx…… When Verne went to America in 1867 he travelled aboard the Great Eastern. This giant of a steamship had just completed the laying of the transatlantic cable and was chartered by Napoleon III to sail to New York and bring American visitors to the Paris Exhibition of that year. Later, Verne’s novel Une Ville flottante (The Floating City), published in 1874, was based on his voyage to the States. ……

xxxxx…… AroundxThe World in Eighty Days might well have been based on such a journey, made by the American entrepreneur George Francis Train (1829-1904). A larger-than-life eccentric, he actually travelled around the world in eighty days in 1870 (three years before Verne’s novel was published), and he made two further trips in the early 1890s. During a jam-packed life he formed his own shipping company in Liverpool, spent time in the gold rush town of Melbourne - during which time he helped in the construction of the docks there -, introduced horse-drawn trams into Birkenhead and London, and made a fortune in real estate during the building of the Union Pacific Railway. In between times he toured America speaking in favour of women’s rights, and at one time (1872) ran for the President of the United States as an independent! He wrote many articles and books about his travels and his commercial undertakings, but spent his last few years in seclusion. ……

xxxxx…… InxNovember 1889 a pioneer female journalist named Nellie Bly (1867-1922), working for the New York World, made her own journey around the world, determined to beat the record set by Phineas Fogg. Amid great public interest, she returned to New York in 72 days, six hours and eleven minutes! This “story” was not her only claim to fame. Two years earlier she had feigned insanity and brought to light the horrific conditions being endured by patients in a New York mental asylum. One of the world’s first investigative journalists, she was actually born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, but took the name Nellie Bly from a popular song by the American composer Stephen Foster.