Jules Gabriel Verne was born in 1828, the son of Pierre Verne, a lawyer, and Sophie, née Allotte de la Fuye. He was born in Nantes, on the Île Feydeau, an island in the Loire River that has since been connected to the bank. His family appears to have been a bastion of middle-class respectability, desperately concerned with keeping up appearances. This fact appears to have had a profound effect on Verne’s life, a subtle but important influence on his work, and to be the cause of some misrepresentation in the biographies written by members of his family—even the one published in 1973 by Jean Jules-Verne (his grandson).
Verne’s life story seems to have been one of constant and unsuccessful rebellion against the standards and lifestyle that his family tried to impose on him. He never escaped the clutches of middle-class respectability and seems to have spent the last forty years of his life maintaining a facade for the sake of the expectations of his family. Under such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that he took full advantage of the opportunity to become a voyager in the imagination—a champion escapist.
Verne studied law in his father’s office for a while before going to Paris, ostensibly to continue his studies there. Actually, he wanted to be a playwright, and he threw himself into the bohemian life of the student quarter of the Left Bank, where he met Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, père. Dumas encouraged his literary endeavors and produced Verne’s first one-act comedy at the Théâtre Historique. Verne’s attempts to establish himself in the literary world were, however, less than wholly successful. While he wrote plays, short stories, and operettas in the early 1850’s, he was for three years secretary of the Théâtre Lyrique, but by the end of 1855, he had had enough. In 1856, he planned to marry a young widow, Honorine Morel, and in order to be able to support her, he asked his father to buy him a share in a stockbroking business.
This business provided Verne with an income, but he still had other ambitions and began collecting articles that he hoped might help him to carve out a niche for himself as a novelist exploiting geography in the same way Dumas had exploited history. He traveled extensively, visiting Britain in 1859 and Scandinavia in 1861, and produced more light plays with music. His son Michel was born in August, 1861.
Around this time, Verne appears to have become partly estranged from his wife. They had no more children and occupied separate beds, but they continued to maintain the appearance of a happy marriage. Verne retreated more and more frequently to his club—the Cercle de la Presse Scientifique—where he met and became friendly with Félix Tournachon, a photographer and aeronaut who used the pseudonym “Nadar.” Out of the interest in aeronautics inspired by this association came a documentary novel about ballooning, which Verne took to the publisher Hetzel (who himself wrote, under the pseudonym P. J. Stahl) in 1862. Hetzel suggested sweeping revisions, which Verne carried out in only two weeks. Verne put to Hetzel, soon after the publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon, his idea for an extended series of les voyages extraordinaires, and Hetzel encouraged him to go ahead. By September, 1863, when the Verne family moved to Auteuil, Verne was well established as a novelist. He was, however, apparently under great personal strain. He suffered a good deal from stress-related facial paralysis, which eventually had to be relieved by electric shock treatment.
Verne seems to have been grateful to Hetzel, and his first biographer, Marguerite Allotte de la Fuye (his niece), alleges that Hetzel treated him with the utmost generosity. In fact,...