Born in 1828, Jules Verne, who was to become one of the best-known science-fiction writers of all time, had a quiet childhood in Nantes. He attended the local lycée before going to Paris, intending to study law. However, through the influence of writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, he discovered that he preferred literary work. He wrote operas, collaborated with the younger Dumas on some plays, and tried travel writing. His first success came with the publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon. The popularity of this novel encouraged Verne to continue writing near-future scientific adventure, often involving journeys into known and unknown realms. These “voyages extraordinaires” included A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Adopting literary techniques similar to the mid-century French realists, Verne included carefully prepared scientific and geographical data to provide plausible backgrounds for his novels. The subject matter and lively action of Verne’s tales soon gained for him an immense following in France and abroad. His novels coincided with the popular interest in science and technology beginning to sweep people’s imaginations during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their popularity is attested by the great number of translations and foreign editions. Each novel described a scientific or technological development and its consequences, many of which have proved startlingly accurate and have inspired writers and scientists. By combining the physical sciences with the elements of fiction, he helped to create a form of literature later called science fiction.
The most famous of Verne’s novels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a pioneer work, introduced an advanced submarine to literature decades before the world’s navies could build and use such a vessel. In this case, as in others, he anticipated future technology; his Nautilus, propelled by electricity, functions on principles similar to those of modern undersea craft.
Although Verne’s novels achieved wide and enduring fame, they did not receive careful critical attention until the last third of the twentieth century. Scholars began to consider his novels against the background of their literary, scientific, and social context and to analyze his artistic techniques.
In his own time, Verne was honored by the French government, acclaimed by the French intellectuals, and beloved by readers the world over, having popularized science more effectively than any previous writer. Subsequently, his renown and literary standing have grown in France and throughout the world.
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...
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- Critical Essays