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...
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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, Hetzel’s financial records reveal that Hetzel made about five times as much from Verne’s books as Verne did and, although Verne eventually became quite well-off, his family certainly struggled for a while in the 1860’s and may have suffered mild financial embarrassments later in his career, when his sales fell off dramatically.
In 1870, Ferdinand de Lesseps solicited the Légion d’Honneur for Verne; it was awarded in 1870 immediately before the fall of the Third Republic. He was honored by the Académie Française in August, 1872, but was never elected to it. During the Franco-Prussian War, Verne set up a coast-guard unit at Crotoy, where he had been living for some years, and afterward had to return to the Bourse for a while because of the effect of the war on the book trade. This did not last long, however, and in 1872, he settled permanently in Amiens, devoting himself from then on to full-time writing.
Verne’s son Michel proved a great disappointment to him. As a boy, Michel was a delinquent, and he was estranged from his parents for a long time, living a turbulent personal life. When he finally settled down, however, he and his father were reconciled. Michel’s third son, Jean Jules-Verne, eventually became one of Verne’s biographers.
Verne’s main relaxation during his years at Amiens was his involvement with a series of small boats, all of which he called St. Michel, the third and last of which he bought in 1877. He spent a great deal of time on these boats, and the third one was actually large enough to allow him to undertake some voyages of his own. He visited Britain and Scandinavia in 1877, went cruising in the Baltic in 1880, and toured parts of the Mediterranean in 1884. On the last trip, in particular, he was exposed to a great deal of publicity and was hailed as a celebrity wherever he went. He tried to avoid this, but his wife reveled in it and frustrated his attempts to remain unnoticed. He sold the third St. Michel in 1886, possibly because of financial problems—throughout the 1880’s, sales of his new books plummeted. Whereas, at the peak of his career, Around the World in Eighty Days had sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the trade edition, by 1880, his new works frequently sold less than twenty thousand copies, and the books he wrote in the last decade of his life sold less than ten thousand copies.
In March, 1886, Verne was shot in the foot by a would-be assassin—his nephew Gaston. Gaston was confined to an asylum; the incident was so shocking to the family that, according to Peter Costello’s 1978 Verne biography, no one in the family would discuss the matter almost one hundred years later. Verne remained lame for the rest of his life, but that did not prevent him from going into local politics the following year. This represented a modest emergence from his shell, in that he stood as a radical, undoubtedly offending his staunchly conservative family. It is interesting that Verne’s political radicalism is occasionally evident in his wry asides but is never given free expression in his works. The same is true of his religious beliefs. Though his family was staunchly Catholic (and the family biographers maintain that Verne was also), Verne appears to have become an agnostic, if not an atheist, as early as the 1850’s. Religiosity was part of the facade that he maintained throughout his life, and his novels do very little to suggest his true opinions, except in certain sly remarks. This self-conscious hypocrisy is, at times, willfully subverted by the author, as in The Village in the Treetops, in which a token denial of belief in Darwinism is then made to look absurd by a story about apes with quasi-human intelligence—living “missing links.” The difficulty of penetrating this facade was increased when Verne, in 1898, burned a number of his personal papers, including manuscripts and account books.
Even after Verne’s death, the business of keeping up appearances continued. Michel became his father’s literary executor and seems to have taken a hand in revising one or two of his manuscripts for posthumous publication. The authorship of the novel translated into English in two volumes as Into the Niger Bend and The City in the Sahara, in particular, is rather dubious. A ghostwriter named Georges Montignac may well have been involved, as well as Michel. Certain other works published under Jules Verne’s name are most likely the work of Michel, although this may apply only to shorter pieces.
What is remarkable about Verne’s life, insofar as it affected his literary career, was the extent to which everything that really mattered to him remained private. He was a man whose “real” life was lived inside his head, quite disconnected from the daily routine of going through the motions of respectable middle-class life. Even in his books, his innermost thoughts remain covert, peeping out only occasionally, and then in disguise. The best of his fantasies concern ordinary people snatched by circumstance into isolation and imprisonment, which they accept with relief and guilty joy. He was the archetypal armchair traveler, a man who found solace in his dreams and worked to add a special verisimilitude to those dreams, researching indefatigably to fill in their background. He pretended to be satisfied with his lot in life, but his stories are the work of a deeply disappointed and frustrated man.