Jules Verne

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111201600-Verne.jpg Jules Verne Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Verne was a popular and prolific French novelist whose works were immediately translated into other major languages. He is credited with being the father of the literary genre now known as science fiction.

Early Life

Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in the French seaport of Nantes, the first son (and one of five children) born to Pierre and Sophie Verne. Descended from a long line of merchants, seamen, and lawyers, it was expected that Verne would practice law. That wish conflicted with his nature. The adventuresome Verne ran away from home at age eleven and attempted to set sail from Nantes on a departing ship. Caught and punished by his parents, Verne promised his mother that “from now on I’ll travel only in my imagination.” Only an average student, Verne was obedient to his father’s hopes, studied law, and tried his luck as an attorney. For him it was a boring and frustrating profession.

While studying in Paris, Verne had met and befriended the famed writer Alexandre Dumas, père, author of Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844; The Three Muskateers, 1846) and the “father of the historical romance.” Verne recalled his childhood fascination with “the literature of adventure,” such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Wyss’s Der schwietzerische Robinson (1812-1827; The Swiss Family Robinson, 1814, 1818, 1820). With the encouragement of Dumas, Verne left the security of his law practice to write. His initial play, Les Pailles rompues (1850; the broken straws), was successful at Dumas’s Théâtre Historique. Between 1851 and 1861, Verne penned some fifteen plays, most of which were never produced. For a short time, however, he was the secretary of the Théâtre Lyrique.

In 1856, while attending a wedding, Verne met Honorine Fraysee, a rich young widow with two children. It was a case of love at first sight. They were married on January 10, 1857, in a simple ceremony. In 1861, their son, Michel, was born. A happy union, the marriage lasted for forty-eight years.

By 1860 Verne began to regard himself as a professional failure. His writings were not earning much income, and he was accused of living off the income of a wealthy wife. Attempts to supplement his income by selling stocks failed. Because he had written some scientific articles, Verne attempted a piece on aeronautics and exploration. Africa was a popular subject because of the discoveries of adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton and John Speke. Verne proposed exploring the Dark Continent by balloon. This scientific text was repeatedly rejected by publishers. P. J. Hetzel (who wrote under the pseudonym P. J. Stahl) advised Verne to rewrite it as fiction, suggesting that Verne could do for science what Dumas had done for history. Verne acted on the advice, and the firm of Hetzel and Company published Verne’s voyages extraordinaires (fantastic voyages) beginning with Cinq Semaines en ballon (1863; Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1876). The work was an immediate success, and Hetzel gave Verne a lifetime contract. His career as the creator of what would be called “science fiction” had begun.

Life’s Work

At age thirty-five, Verne had found his life’s work. In his remaining forty-two years, he would write more than sixty “scientific romances,” averaging two books per year and winning the reputation of “the father of science fiction.” Verne drew on two of his major loves in the writing of science fiction: geography and science.

Though he seldom traveled, Verne was an avid reader of travel books and was recognized as an accomplished amateur geographer. Early in his career, he wrote a popular history of geographical exploration from the Phoenicians to the nineteenth century, La Decouverte de la terre (1878; The Discovery of the Earth, 1878), while he also collaborated on an illustrated geography of France. This fascination with a sense of place gave Verne the ability to provide intimate and convincing details in his novels, even those set in remote places in the Americas and the Pacific. Of seafaring stock and as an accomplished yachtsman, Verne filled his novels that were set on the oceans with compelling data that would normally only be known to a sailor. Verne’s feeling for locale was consistently persuasive.

Though he was not an inventor, Verne was an avid reader of scientific literature, and he had the gift to see the technological application of many of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century. Verne’s writing anticipated that of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in this respect, for there is always a hard core of scientific fact inside his fantastic tales. Late in his life, when someone dared to compare his writing to that of the British author H. G. Wells, Verne protested, insisting, “I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine . . . his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. . . . I make use of physics. He invents.” Verne’s novels were predictive of twentieth century...

(The entire section is 2115 words.)