By Nick Suhr ~
Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France, on February 8, 1828. Like many famous men and women, Verne’s parents had plans for their son’s future. His lawyer father insisted he follow tradition and continue his practice. His fanciful mother focused Jules’s attention on the magic of the universe. But Verne had a mind of his own.
The Early Years
When Verne was growing up, Nantes was a port city, and he soon became enamored of the river and the ships and the sea. He was sent to a boarding school at the age of six or seven where the teacher was the widow of a sea captain who never returned from a long-ago ocean voyage. Still, each morning, the teacher would tell her students she was waiting for her husband to walk through the door. Soon after, Verne was sent to a Catholic school where he studied and excelled in geography, Latin, Greek, and singing. All the while, Verne wrote short stories, magazine articles, and poems. Eventually, he read Daniel Defoe’s adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, which would change Verne’s life forever.
In France in the early 19thCentury, family tradition generally trumped everything else, so Verne dutifully went to Paris to study law. Before he finished his legal studies in Paris, however, he met poets and writers – men like Alexandre Dumas – who not only changed his point of view but also his entire focus on life and, then, ultimately, altered his future. He spent a year trying to be a lawyer, but finally told his father he knew what he needed to do to succeed, and that was to keep writing the plays and stories that were garnering recognition and praise in Paris. In 1852, he exercised his independence by turning down his father’s offer to turn his law practice in Nantes over to him, accepting, instead, a low-paying job as secretary of the Théâtre Lyrique, managed by Dumas, where Verne’s one-act comedy, Broken Straws, had been performed in 1850.
Some Turning Points
In 1851, Verne met a writer, also from Nantes, Pierre Chevalier, who was the editor of a periodical called The Family Museum (Musée des Familles). Chevalier was looking for articles about geography, science, and history. As fate would have it, soon thereafter Verne met and befriended an aging Jacques Arago, a famous geographer and explorer, who told many tales of his adventures and inspired Verne to begin writing about travel. By 1852, Verne published an article in The Family Museum about Lima, Peru, and another article set in California.
As Verne’s interest in science developed, he wrote a series of articles (in the mid-19thCentury many books had their beginning as serial chapters in magazines) on scientific subjects. In 1862, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, the publisher for many popular authors, including Victor Hugo and George Sand. Verne showed Hetzel his working manuscript for a new novel, Voyage in a Balloon. Hetzel accepted the manuscript, which Verne completed in two weeks, and renamed the novel Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was published in January 1863. Verne signed a long-term agreement with Hetzel, who agreed to pay Verne a flat fee for each of three new volumes a year. Verne’s second book, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, was published in 1864. Nearly all of Verne’s later novels began as installments in Hetzel’s family magazine (The Magazine of Education and Recreation). Almost all were, at least in part, a collaboration between Hetzel and Verne.
Some of the Great Stories
The success of Verne’s first two books prompted Hetzel to announce, in 1866, that Verne’s book should become a series of Extraordinary Journeys, and so they came to be. We all know most of them: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Round the Moon (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). The royalties from these, and especially from the stage adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, allowed Verne and his beloved wife to indulge their love of the sea by purchasing a series of sailing vessels all named Saint-Michel for their son Michel who was born in 1861.
The Final Chapter
Jules Verne died on March 24, 1905. He never received the highest literary honors during his lifetime, which distressed him greatly, for he believed he had worked hard to earn the accolades. Recent biographers have looked back at the time when Verne’s works were published, and many conclude that Verne was wrongly judged by contemporary critics based on the poor and badly edited translations that were hurriedly produced for the world market. Verne might rest easier if only he knew that today he stands near the top of the list, between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, of most-translated authors in history.
“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.”
– Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
Nick Suhr is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes. He is a lawyer by vocation and a writer by avocation. He is a regular contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published. Thank you, Nick, for sharing it with our readers.
Photo by Hendra Pontomudis