The French novelist Jules Verne (1828-1905) was the first authentic exponent of modern science fiction. The best of his work is characterized by intelligent predictions of technical achievements actually within man's grasp at the time Verne wrote.
Jules Verne was born on Feb. 8, 1828, at Nantes, the eldest son of a prosperous provincial lawyer. An otherwise uneventful childhood was marked by one major escapade. In his twelfth year, Jules shipped as a cabin boy on an ocean-going three-master. The ship was intercepted by his father before it had put out to sea, and Jules is said to Page 468 | Top of Article have promised his parents that "in future he would travel only in imagination"—a prediction fulfilled in a manner his parents could not have foreseen.
Career as a Playwright
In 1847 Verne went to Paris to study law, although privately he was already planning a literary career. Owing to the friendship he made with Alexandre Dumas the Elder, Verne's first play, Broken Straws, was produced—with some success—in 1850. From 1852 to 1855 he held a steady and ill-paid position as secretary of a Paris theater, the Théâtre Lyrique. He continued to write comedies and operettas and began contributing short stories to a popular magazine, Le Musée des familles.
During a visit to Amiens in May 1856, Verne met and fell in love with the widowed daughter of an army officer, Madame Morel (née Honorine de Viane), whom he married the following January. The circumstance that his wife's brother was a stockbroker may have influenced Verne in making the unexpected decision to embrace this profession. Membership in the Paris Exchange did not seriously interfere with his literary labors, however, because he adopted a rigorous timetable, rising at five o'clock in order to put in several hours researching and writing before beginning his day's work at the Bourse.
Verne's first long work of fiction, Five Weeks in a Balloon, took the form of an account of a journey by air over
Central Africa, at that time largely unexplored. The book, published in January 1863, was an immediate success. He then decided to retire from stockbroking and to devote himself full time to authorship. His next few books were immensely successful at the time and are still counted among the best he wrote. A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) describes the adventures of a party of explorers and scientists who descend the crater of an Icelandic volcano and discover an underground world. The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866) centers on an expedition to the North Pole (not actually reached by Robert Peary until 1909). In From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel, Round the Moon (1870), Verne describes how two adventurous Americans—joined, naturally, by an equally intrepid Frenchman—arrange to be fired in a hollow projectile from a gigantic cannon that lifts them out of the earth's gravity field and takes them close to the moon. Verne not only pictured the state of weightlessness his "astronauts" experienced during their flight, but also he had the prescience to locate their launching site in Florida.
Verne wrote his two masterpieces when he was in his 40s. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) relates the voyages of the submarine Nautilus, built and commanded by the mysterious Capt. Nemo, one of the literary figures in whom Verne incorporated many of his own character traits. Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) is the story of a successful wager made by a typically phlegmatic Englishman, Phineas Fogg, a character said to have been modeled on Verne's father, who had a mania for punctuality. Other popular novels include The Mysterious Island (1875) and Michael Strogoff (1876). Verne's total literary output comprised nearly 80 books, but many of them are of little value or interest today. One noteworthy feature of all his work is its moral idealism, which earned him in 1884 the personal congratulations of Pope Leo XIII. "If I am not always what I ought to be, " Verne once wrote, "my characters will be what I should like to be." His interest in scientific progress was tempered by his robust religious faith, and in some of his later novels (such as The Purchase of the North Pole, 1889), he showed himself aware of the social dangers of uncontrolled technological advance.
Verne the Man
Verne's personality was complex. Though capable of bouts of extreme liveliness and given to punning and playing practical jokes, he was fundamentally a shy man, happiest when alone in his study or when sailing the English Channel in a converted fishing smack. In 1886 he was the victim of a shooting affray, which left him lame. His assailant proved to be a nephew who was suffering from an attack of persecution mania. This incident served to reinforce Verne's natural tendency to melancholy. Although he stood successfully for election to the city council of Amiens two years later, he spent his old age in close retirement. In 1902 he became partially blind; he died on March 24, 1905.
Verne's niece, Marguerite Allotte de la Fuye, published a biography based partly on family papers, Jules Verne (1928; trans. 1954). Kenneth Allott, Jules Verne (1940), is a full biography with critical appraisal of Verne's books. I. O. Evans, Jules Verne and His Work (1965), in spite of its naively uncritical approach, contains interesting illustrative material and an extensive bibliography.
Costello, Peter, Jules Verne: inventor of science fiction, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978.
Evans, I. O.. (Idrisyn Oliver), Jules Verne and his work, Mattituck N.Y.: Aeonian Press, 1976.
Jules-Verne, Jean, Jules Verne: a biography, New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1976. □