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Jules Verne: the hidden story of France’s first science fiction writer

Family turmoil, ill health and hurtful rejection by literary peers plagued a life that was still full of travel and adventure

Jules Verne

Portrait of Jules Verne taken around 1878; Verne’s novels formed a sequence called 'Voyages Extraordinaires' Pic: Musée Jules Verne / Régis Routier/ Stéphan Ménoret

Jules Verne (1828-1905) is loved worldwide for his novel Around the World in 80 Days, but he died thinking that he was regarded as a second-class writer rather than as a respected literary figure.

A sailor at heart

Born in Nantes, he later said that growing up in the city influenced his work enormously. 

Read more: City portrait of Nantes: Past is fused with present and machines rule

“He grew up near the docks and as a child loved watching the tall ships depart and arrive,” says Agnès Marcetteau, director of the Musée Jules Verne in Nantes. 

“To him, ports were romantic, he had a very romantic view of the world. 

“He used to visit the ships and even managed to board one and stand at a ship’s wheel. He was a sailor at heart all his life.”

Law student and pacifist

He grew up in a happy family, one of five children, and did well at school. 

From his early days he wanted to be a writer, and modelled himself after Victor Hugo, writing a novel and two verse tragedies by the age of 19. 

His father expected him to take over the family law practice, and in 1847, packed him off to Paris to study law. 

During his studies he continued writing poetry and plays and used his family connections to gain admission to literary salons. 

Troubled by unexplained bouts of facial paralysis and violent stomach cramps, he was relieved to be spared military service, and was a staunch pacifist all his life.

Literary connections and scientific writing

In 1849, he became friends with Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the Three Musketeers author). 

They revised the theatre comedy The Broken Straws together, and staged it in 1850. 

In 1851, he received his law degree and met the editor of a magazine called Musée des Familles, who then invited him to contribute to the publication. 

The magazine aimed to be educational but also entertaining; the brief was to explain the latest scientific developments through an engaging story.

Jules Verne was a natural, and his tale, The First Ships of the Mexican Navy, was published that same year along with a second story called A Voyage in a Balloon

He was also still working in theatre as an unpaid secretary, and writing a series of comic operas. 

Chose writing over family law firm

In 1852, his father demanded that he return to Nantes and take over the family law firm, but Jules Verne refused. 

“Am I not right to follow my own instincts?” he asked.  

He spent many hours at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, researching the latest scientific discoveries of the Industrial Revolution for his stories, and became close to Jacques Arago, a blind geographer and explorer who always had a tale to tell. 

Quite naturally, Jules Verne turned towards travel writing. 

He also had an idea for writing “novels of science”, which he discussed with Dumas fils.

Fantasy world took toll on marriage

In 1856, he fell in love with Aimée du Fraysne de Viane, a young widow of 26 with two daughters. 

In order to stabilise his financial situation he went into business with her brother, and he married Aimée in 1857. 

This, however, did not mean that he gave up his literary ambitions. He simply found time for them outside the office.

“The marriage wasn’t successful,” says Agnès Marcetteau. “Both parties were disappointed and although perhaps he escaped into his fantasy world, it’s likely that this constant absenteeism damaged his marriage.”

Travel was priority over family

In 1858, he seized the opportunity of a free boat ticket from Bordeaux to Liverpool and Scotland. 

In 1861, he obtained another free ticket to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and was therefore absent from the birth of his only child, a son called Michel.

Writing contract serialised his books

In 1862, he met the publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who had already published works by Honoré de Balzac, George Sand and Victor Hugo, and who accepted his story Voyage en Ballon

The final draft of the story, re-titled Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863. 

Hetzel then contracted Jules Verne to write three volumes a year, for an outright flat fee. 

Delighted, Jules Verne signed the contract and for the rest of his life most of his novels were serialised in Hetzel’s magazine before being published in book form. 

Hetzel curbed Verne’s gloominess

It was Hetzel who came up with the idea of Verne’s novels forming a sequence called Voyages Extraordinaires which would “outline all the geographical, physical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe”.

The two men collaborated very closely, Verne often re-writing according to Hetzel’s suggestions. 

Verne had a tendency towards gloominess and his novel Paris in the Twentieth Century was rejected for being too pessimistic. (The manuscript was believed lost, but was eventually found and published in 1994.)

Denied recognition in his lifetime

“He was 35 before he achieved his career break-through,” says Agnès Marcetteau. “He was in some ways quite a shy man; he wasn’t interested in celebrity, but he longed for recognition, and never felt he got it. He died with this very bitter regret.”

Homelife remained troubled

His career was finally taking off, but his home life was difficult. His marriage was deeply unhappy and his son Michel was so unruly by the age of six that he was sent to a strict boarding school in an attempt to get him back on track.

Work dismissed by literary peers

Many of his books feature sea journeys, and it is easy to trace his romantic attachment to travels full of discoveries and adventures. 

His most famous novels include Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872).

His work was well-received by critics and widely admired by other writers, with George Sand one of his first admirers. 

As his sales increased, however, there was a general view that he was a genre writer, a mere story-teller rather than a serious literary giant. 

Emile Zola dismissed his work, and he was omitted from invitations to join the Académie Française.

Drawn to the sea

In 1867, Verne bought a small boat called the Saint-Michel, which he successively replaced with larger boats – the Saint-Michel II and finally the Saint-Michel III – in which he sailed around Europe. 

Shot in the leg

By the 1870s, Jules Verne was rich and famous, but his relationship with his wild-child son was terrible. 

His efforts to tame his son had included strict boarding schools, sending him abroad, and cutting him off. 

Nothing worked. Michel ran up debts, entered improvident marriages, got divorced, ran off with an underage girl, fathered illegitimate children and generally ran amok.

In 1886, Verne’s mentally unbalanced nephew shot him in the leg, and the wound resulted in a lifelong limp. 

That same year, Verne’s mother and Hetzel both died, and his work became darker. 

By this time, he was living in Amiens and had entered local politics, becoming a town councillor for 15 years. He had already become a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1870, and in 1892, became an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur.

Talent recognised after his death

He died in 1905, ill with diabetes and complications from a stroke which had paralysed his right side. He left money to his step-daughters, but only his literary estate to his son. 

Michel Verne oversaw the publication of two of his father’s last novels, and also reworked, finished and edited many of his unfinished novels.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Jules Verne’s literary worth began to be realised. 

Following analysis of his work by the Société Jules Verne, various academics re-evaluated his stylistic innovations and literary themes, and his reputation suddenly took off in France. 

His entire catalogue was republished, and in 1978, Journey to the Centre of the Earth was added to the reading lists of French universities.

Put science into science fiction

In the Anglophone world, due to sloppy translations, abridged versions, and editions for children, Jules Verne’s reputation has been re-evaluated more slowly. 

Steampunk, a literary genre and a social movement glamorising 19th-century science and technology, has its roots in his work, and American science-fiction author Ray Bradbury declared that “we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne”. 

The argument over who invented science fiction rumbles on, detractors saying that there is no fictional science in his books and others declaring that he was the first writer to incorporate the latest technological developments into his fiction.

Inspired visionaries

He has inspired countless engineers and pioneers including Sir Ernest Shackleton (Antarctic explorer), Jacques Cousteau (oceanographer), Alberto Santos-Dumont (aircraft designer), Igor Sikorsky (helicopter designer), and numerous astronauts, Polar explorers, and astronomers including Edwin Hubble.  

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