Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Jules Verne: A Literary Pilgrimage - Part 2

Jules Verne's mansion against the background of modern Amiens.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Though born in Nantes in 1828 and living amidst the hustle, bustle and literary-artistic culture of Paris when he wrote his first novels, Verne's association with Amiens began in 1856 when he attended the wedding of a friend. Weddings are often efficacious for spurring new romances, and Verne fell for the sister of the bride, a widow with two daughters named Honorine. The following year the pair were married, but living in Amiens was still a long way off.

His father was a lawyer and expected his firstborn son to follow in his footsteps, taking up the family practice. Jules' mother descended from a family of shipowners, and his schoolteacher was the widowed wife of a sea captain. This inheritance, and seeing ships drift in and out of Nantes' harbor, seized the young boy’s mind. He particularly enjoyed the story of Robinson Crusoe, and had once reportedly tried to get himself hired on as a cabin boy to a vessel bound for India at the age of 11. The expanse of ocean and all it represented about the unknown, romantic, and adventurous had claimed Jules Verne as easily as it claimed its shipwrecks.

After a doomed romance with a girl whose father forced into a marriage of convenience with a wealthy landowner ten years her elder, Verne left Nantes for Paris to complete his legal studies. When he arrived in 1848, his family connections admitted him to the most chic of literary salons. He also expressed himself creatively through the writing of dramatic plays. His greatest influence at this time was Victor Hugo, both his theatrical works and his lengthy novels of social upheaval, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Miserables. It was fitting, as this was also the tumultuous times of the French Revolution of 1848. Witnessing the collapse of the July Monarchy and the Second Republic, and the rise of the Second Empire, within only a few years deeply affected Verne. So too did the rising pace of Industrialization during the Second Republic and Second Empire. The mid-1800's were a new time, an age of political, social, and technological upheaval. Verne was captivated by the idea of progress tinged with catastrophe, and yearned to express it some way. Thankfully, his literary connections brought him into the company of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo, and many other classic adventure stories. He was inspired and encouraged to begin publishing plays and short stories that explored the social issues of the scientific age. Verne's greatest opportunity came with meeting Pierre Jules Hetzel, a visionary publisher who saw Verne as a new type of author for a new era… An author of "Scientific Romances," of encyclopedic novels of exotic adventure in far-flung locales and the progress of technological invention.

After writing his first few novels, Verne left the lights of Paris in 1869 for the coastal city of Le Crotoy to be with his new yacht, the Saint-Michel, during which time he wrote his most famous novel, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He returned to the home town of his wife and step-daughters, and his and Honorine's own son Michel, in 1871. Not long after their arrival they purchased the townhouse at No. 44 Boulevard Longueville, where Verne would also spend the last years of his life. It was in 1872 that the author, now settling into more domestic life, published Around the World in Eighty Days and purchased two more yachts, the Saint-Michels II and III. Enjoying tremendous success, Verne moved his family to a very distinctive building down the street. Notable for its tower with a commanding view of the great Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens, this house seemed to reflect the character of its renter. It was in some ways eccentric but also regal, adventurous but urbane. In an 1894 interview with the author for McClure’s Magazine, R.H. Sherard describes the view:
It is a house of three stories, with three rows of five windows on the Boulevard Longueville and three windows at the corner, and three more on the Rue Charles Dubois. The carriage and other entrance are in this street. The windows on the Boulevard Longueville command a magnificent view of the picturesque, if misty, town of Amiens, with its old cathedral and other mediæval buildings. Right in front of the house, on the other side of the boulevard, is a railway cutting, which, just opposite Verne’s study window, disappears into a pleasure ground, where there is a large music kiosk, in which during the fine weather the regimental band plays. This combination is to my thinking a very emblem of the work of the great writer: the rushing tram, with the roar and the rattle of the ultra-modernism, and the romance of the music. And is it not by a combination of science and industrialism with all that is most romantic in life that Verne’s novels possess an originality which can be found in the works of no other living writer, not even amongst those who count most in French literature?
Me, sitting on the steps of Verne's mansion...

...Enjoying this mural painted on the opposite wall of the courtyard.
It is also this house that has been preserved as the literary attraction known as La Maison de Jules Verne. Unlike the Verne museum in his hometown of Nantes, La Maison de Jules Verne is historically connected to the author. A tour begins in the former kitchen, now admission desk and gift shop, from which one enters the only rooms preserved in as close a condition to their original use as possible, being the solarium, dining room, and grand and petite salons. After these, decorated in family heirlooms and photographs, we pass into the museum areas. The next room, a living room with a pleasant bay window, looks at Verne's early career as a playwright and his life-changing trip to North America aboard the Great Eastern ocean liner. A small case contains copies of the "Robinsonade" adventure novels that had influenced him so greatly as a boy, including Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.

The living room, with a model of the Great Eastern.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
The Gothic Revival dining room, the only room in the house that has remained
as the Verne family left it. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

A newly added staircase leads up from the first floor to the second, recreating many of the rooms belonging to Verne's publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel. The furnishings from Hetzel's Paris office were brought to La Maison de Jules Verne, including a couch whereupon sat the many luminaries whom Hetzel published: Victor Hugo, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, and, of course, Jules Venre. Hetzel's influence on Verne cannot be understated. It was Hetzel who gave the playwright the opportunity to move into prose, with the vision for a new family magazine to educate children with a mosaic of scientific facts and exotic adventure stories. The first of Verne's novels, a travelogue of Africa entitled Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863 to excellent reception. The author's hallmark was meticulous research into the geographies and technologies of which he was writing. Verne became well-known at the local libraries, pouring over every available scrap of information recorded by explorers and colonizers. The hand of Hetzel was also heavy in the process, fine tuning and directing the young writer’s "Scientific Romances." There is still serious debate amongst Vernian scholars as to how much of Verne's early success is attributable to the mentoring of Hetzel.

The new staircase ascending through the house.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Hetzel's desk. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Hetzel's salon and the furniture that hosted so many famous
literary bottoms. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Nowhere is Hetzel's hand more clearly seen than in his rejection of Verne's second novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Set in 1960, a century after it was composed, Verne outlined a very familiar dystopian future society of efficient mass transit, high education and literacy, financial affluence, industrious commerce, long life expectancy, and worldwide telecommunications networks, yet which was petty, Philistine and bourgeoisie, overwhelmed with economics with no concern for art, music or letters. True art is not actually suppressed like in an Orwellian dystopia... It does not need to be. It is simply ignored. Verne's vision of the future was summarized in one chilling line from the novel: "If no one read any longer, at least everyone could read, could even write."

Hetzel foresaw that such a damning book would strangle Verne's career in the crib and refused to publish it. Paris in the Twentieth Century would not be published until its rediscovery in 1994. He was, however, thrilled for Verne's two-part novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, published in 1864-65. This story, inspired by British expeditions to chart the Northwest Passage (and making a brief appearance in Tron: Legacy), was so inspired that Hetzel coined a new term for them: "Voyages Extraordinaires." These Extraordinary Voyages were, in the words of Hetzel, "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe."

One more floor up in Le Maison de Jules Verne and we enter a recreation of the bridge of the Saint-Michel. Standing in the middle of it, roped off from the greasy fingers of aficionados like myself, is the original writing desk upon which Verne drafted Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In that illustrious novel we experience Verne in his purest form. Projecting the existing technology of submarine craft, Verne creates the Nautilus as his means to take readers on a documentary journey beneath the Seven Seas. Long passages explicate oceanic fauna and historic shipwrecks, we sink to Atlantis and rise to plant Captain Nemo's flag on the unexplored centre of Antarctica, and we fight off the sea's savage tentacled predators. It is not only scientific, technological, cultural, and natural wonders that Verne infuses the text with. Central is the key figure of Nemo, a mysterious tourguide who is revealed as a political radical, a terrorist. Verne had originally intended him to be Polish, to make a commentary on the actions of Tsarist Russia. Hetzel feared controversy amongst one of Verne's larger markets and redacted that. Only later, in The Mysterious Island, do we learn that Nemo is actually an Indian prince whose family was murdered by the Raj.

Reconstruction of the Saint-Michel and the desk on which
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was penned.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Around the corner from the bridge of the Saint-Michel we find a reconstruction of Verne's library and a section devoted to the fame of Around the World in Eighty Days, replete with board games and cigarette cards. Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea testify to what makes Verne's novels so engaging. The sense of wonder that revels in natural beauty and cultural diversity would be powerful in its own right. Verne takes this further and studies the effect of these things on people. He projects not only invention or colonization, but what becomes of human beings in light of it. What matters in Around the World in Eighty Days is not as much the breakneck pace of the journey as how it opens the mind of Phileas Fogg. We see Paris in the Twentieth Century through the eyes of Michel, an alienated young man who cannot make his way in such a city. The Adventures of Captain Hatteras examines the effects of feverish obsession with conquering nature on the mind of the explorer. From the Earth to the Moon satirizes American affectations for grandiose projects. Twenty-Thousand Leagues and Master of the World ask what may happen if invincible technology gets in the hands of the vengeful or unscrupulous.

Verne's library. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Then the visitor come to the very heart of the building: Jules Verne's study. The tiny room, a stanchioned-off holy of holies into which one may peer but ne'er enter, includes his writing desk, pens, globe and the cot where he would sleep. The author's regimen had him rise from slumber at 5:00 am and write for several hours before taking lunch and migrating to the public library to do research. Of his 54 Voyages Extraordinaires, approximately 26 were written in this room, including Mathias Sandorf, Robur the Conqueror, The Purchase of the North Pole, Facing the Flag, his unofficial Edgar Allan Poe sequel An Antarctic Mystery and The Castle in the Carpathians.

Verne's study. Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
After this high point, a staircase original to the house conducts us to the attic. On the theme that attics contain inherited treasures, this room holds all that which we have inherited from Jules Verne: films, plays, artworks and other inspirations. Here are posters from the Voyages dans la Lune of both Jacques Offenbach and Georges Méliès, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, vintage puppet theatres, a brand of pen nibs endorsed by the author, models of Robur’s Albatross and Terror, and other ephemera. A final doorway leads to the tower and its spiral staircase, disgorging us once again in the giftshop, whereupon one can buy the official guidebook to compensate for not being allowed to take photos inside the museum.

The spiral staircase in the tower.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Model of the Albatross and other Vernian inventions.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole
Poster for Offenbach's Le Voyage dans la Lune.
Photo © Bibliothèque d'Amiens Métropole
Though the spirit of Verne is to be found in his mansion, his body is not. Our journey continues to the great author's final resting place...

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