Jules Verne at Home


Gordon Jones

Temple Bar 129 (June 1904): 664-671.

Edited to HTML by Zvi Har’El from an Etext by Arthur B. Evans

I had written from Paris asking the honour of an interview with the veteran novelist, and was gratified on my return to Amiens to find his card awaiting me with the simple inscription—“Demain Jeudi à 10h. du matin.” Accordingly at the appointed hour I presented myself at his residence, No. 44 Boulevard Longueville, a large but unpretentious home, typically French with its heavily shuttered windows, and on giving my name to the maid was at once ushered into the drawing-room to await his coming.

In a few moments M. Verne entered, and after a few courteous words of welcome, seated himself in a large armchair and good-naturedly commenced the conversation.

In appearance the author of ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’ is a man of study build, somewhat below medium height, with kindly blue eyes and a short silvery beard. He invariably dresses in a modest, loose-fitting suit of black, and wears when indoors a small cloth peaked cap, rendered necessary by the frequent attacks of his old enemy rheumatism.

There is about his person not the slightest trace of ostentation. In speech and manners he maintains a singular modesty, and his while life, as any Amienois will tell you, is one of quiet and unassuming retirement; that of a simple country gentleman, scarcely ever visiting, rarely receiving, and devoted to his family and his books.

My first question was naturally with regard to his eyesight, contradictory accounts of which have recently appeared in the English papers.

“Yes,” he said, in reply to my inquiry, “it is true that my sight has been considerably impaired of late, but not so much as some of the reports would suggest. I can still see almost as well as ever with my left eye, but in the right a cataract is forming, and the doctors recommend an operation, to which however I am

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determined not to submit, as at my age the result might prove serious.”

“Of course, under such circumstances, your literary work is greatly interfered with?” I asked.

“Naturally, I cannot work as I used [to],” replied M. Verne. “I have been producing two volumes a year for some years past and have at present another book in preparation. I feel however the time has at length come when I must rest on my oars. This last production will make my one hundredth completed work, and I suppose,” continued he, with a smile, “that at any rate so far as quality is concerned I may fairly be said to have earned my right to repose.”

“When did your career as an author begin?” I asked.

“That is a question which will permit of a double answer,” he replied. “As early as twelve or fourteen I was never without a pen in my hand, and during my school days I was always writing, my tasks being chiefly poetical. During the whole of my life I have always had a great passion for poetical and dramatic work, and in my later youth I published a considerable number of pieces, some of which met with a fair amount of success. My second and principal career did not commence till I was over thirty, and was brought about by a sudden impulse. It struck me one day that perhaps I might utilise with advantage my scientific education to blend together science and romance into a work of an advantageous description that might appeal to the public taste. The idea took such a hold upon me that I sat down at once to carry it into effect, the result being ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon.’ The book met with astonishing success, and several editions being soon exhausted, my publishers urged upon me the desirability of producing some more volumes in the same style. Although not wholly pleased with the idea, I complied with their request, and the result has been that since then, so far as my published works are concerned, I have completely discarded the old love and devoted all my energies and attention to the new.”

It is indeed fortunate for the youth of to-day that the inspiration of a moment should have wrought this lasting change in M. Verne’s writings. What boy or girl of the present generation would for a moment prefer the most glorious verse to the breathless voyages of such a figure as Captain Nemo, or the feats of Robur and his matchless Albatross?

The poetic side of M. Verne’s character is however frequently visible in many of his descriptions; such, for example, as occur in that charming romance, ‘The Child of the Caverns,’ where we

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find that exquisite pen-picture of the little girl Nell, who, taken from the underground prison where she has spent her life, sees for the first time, from Arthur’s Seat, the glories of the a Scottish sunrise.

With his usual modesty, M. Verne deprecated all idea of being considered an inventor.

“I have merely made suggestions,” he remarked, “suggestions which, after due consideration, I deemed to rest upon a practical basis, an these I then elaborated in a more or less imaginative manner to suit the purposes which I had in view.”

“But many of your suggestions, which twenty years ago were rejected as impossible, are now accomplished facts?” I urged.

“Yes, that is so,” replied M. Verne. “But these results are merely the natural outcome of the scientific trend of modern thought, and as such have doubtless been predicted by scores of others besides myself. Their coming was inevitable, whether anticipated or not, and the most that I can claim is to have looked perhaps a little farther into the future than the majority of my critics.”

At this point we were joined by Madame Verne, a charming silvery haired lady, who takes the keenest pleasure in the triumphs of her husband. I inquired if any of his productions were due in part to her assistance.

“Oh no,” she replied, “I take no part in my husband’s creations; all I do is to read them when finished, and until they are finally printed I know but very little about them. I suppose you have remarked,” continued Madame Verne, “that many of my husband’s principal characters are Englishmen. He has a great admiration for your countrymen, and declares that they lend themselves admirably to his romances.”

“Yes,” broke in M. Verne, “the English from their independence and self-possession make admirable heroes; especially when, as in the case of Mr. Phileas Fogg, the nature of the plot requires them to be confronted at every moment with formidable and entirely unforseen difficulties.”

I ventured to remind M. Verne that this compliment to our nationality was not unappreciated on this side of the Channel, and that scarcely a healthy-minded young Briton existed who had not, at some time, spent many hours of keen delight in the company of one or another of his marvelous adventures.

“I am proud to think that it is so,” replied M. Verne. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to learn that my books have been the means of providing interest and instruction—for I always intend them to be in a certain sense instructive—to young

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people whom otherwise I should never have been able to come in contact. During my present misfortune I have received numberless telegrams and messages of sympathy from English readers, and only a short time ago I was charmed to receive a beautifully mounted walking stick from some of my young friends over there.”

“Of course you have visited England?”

“Yes, many years ago, when I was comparatively a young man. I made the voyage to Southampton in my yacht, and after visiting London and seeing most of the sights there I went to Brighton, which I found indeed a charming place, with its piers and magnificent promenades. The town, however, which I know best in England is Liverpool, and as I stayed there for some time with friends I had a good opportunity of studying it, especially the docks and the Mersey, the appearance of which last I have attempted to reproduce in ‘The Floating City.’ ”

“Did you ever pay a visit to Scotland or Ireland?”

“Yes, I had the most pleasant tour in Scotland, and among other excursions paid a visit to Fingal’s Cave in the Isle of Staffa. This vast cavern, with its mysterious shadows, dark, weed-covered chambers, and marvelous basaltic pillars, produced upon me a most striking impression, and was the origin of my book, ‘The— the—’” M. Verne paused, “I really forget the name,” said he. “Do you remember it?” he asked, turning to his wife.

“‘The Green Ray,’ was it not,” suggested Madame Verne.

“Oh yes, that was it, of course— ‘The Green Ray.’ One must be excused,” added he, laughing, “if among so many titles the right one is not for the moment forthcoming.”

Many of M. Verne’s books owe their inception to some suggestion of the moment.

Besides ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’ and ‘The Green Ray,’ ‘The Floating City’ was entirely suggested by a trip taken to America on theGreat Eastern; and ‘Round the World in Eighty Days,’ perhaps the most celebrated of all his works, was due merely to a tourist advertisement seen by chance in the columns of a newspaper.

I asked M. Verne which of his books was his own favourite.

“That is a question which has often been put to me,” he replied. “In my opinion, an author like a father, should have no favourites. All his works should be alike in his eyes, for they are the product of his best endeavours, and though naturally produced under varying conditions of mood and temperament, each represents the full limit of thought and energies at the moment of its creation.”

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“Still,” he continued, “although I myself have no preference, that does not say that my readers should not have one. Doubtless you, for instance, can select one which pleases you more than others?”

I replied that so far as I was concerned ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ certainly possessed the chief attraction, though ‘Michael Strogoff,’ which has been dramatised, and is now being performed a the “Theatre du Châtelet” at Paris, was also a great favourite.

M. Verne was interested to hear that I had been to see it the previous night, and raising himself in his chair questioned me about it with animation.

“Tell me, was it well presented?” said he, “was it well received?”

I assured him that it was so. Indeed, the immense stage of the Châtelet permits the piece to be produced on a magnificent scale, and at one time there are over three hundred performers before the house, many of them being mounted on horseback.

“I seldom go to Paris now,” said M. Verne, “though I have a box at the theatre here, which I frequently occupy. I am well contented with Amiens; its quiet atmosphere suits me admirably, and I have lost all inclination to roam abroad for a change of scene. We have been in this house for over twenty years, and it is here that most of my books have been composed. A few years ago we move into another residence at the corner of Rue Charles Dubois, but it was too large for our needs, and we soon returned.”

“I suppose that when you are writing, your ideas will not flow unless you are left entirely to yourself?”

“On the contrary,” interposed Madame Verne, “my husband is not at all difficult in that respect. There are no special precautions taken on his account. He works quietly upstairs on the second floor, but noise does not seem to disturb him in the least, and my daughters and myself can do as we like without any fear of remonstrances on his part.”

“And what is your method of work, Monsieur?” I asked.

“My method of work? Well, until recently, I invariably rose at five and made a point of doing three hours’ writing before breakfast. The great bulk of my work was always done in this time, and though I would sit down for a couple of hours later in the day, my stories have really nearly all been written when most folks are sleeping. I have always been a very wide reader, especially of newspapers and periodicals, and it is my custom whenever a paragraph or article strikes me to cut it out and preserve it for future reference. It is in this way that I accumulate my ideas,

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and at the same time keep thoroughly abreast of the times with regard to matters of scientific interest. The task is, it is true, laborious, but the result more than repays the effort, and if carefully labelled, there need never be the slightest difficulty in finding any cutting required, even after the lapse of several years.”

It will strike many readers than this is the method adopted by the late Charles Reade, and advocated so strenuously by him as the only satisfactory means of fitting an author to deal with the kaleidoscopic progress of modern events.

“And so your read, among others, the works of many English writers?”

“I have read a great many, those, in fact, of most of your best known men, including your poets, but only, I regret to say, in translations. I feel that I have lost a great deal in never having learnt the English language, but I have allowed the opportunity to elapse, and it is now too late for me to begin.”

“And who is your favourite author?”

“Living or dead?”

“Well, let us say dead.”

“There is no second answer to that question,” said M. Verne with enthusiasm. “For me the works of Charles Dickens stand alone, dwarfing all others by their amazing power and facility of expression. What humour and what exquisite pathos are to be found contrasted in his pages! How the figures seem actually to live, and their printed utterances to become transformed into audible speech! I have read and re-read his masterpieces again and again, and so has my wife. ‘David Copperfield,’ ‘Martin Chuzzlewit,’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ ‘The Old Curiosity Shop,’—we have read them all, have we not?”

“Ah, oui!” replied Madame Verne, with feeling. “Il a vraiment du coeur.”

It is indeed pleasant to hear one author speaking in terms of such unqualified admiration for another, especially when, as in the present instance, they are separated, not only by such wide extremes of style, but also by the formidable barrier of nationality.

“And among living writers whom do you prefer?” I asked.

“That is a more difficult question,” said M. Verne reflectively, “and I must pause before I answer you. I think I can decide,” he said, after a minute. “There is an author whose work has appealed to me very strongly from an imaginative stand-point, and whose books I have followed with considerable interest. I allude to Mr. H.G. Wells. Some of my friends have suggested

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to me that his work is on somewhat similar lines to my own, but here, I think, they err. I consider him, as a purely imaginative writer, to be deserving of very high praise, but our methods are entirely different. I have always made a point in my romances of basing my so-called inventions upon a groundwork of actual fact, and of using in their construction methods and materials which are not entirely without the pale of contemporary engineering skill and knowledge.

“Take, for instance, the case of the ‘Nautilus.’ This, when carefully considered, is a submarine mechanism about which there is nothing wholly extraordinary, nor beyond the bounds of actual scientific knowledge. It rises or sinks by perfectly feasible and well-known processes, the details of its guidance and propulsion are perfectly rational and comprehensible. Its motive force even is not secret: the only point at which I have called in the aid of imagination is in the application of this force, and here I have purposely left a blank for the reader to form his own conclusion, a mere technical hiatus, as it were, quite capable of being filled in by a highly-trained and thoroughly practical mind.

“The creations of Mr. Wells, on the other hand, belong unreservedly to an age and degree of scientific knowledge far removed from the present, though I will not say entirely beyond the limits of the possible. Not only does he evolve his constructions entirely from the realm of the imagination, but he also evolves the materials of which he builds them. See, for example, his story ‘The First Men in the Moon.’ You will remember that here he introduces an entirely new anti-gravitational substance, to whose mode of preparation or actual chemical composition we are not given the slightest clue, nor does a reference to our present scientific knowledge enable us for a moment to predict a method by which such a result might be achieved. In ‘The War of the Worlds,’ again, a work for which I confess I have a great admiration, one is left entirely in the dark as to what kind of creatures the Martians really are, or in what manner they produce the wonderful heat ray with which they work such terrible havoc on their assailants.

“Mind,” continued M. Verne, “in saying this, I am casting no disparagement on Mr. Wells’ methods; on the contrary, I have the highest respect for his imaginative genius. I am merely contrasting our two styles and pointing out the fundamental difference which exists between them, and I wish you clearly to understand that I express no opinion on the superiority of either the one or the other. But now,” added he, rising, “I fear that I am beginning to weary you. The minutes pass so quickly in

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conversation, and see, we have already been talking for more than an hour.”

I assured M. Verne that it would require many such hours ere one could grow weary in his presence, but a regard for his time compelled me reluctantly to bring my visit to a close.

With charming old-fashioned courtesy, both he and Madame Verne insisted upon accompanying me to the entrance, and passing into the sunshine, my last glimpse of the famous author was that of a kindly white- haired figure standing in the hall doorway, whose cheery—“Au revoir,” following me across the stone-paved street, linger pleasantly in my ears long after the town of Amiens lay miles behind the flying wheels of the Dieppe express.

Gordon Jones

Copyright ©Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/11/08 22:22:51 $