“The great regret of my life is that I have never taken any place in French literature.”
As the old man said this his head drooped, and a ring of sadness sounded in the cheerful and hearty voice.
“Je ne compte pas dans la littérature française,” he repeated. Who was it who spoke thus, with drooping head, and with a ring of sadness in his cheerful voice? Some writer of cheap but popular feuilletons for the halfpenny press, some man of letters who has never made a scruple of stating that he looks upon his pen as a money-getting implement, and who has always preferred to glory and honor a large account at the cash office of the Society of French Men of Letters? No; strange, monstrous, as it will appear, it was none other than Jules Verne. Yes, Jules Verne, the Jules Verne, your Jules Verne and mine, who has delighted us all the world over for so many years, and who will delight the world for generations and generations to come.
It was in the cool withdrawing-room of the Société Industrielle at Amiens that the master said these words, and I shall never forget the tone of sadness in which he said them. It was like the confession of a wasted life, the sigh of an old man of what can never be recalled. It was to me a poignant sorrow to hear him speak thus, and all that I could do was to say, with no unfeigned enthusiasm, that he was to me and millions like me, a great master, the subject of our unqualified admiration and respect, the novelist who delights many of us more than all the novelists that have ever taken pen in hand. But he only shook his gray head and said: “I do not count in French literature.”
Sixty-six, and but for his limp still hale and hearty, with much in his face that reminds one of Victor Hugo; like a fine old sea captain, ruddy of face and full of life. One eyelid slightly droops, but the gaze is firm and clear, and from his whole person emanates an aroma of goodness and kindness of heart which have ever been characteristic of the man whom Hector Malot, writing many years ago, said: “He is the best of fellows;” of the man whom the frigid and reserved Alexandre Dumas loves like a brother, and who has not and never has had, in spite of his brilliant success, a single real enemy. His health troubles him, unfortunately. Of late his eyes have weakened, so that at times he is unable to guide his pen, and there are days when gastralgia martyrizes him. But he is as valiant as ever.
“I have written sixty-six volumes,” he said, “and if God grants me life, I shall finish eighty.”
Jules Verne lives on the Boulevard Longueville, at Amiens, in the corner of the Rue Charles Dubois, in a fine, spacious house, which he rents. 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?
A high wall skirts the Rue Charles Dubois, and hides the courtyard and garden of Verne’s house from the passer-by. When one has rung at the little side entrance and, in response to a great peal, the door has been opened, one finds himself in a paved court-yard. Opposite are the kitchen and offices; to the left may be seen a pleasant garden, well stocked with trees; and to the right of the house, to which a row of broad steps extending the whole length of the façade leads up. A conservatory filled with flowers and palms forms the entrance room, and passing through this the visitor enters the drawing-room. This is a richly furnished room, with marbles and bronzes, warm rich hangings, and the most comfortable of easy-chairs—the room of a man of means and leisure, but without any characteristic feature about it. It looks like a room which is little used, and this is the fact. Both Monsieur and Madame Verne are very simple people, who care nothing for show, and all for quite and comfort. The adjoining large dining-room is rarely used, except when dinner parties are given or a family fête is held, and the novelist and his wife take their simple meals in a little breakfast-room which adjoins the kitchen. From the courtyard the visitor notices in the far corner of the house a lofty tower. The winding staircase which leads to the upper stories is in this tower, and at the very top of staircase is M. Verne’s private domain. A passage carpeted with red stuff, like the staircase, leads past maps and charts to a little corner room, which is furnished with a plain camp bedstead. Against a bay window stands a small table, on which a manuscript paper very neatly cut may be seen. On the mantlepiece of the tiny fireplace stand two statuèttes, one of Molière and the other of Shakespeare, and above them hangs a water-color painting representing a yacht steaming the Bay of Naples. It is in this room that Verne works. Adjoining it is a large room with well-filled bookcases reaching from ceiling to carpet.
Speaking about his methods of work M. Verne said: “I rise every morning before five—a little later, perhaps, in the winter—and at five am at my desk, remaining at work till eleven, I work very slowly and with greatest care, writing and rewriting until each sentence takes the form that I desire. I have always at least ten novels in my head in advance, subjects and plots thought out, so that, you see, if I am spared, I shall have no difficulty in completing the eighty novels which I spoke of. But it is over my proofs that I spend most time. I am never satisfied with less than seven or eight proofs, and correct and correct again, until it may be safely said the last proof bears hardly any traces of the original manuscript. This means a great sacrifice of pocket, as well as of time, but I have always tried my best for form and style, though people have never done me justice in this respect.”
We set together in the room of the Société Industrielle. On one side M. Verne was a pile of proofs, “the sixth set,” he said, and on the other a long manuscript, which I had looked at with interest, “but which,” said the novelist, with his genial smile, “is merely a report which I am addressing to the municipal council of Amiens, of which I am a member. I take great interest in the affairs of the town.”
I had asked M. Verne to tell me of his life and work, and he said that he would tell me of things he had never told before. My first question was about his youth and home, and this is what he said:
“I was born in Nantes on the 8th of February, 1828, so that I am to-day in my sixty-sixth year, and it should be rather my impressions of old age than on my souvenirs of childhood that I should be asked to speak. We were a most happy family. Our father, who was an admirable man, was a Parisian by birth, or, rather, by education, for he was born in Brie, but educated in Paris, where he passed his university career and took his degree as a barrister. My mother was a Bas-Bretonne, from Morlaix, so that I am a mixture of Breton and Parisian blood.”
These particulars are interesting from psychological point of view, and assist one to understand the character of Jules Verne, who unites with the gaiety and savoir-vivre and joy of life of the boulevardier—Claretie wrote about him, “He is a boulevardier to the tips of his fingers”—the love of solitude, the religiousness, and the adoration of the sea, of the Breton.
“I had a very happy youth. My father was a solicitor and barrister at Nantes, and in a good position of fortune. He was a man of culture, and of a great literary taste. He wrote songs at a time when songs were still written in France, that it to say, between 1830 and 1840. But he was a man of no ambition, and, though he might have distinguished himself in letters had he chosen to put himself forward, he avoided all publicity. His songs were sung in the family; very few of them ever got into print. I may remark that none of us have been ambitious; we have tried to enjoy our lives and to do our work quietly. My father died in 1871, aged seventy-three. You see, he might have said, ‘I was two years old when this century was born,’ in distinction from Victor Hugo’s famous remark about the date of his birth. My mother died in 1885, leaving thirty-two grandchildren, and, if one counts the cousins and cousins-german, ninety-seven descendants. All the children lived; that is to say, death has not removed any one of the five children. There where two boys and three girls, and they are all alive to-day. Men and women are of solid build in Brittany. My brother Paul was and is my dearest friend. Yes, I may say that he is not only my brother but my most intimate friend. And our friendship dates from the first day that I can remember. What excursions we used to take together in leaky boats on the Loire! At the age of fifteen there was not a nook or a corner on the Loire right down to the sea that we had not explored. What dreadful boats they were, and what risks we, no doubt, ran! Sometimes I was captain, sometimes it was Paul. But Paul was the better of the two. You know that afterwards he entered the navy, and might have become a very distinguished officer had he not been a Verne—that is to say, had he had any ambition.
“I began to write at the age of twelve. It was all poetry then, and dreadful poetry, too. Still, I remember that an address which I composed for my father’s birthday—what we call a ‘compliment’ in France—was thought very good, and I was so complimented that I felt quite proud. I remember that even at that time I used to spend a long time over my writings, copying and correcting, and never really satisfied with what I had done.
“I suppose that one may see in my love for adventure and water, what was to be the bent of my mind in later years. Certainly, the method of work which I had then has clung to me all through my life. I don’t think I have ever done a piece of slovenly work.
“No, I cannot say that I was particularly taken with science. Indeed, I never had been; that is to say, I have never practically studied of experimented in science. But while I was quite a lad I used to adore watching machines at work. My father had a country-house at Chantenay, at the mouth of the Loire, and near there is the government machine factory of Indret. I never went to Chanteneay without entering the factory, and standing for hours together watching the machines at work. This taste has remained with me all my life, and today I have still as much pleasure in watching a steam-engine of a fine locomotive at work as I have in contemplating a picture by Raphael or Correggio. My interest in human industries has always been a marked trait of my character, as marked, indeed, as my taste for literature, of which I will speak anon, and my delight in fine arts, which has taken me to every museum and picture-gallery; yes, I may say every picture-gallery of any importance in Europe. This Indret factory, or excursions on the Loire, and my scribbling of verses were the three delights and occupations of my youth.
“I was educated at the lycée of Nantes, where I remained till I had finished my rhetoric classes, when I was sent to Paris to study law. My favorite study had always been geography, but at the time I went to Paris I was entirely taken up with literary projects. I was greatly under the influence of Victor Hugo, indeed, very excited by reading and re-reading his works. At that time I could have recited by heart whole pages of ‘Notre Dame de Paris,’ but it was his dramatic work that most influenced me, and it was under this influence that, at the age of seventeen, I wrote a number of tragedies and comedies, not to mention novels. Thus, I wrote a five-act tragedy in verse, entitled ‘Alexander VI,’ which was the tragedy of the Borgia pope. Another five-act tragedy in verse, written at that time, was ‘The Gunpowder Plot,’ with Guy Fawkes as hero. ‘A Drama under Louis XV,’ was another tragedy in verse, and for comedy there was one in five acts and verse called ‘Les Heureux du Jour.’ All this work was done with the greatest care and with constant preoccupation after style before me. I have always sought after style, but people have never given me credit for this.
“I came to Paris as a student just about the time when the grisette and all that she meant was disappearing from the Latin quarter. I cannot say that I frequented many of my fellow-students’ rooms, for we Bretons, you know, are a clannish people, and nearly all my friends where schoolmates from Nantes, who had come up to the Paris University with me. My friends were nearly all musicians, and at that period of my life I was a musician myself. I understood harmony, and think I may say that, if I had taken to musical career, I should have had less difficulty than many in succeeding. Victor Masse was a friend of mine as a student, and so was Delibes, with whom I was very intimate. We used to say ‘thou’ to each other. These were friends I made in Paris. Among my Breton friends was Aristide Hignard, a musician, although he won a second Prix de Rome, never emerged from the crowd. We used to collaborate together. I wrote the words and he the music. We produced one or two operettes which were played, and some songs.
“One of these songs, entitled ‘Les Gabiers,’ which used to be sung by the baritone Charles Bataille, was very popular at the time. The chorus, I remember, was:
Alerte, enfants, alerte,
La ciel est bleu, la mer est verte,
“Another friend whose acquaintance I made as a student, and who has remained my friend ever since, is Leroy, the present deputy for Morbihan. But the friend to whom I owe the deepest debt of gratitude and affection is Alexandre Dumas the younger, whom I met first at the age of twenty-one. We became chums almost at once. He was the first to encourage me. I may say that he was my first protector. I never see him now, but as long as I live I shall never forget his kindness to me nor the debt that I owe him. He introduced me to his father; he worked with me in collaboration. We wrote together a play called ‘Pailles Rompues,’ which was performed at the Gymnase; and a comedy in three acts entitled ‘Onze jours de Siège,’ which was performed in the Vaudeville Theatre. I was living then on a small pension allowed me by my father, and had dreams of wealth which led me into one or two speculations at the Bourse. These did not realize my dreams, I may add. But I derived some benefit from constant visits to the coulisses of the Bourse, for it was there that I got to know the romance of commerce, the fever business, which I have often described and used in my novels.
“Whilst speculating at the Bourse, and collaborating with Hignard in operette and chanson, and with Alexandre Dumas in comedy, I contributed short stories to Magazines. My first work appeared in the ‘Musée des Familles,’ where you can find a story of mine about a madman in a balloon, which is the first indication of the line of novel that I was destined to follow. I was then secretary to the Lyric Theatre, and afterwards secretary to M. Perrin. I adored the stage and all connected with it, and the work that I have enjoyed the most has been my writing for the stage.
“I was twenty-five when I wrote my first scientific novel. That was ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon.’ It was published by Hetzel in 1861, and was a great success at once.”
I here interrupted M. Verne and said: “I want you to tell me how you wrote that novel, and why, and what preparation you made for it. Had you the knowledge of ballooning, any experience?”
“None whatever,” replied M. Verne, “I wrote ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon,’ not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa. I always was greatly interested in geography and travel, and I wanted to give a romantic description of Africa. Now, there was no means of taking my travellers through Africa otherwise than in a balloon, and that is why a balloon is introduced. At that time I had never made an ascent. Indeed, I have only once travelled in a balloon in my life. That was in Amiens, long after my novel was published. It was only ‘three-quarters of an hour in a balloon,’ for we had a mishap in starting. Godard, the aeronaut, was kissing his little boy just as the balloon rose, and we had to take the lad with us, and the balloon was so weighted that it could not go far. We sailed as far as Longeau, the junction you passed on your way here. I may say that at the time I wrote the novel, as now, I had no faith in the possibility of ever steering balloons, except in an absolutely stagnant atmosphere, as in this room, for instance. How can a balloon be made to face currents running at six, seven or eight metres to a second? It is a mere dream, though I believe that if the question is ever to be solved it will be with a machine which will be heavier than the air, following the principle of the bird, which can fly, though it is heavier than the air which it displaces.”
“Then you had no scientific studies to go upon?”
“None whatever. I may say that I have never studied science, though in the course of my reading I have picked up a great many odds and ends which have become useful. I may tell you that I am a great reader, and that I always read pencil in hand. I always carry a notebook about with me, and immediately jot down, like that person in Dickens, anything that interests me or may appear to be of possible use in my books. To give you an idea of my reading, I come here every day after lunch and immediately set to work to read through fifteen different papers, always the same fifteen, and I can tell you that very little in any of them escapes my attention. When I see anything of interest, down it goes. Then I read the reviews, such as the ‘Revue Bleue,’ the ‘Revue Rose,’ the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes,’ ‘Cosmos,’ Tissandier’s ‘La Nature,’ Flammraion’s ‘L’Astronomie.’ I also read through the bulletins of the scientific societies, especially those of the Geographical Society, for, mark, geography is my passion and my study. I have all Reclus’s works—I have a great admiration for Élisée Reclus—and the whole of Arago. I also read and re-read, for I am a most careful reader, the collection known as ‘Le Tour du Monde,’ which is a series of stories of travel. I have thus amassed many thousands of notes on all subjects, and to-date, at home, have at least twenty thousand notes which can be turned to advantage in my work, as yet unused. Some of these notes were taken after conversations with people. I love to hear people talk, provided they talk on subjects with which they are acquainted.”
“How could you do what you have done without scientific study—of any kind?”
“I had a good fortune to enter the world at a time when there were dictionaries on every possible subject. I had just to turn up in my dictionary the subject I wanted information upon, and there it was. Of course, in my reading, I picked up a quantity of information, and, as I said, I have a great number of scientific odds and ends in my head. It was thus that, when, one day in a Paris café, I read in the ‘Siècle’ that a man could travel round the world in eighty days, it immediately struck me that I could profit by a difference of meridian and make my traveller gain or lose a day in his journey. There was my dénouement ready found. The story was not written until long after. I carry about ideas in my head for years—ten or fifteen years, sometimes—before giving them form.
“My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe, for I have sometimes taken my readers away from earth, in the novel. And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style. It is said that there can’t be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn’t true; though I admit it is very much more difficult to write such a novel in a good literary form than the studies of character which are so vogue to-day. And let me say”—here Jules Verne slightly raised his broad shoulders—“that I am no very great admirer of psychological novel, so-called, because I don’t see what a novel has to do with psychology, and I can’t say that I admire the so-called psychological novelists. I except, however, Daudet and De Maupassant. For De Maupassant I have the very highest admiration. He is a man of genius, who has received from heaven the gift of writing everything, and who has produced as naturally and easily as an apple-tree produces apples. My favorite author, however, is, and always has been, Dickens. I don’t know more than a hundred words of English, and so I have to read him in translation. But I declare to you, sir”—Verne laid his hand upon the table with emphasis—“that I have read the whole of Dickens at least ten times over. I cannot say that I prefer him to De Maupassant, because there is no comparison possible between the two. But I love him immensely, and in my forthcoming novel, ‘P’tit Bonhomme’, the proof of this is given and acknowledgment of my debt is made. I am also and have always been a great admirer of Cooper’s novels. There are fifteen of these which I consider immortal.”
Then, speaking as though musing aloud, Verne added: “Dumas used to say to me, when I complained that my place in French literature was not recognized, ‘You ought to have been an American or an English author. Then your books, translated into French, would have gained you an enormous popularity in France, and you would have been considered by your countrymen as one of the greatest masters of fiction.’ But as it is, I am considered of no account in French literature. Fifteen years ago Dumas proposed my name for the Academy, and, as at that time I had several friends in the Academy, Labiche, Sandoz, and others, there seemed a chance of my election and the formal recognition of my work. But it was never carried through, and to-day, when I get letters from America addressed to ‘M. Jules Verne of the French Academy,’ I have a little smile to myself. Since the day when my name was proposed, no less then forty-two elections have occurred at the French Academy, which, so to speak, has entirely renovated itself since then. But I am passed over.”
It was then that M. Verne said those words, which for the pregnancy of their import, I have placed at the head of this account.
To change the subject, I asked the master to speak of his travels, and he
said: “I have yachted for my pleasure, but always with an eye to getting
information for my books. This has been my constant preoccupation, and
every one of my novels has benefited by my voyages. Thus, in ‘Le Billet
de Loterie’ is to be found the narrative of personal experiences and
observations in a tour in Scotland and to Iona and Staffa; as also of a
journey in Norway in 1862, when we travelled from Stockholm to Christiana
by Canal, mounting ninety-seven locks, an extraordinary voyage of three
days, and three nights in a steamer, and when we took carriage to that
wildest part of Norway, the Tolemark, and visited the Gosta falls, nine
hundred feet high. In ‘Les Indes Noires’ is the relation of my tour in
England and my visit to the Scotch lakes. ‘Une Ville Flottante’ came from
my voyage to America in 1867, on the Great Eastern, when I sailed for New
York, visited Albany and Niagara, and had the great good fortune and joy
to see Niagara icebound. It was on April 14, and there were torrents of
water pouring into the open jaws of ice. ‘Mathias Sandorf’ comes from a
tour from Tangiers to Malta on my yacht, the ‘St. Michel,’ called after
my son Michel, who accompanied me, with his mother and my brother Paul,
on the voyage. In 1878 I had a very instructive and most pleasant
yachting tour with Raoul Duval, Hetzel the younger, and my brother, in
the Mediterranean. Travelling was the pleasure of my life, and it was
with great regret that, in 1886, I was forced to give it up, in
consequence of my accident. You know the sad story of how a nephew of
mine, who adored me, and of whom I was also very fond, came to see me at
Amiens one day, and, after muttering something wildly, drew a revolver
and fired at me, wounding my left leg and laming me for life. The wound
has never closed and the bullet has never removed. The poor lad was out
of his mind, and said he had done this in order to draw attention to my
claims to a seat in the French Academy. He is now in an asylum, and I
fear that he will never be cured. The great regret that this causes me
chiefly that I shall never be able to see America again. I should have
liked to have gone to Chicago this year, but in the state of my health
and with this ever-open wound it was quite impossible. I do so love
America and the American. As you are writing for America be sure to tell
them that if they love me—as I know they do, for I receive thousands of
letters every year from the States—I return their affection with all my
heart. Oh, if I could only go and see them all, it would be the great joy
of my life!
“Though most of the geography in my novels is taken from personal observation, I sometimes have had to rely on my reading for my descriptions. Thus, in the novel which I spoke about, ‘P’tit Bonhomme,’ which is coming out, I describe the adventures of a lad in Ireland. I take him from the age of two and give his life up to the age of fifteen, when he makes his fortune and that of all his friends, which is a novel dénouement, is it not? He travels all round Ireland, and, as I have never visited Ireland, my descriptions of the scenery and localities have been taken from books.
“I have books ahead for years. The next novel, that is to say, the one that will be published next year, is entitled ‘Les Aventures Mirifiques de Maître Antifer,’ and is entirely finished. It is a story of treasure-seeking and finding, and the plot turns on a very curious geometrical problem. I am now yoked to the novel which will appear in 1895, but I can’t say anything about it, as it is not yet in any kind of shape. Between times I write short stories. Thus, in the next Christmas number of the ‘Figaro’ there will be published a tale of mine entitled ‘Monsieur Rediez a Mademoiselle Mibemol’ (Rediez and Mibemol, as you know, are exactly the same notes on a piano). You see the drift? There my musical knowledge came in play. Nothing that one has learned is ever wasted.
“People often ask me, as you have done, why I reside in Amiens, I, who am so thoroughly Parisian in my instincts. Well, because, as I have told you, I have Breton blood in me, and love calm and quiet, and could never be happier than in a cloister. A quiet life of study and work is my delight. I came to Amiens first in 1857, where I met the lady who is now my wife, and who at that time—her name was Madame de Vianne—was a widow with two little daughters. Family ties and the quiet of the place have bound me to Amiens ever since. It is a good thing, for, as Hetzel said to me the other day, if I lived in Paris I should have written at least ten novels less than I have done. I enjoy my life here very much. I have told you how I work in the mornings and how I read in the afternoons. I take as much exercise as I can. That has been the secret of health and strength. And I continue very fond of the theatre; and whenever there is a play at the little theatre here you may be sure to find Madame Jules Verne and her husband in their box. On those days we dine at the Hotel Continental, so as to have a little outing and to give our servants a rest. Our only child, Michel, lives in Paris, where he is married and has children. He writes ably on scientific subjects. I have only one pet; you have his portrait in the photograph in my house; it is Follet, my dear old dog.”
I then asked M. Verne a question which, through indiscreet, seemed necessary. I had heard that the income received by him from his wonderful books has been less than that earned by an ordinary journalist. I had heard it stated that on the very best authority that Jules Verne, taking an average, had never earned more than five thousand dollars a year. M. Verne said: “I would rather say nothing about that. It is true that my first books, including my most successful ones, were sold for a tithe of their value; but after 1875, that is to say, after ‘Michel Strogoff’, my arrangements were altered and gave me a fair share of the profits of my novels. But I have no complaints to make. All the better if my publisher has made money too. Certainly I might regret that I didn’t make better arrangements for my productions. Thus, ‘Le Tour du Monde’ has in France alone produced ten millions of francs, and ‘Michel Strogoff’ seven millions, of which I have had very much less than my share. But I am not and never have been a money-getting man. I am a man of letters and an artist, living in the pursuit of the ideal, running wild over an idea, and glowing with enthusiasm over my work, and when my work is done, putting it aside and forgetting all about it so completely that I often sit down in my study and pick up a novel by Jules Verne and read it with enjoyment. A little more justice to me from my countrymen would have been prized by me a million times more than the thousands of dollars which my books should have given me more than they did give me each year. That is what I regret and always shall regret.”
I glanced at the red rosette of officer of the Legion of Honor in the button-hole of the master’s easy blue jacket.
“Yes,” he said, “that is some recognition.” Then, with a smile, “I was the last man decorated by the empire. Two hours after my decree was signed, the empire had ceased to be. My promotion to officer was signed in July of last year. But it is not decorations that I hanker after any more than gold. It is that people should see what I have done or tried to do, and should not overlook the artist in the tale-teller. I am an artist,” repeated Jules Verne, drawing himself up and setting his foot sturdily down on the carpet.
“I am an artist,” said Jules Verne. America, as long as she reads, will echo him.