LC Information Bulletin, Vol. 53 No. 1 (January 10, 1994)

Jules Verne’s “Adventures of the Rat Family”

Brian Taves

Verne Expert Brings Fairy Tale to English-Speaking Public

“Once upon a time there was a family of rats: The father, Raton; the mother, Ratonne; their daughter, Ratine; and her cousin Rate. Their servants were the cook, Rata, and the maid, Ratane.

Now, my dear children, these worthy, esteemed rodents had such extraordinary adventures that I cannot resist the desire to narrate them to you.

These adventures took place in the age of fairies and magicians, and also during the time that animals talked. Still, they didn’t talk any more nonsense than people did of that epoch, not any more that do people of today, for that matter. Listen, then, my dear children. I begin!”

—Opening paragraphs of Adventures of the Rat Family: A Fairy Tale, by Jules Verne
Following is a first-person account by Brian Taves, an LC specialist, of his efforts to bring this tale, previously available only in French, to the English-speaking world. The story was recently translated and published in English by Oxford Press, with a foreword by Mr. Taves and an introduction by Iona Opie, a noted authority in the field of children’s lore and literature.

Jules Verne is remembered for such classic novels of adventure and science fiction as Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon.

But he also wrote adventures, mysteries and comedies. He even wrote a fairy tale. Adventures of the Rat Family is one of Verne’s most unusual stories, in which he diverged from his usual formula to write his only fairy tale and one of his few pure fantasies. First published in France over a century ago, it has just been published in an elegant children’s edition by Oxford University Press (72 pp., $14.95).

Verne’s international popularity began with the publication of his first book in 1863, and today he still remains one of the best-selling and most widely translated authors of all time. Verne (1828-1905) has become known as the prophet of the 20th century through his uncanny ability to foresee scientific developments as well as their social impact. At the same time, his books have a literary quality that attracts each generation of readers anew. Scholars recognize Verne as a compelling and complex writer, and his work has been studied from political, psychological, structuralist and mythic perspectives.

Now, the resources of the Library of Congress, together with the efforts of this writer, have enabled a Verne story to be published for the first time in English. A Verne enthusiast for more than 25 years, I arranged for the translation (by Evelyn Copeland) and publication of Adventures of the Rat Family, and wrote an afterword for the volume. Included are all 17 original color illustrations by Felician Myrbach-Rheinfeld, reproduced from the January 1891 holiday issue of the fashionable Parisian journal Le Figaro illustré.

Because the Library’s collections include this magazine, both the illustrations and translation could be taken from this first appearance of the story. Adventures of the Rat Family was not published in book form until after Verne’s death, with the appearance of the 1910 anthology Yesterday and Tomorrow, containing only a few of the engravings and a text revised by Verne’s son, Michel, his literary executor. The Oxford edition is the first time that Adventures has been published in book form in any language with all of the original illustrations.

As Adventures of the Rat Family attests, Verne’s writing is far more diverse than his reputation as the father of science fiction suggests. He wrote more than 60 novels, as well as numerous short stories, plays, articles and poems, covering a range of genres and literary forms. He was actually most prolific in the genres of adventure, mystery and comedy. Yet this has been obscured by the surprising fact that, for such a famous and esteemed author, much of his work has never been translated from his native French into English. One of the reasons is that Verne’s writing was often politically charged, and as a result it was often changed or censored by contemporary Anglo-American publishers.

For instance, in The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne explains the true identity of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, hero of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Nemo had been an Indian prince who fought British colonial rule of his homeland, before fleeing to an exile in his submarine, the Nautilus. In deference to contemporary English-language readers, when The Mysterious Island was translated, Nemo’s sentiments were changed to portray him as an admirer of the British, instead of their enemy. (This bogus translation, with its reversal of Verne’s intention intact, continues to be reprinted to this day.)

By the late 1890s, the overtly anti-imperial tenor so suffused Verne’s plots that British publishers stopped sponsoring translations—although his new books continued to appear annually in France until 1910, five years after his death.

A different but equally contentious issue was probably what precluded a translation of Adventures of the Rat Family. Not only does the story avoid Verne’s usual formulas, it deals with evolution, a problematic and controversial idea when the story first appeared in 1891, and one that was surely prohibitive for American publishers. This was especially true since Adventures of the Rat Family was also one of Verne’s few stories accessible to a very young audience. However, like many fairy tales, its larger significance requires more sophisticated adult reading.

In Adventures, Verne portrays a magical movement up and down the evolutionary ladder, as a close-knit family of rats is transformed into various lower forms of life, from mollusks to birds. The instigator of these deeds is a genie, hired by a cruel prince who desires the family’s daughter, although she loves another.

Verne both recognizes and mocks the idea of evolution by having his characters change from one species to another, finally making a metamorphosis into men and women. Added amusement is provided by one cousin who never quite catches up as he makes each transformation, always retaining a feature of his previous incarnation, until finally he has a donkey’s tail even after becoming a man.

Verne had long been interested in evolution and basically accepted the theory. His 1858 play, M. de Chimpanzé (untranslated), is of a chimp that readily adapts to high society, and a giant prehistoric man is sighted in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne portrays a “missing link” species in his 1901 novel, The Aerial Village, and speculates that the tribe will be incorporated into an imperial colony. “The Humbug” is the story of a P.T. Barnum-like character whose successful hoax convinces New Yorkers that he has unearthed the bones of early man near Albany.

By cloaking his use of the evolutionary theme within the fantasy of Adventures of the Rat Family, Verne hoped to circumvent disapproval of his more serious and controversial subtext. He had first related the story during a European lecture tour in 1887, and he was so delighted with the idea that he enlarged it into a novella. He cleverly imbued it with his satirical expertise, lending it a light touch that concealed much of its bite. Verne was skilled in comedy, especially when it involved bizarre characters in unusual locales, as demonstrated by his treatment of the stuffy British travelers in Around the World in 80 Days.

The new version of Adventures of the Rat Family is partly a result of my preparation of The Jules Verne Encyclopedia, to be published in early 1994 by Scarecrow Press. This book will provide the first complete bibliographic account of all of Verne’s many works in English, as well as such other manifestations of his global influence as Verne philatelic items and movie and television adaptations.

The Jules Verne Encyclopedia demonstrates that the Library has one of the most extensive collections of Verne material in the English-speaking world. One chapter by my primary coauthor, Stephen Michaluk Jr., explains that this is largely a result of the bequest of Willis E. Hurd. As president of the first American Jules Verne Society in the 1940s, Hurd acquired a remarkable collection that today provides the basis for the Library’s Verne material in both the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and the main stacks. And there are many other Verne resources at the Library, such as those in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, which has preserved the earliest feature-length adaptation of Verne’s Russian adventure, “Michael Strogoff” (1914).

Together, Adventures of the Rat Family and The Jules Verne Encyclopedia finally allow a more complete recognition of the multifaceted talents of this famous author. However, while he still has many stories to entertain us, only literary specialists have access to the totality of his work. Most English-language readers are only given a glimpse of the range and complexity of Verne’s thinking, and many tales like Adventures of the Rat Family have been withheld. The first English translation of this story is but one example of the unusual and intriguing Verne material -- historic and often controversial -- that remains unavailable in English.

It is hoped that Adventures of the Rat Family and The Jules Verne Encyclopedia will highlight the abundant untranslated Verne material, and the Library’s rich resources can continue to assist in bringing them to modern English-language readers.

Brian Taves, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in cinema and critical studies, is also the author of Robert Florey, the French Expressionist (Scarecrow, 1987) and The Romance of Adventure: The Genre of Historical Adventure Movies (University Press of Mississippi, 1993). A leading expert on Jules Verne, Dr. Taves, a film historian and cataloger in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, made a pilgrimage to Verne’s home and tomb in Amiens in 1979.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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