Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably WrongS

Jules Verne is one of the best-known authors who ever lived. A record 300 movies, TV shows and plays have been based on his work and more are on their way. But although everyone knows Jules Verne much of what they know is wrong.

Illustration by Gilles Roman

Movies, bad translations and urban legends have formed most ideas people have about the author. To take a trivial example, everyone knows about the famous balloon in Around the World in 80 Days. In fact, that balloon trip has become pretty much a symbol not only for book but Jules Verne himself.

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably WrongS

But there is no balloon in Around the World in 80 Days.

Here are a few more myths about the writer that you may not have realized were myths at all.

Verne was a writer of books primarily for children.

The idea that Jules Verne is a children's writer is one limited pretty much to English-speaking countries. Just about everywhere else in the world he is considered not only one of the 19th century's major authors, but one who is taken very seriously. A recent catalog of books and papers about Verne and his works listed more than 4000 titles...and the number is growing daily. Ironically, out of more than 60 books, Verne wrote only two specifically for children.

So how is Verne considered to be a writer of books suitable only for children in the US and on a par with Dickens and Tolstoy everywhere else in the world?

It's largely the fault of the rotten-ass translations he got, which were filled with scientific mistakes and changes and omissions which conflicted with the political and religious views of Victorian England. For instance, the original translator of 20,000 Leagues deleted more than 20% of the book, largely because he was a conservative British Protestant and Verne was a liberal French Catholic. This is in addition to literally hundreds of translation errors (Verne's "Badlands of Nebraska" becoming the "disagreeable territory of Nebraska") and egregious mistakes in science (the translator provides a careful explanation of how the Nautilus floats because iron is lighter than water). All of these mistakes and errors were attributed to Verne, and because so much of the social and political content of his books was lopped out, they seemed like nothing more than trivial adventure stories to English-speaking readers.

Sadly, once inept translations like these fell into the public domain and could be reproduced free, they became the "standard" translations and can be still found in print today. (On clue that you have the bad old translation of 20K in hand is to look for a chapter titled, " From Latitude 47° 24' to Longitude 17° 28'"—which describes something impossible.) Beginning in the 1960s, fortunately, new, accurate, unabridged translations of Verne's most famous novels were being published. These have led to the current renaissance in interest in Verne in English-speaking countries, where he is now taken much more seriously than he once was.

Even though he wrote adventure stories that take place everywhere on the planet, he was a stay-at-home author who never left his native France.

This is a "fact" about Verne you can find in any number of reference books...and it's completely untrue. Verne not only traveled extensively throughout Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles and the Mediterranen, he owned a yacht on which he practically lived (20,000 Leagues was largely written aboard it). Verne once even traveled to the United States. He came over in that steam-punk masterpiece, the Great Eastern, and even based a novel on the voyage. While here, Verne visited New York and Niagara Falls while he and his brother acted out characters from James Fenimore Cooper novels.

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably WrongS

One of Verne's yachts, the St. Michel III.

Verne copied many of his "inventions" from American dime novels.

This is probably the most pervasive lie ever spread about Verne and there are several websites that are devoted to perpetuating the myth. The story is that a teenaged dime novel author named Luis Senerans sent some of his work to Verne. Verne not only wrote back praising Senerans, he promptly stole most of Senerans' ideas.

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably Wrong

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably Wrong

The sad fact is that it was entirely the other way around.

Aside from the problem of there not being a scrap of evidence that any such correspondence ever existed or that Verne ever laid eyes on any of Senarens' dime novels (there is even serious question about Verne's ability to read English), the chronology of events works against the legend. Senarens was born in 1863 and didn't publish his first Frank Reade novel until he was 19. This was Frank Reade, Jr., and His Steam Wonder, which was published in 1882 in Boys of New York—nearly twenty years after Verne had published his first novel. The Verne novel usually used as evidence of Verne's plagiarism is Robur the Conqueror, which starred the giant flying machine, Albatross, a machine almost identical to the one Senarens' describes in his Queen Clipper of the Clouds. But Verne's novel was first serialized in 1886 while Senarens' wasn't published until 1893. Worse news for the urban legend is the fact that Verne began work on Robur before Senarens was even born!

If there was any plagiarism going on, even a brief look at the Frank Reade stories shows that it was in the other direction. And not only did Senaren's blatantly steal from Verne, his publishers even pirated the illustrations from Verne's novels for use in the Frank Reade stories!

Verne was primarily a science fiction author.

Not really. Of the 54 novels published in his lifetime, scarcely a dozen can be called "science fiction"—and at that by occasionally making a stretch. On the other hand, almost all of his books were about one science in particular, the one he was most fascinated with his entire life: geography. All of his novels are about places and every one of his four dozen novels takes his readers to a different location on earth. This is the reason the series was called "Extraordinary Voyages." So geography-based were Verne's novels that I was once able to create an entire atlas of nearly 100 maps detailing all the journeys his characters undertook!

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably WrongS

Verne's map of the voyage of the Nautilus.

Even when Verne was writing about giant submarines and spaceships, his goal was really to take his readers to places he couldn't get them to without inventing some special device. The Nautilus existed so he could describe to his readers the wonders being discovered by the new science of oceanography, the projectile in From the Earth to the Moon allowed Verne to take his readers to the earth's satellite, and Journey to the Center of the Earth was all about Scandinavia, Iceland and geology. Of course, Verne was more than a tour guide: he was a master novelist, so his books are also filled with complex political issues, psychology and social satire, but we covered all of that in #1.

Verne invented the periscope and predicted atomic energy.

The old story goes that an inventor submitted a design for a submarine periscope to the US Patent Office. "Sorry," said the patent clerk, "but we can't accept this. Jules Verne described exactly the same thing in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so you haven't come up with anything new." It's a great story, but, unfortunately, the Nautilus had to cruise the oceans periscopeless. Nowhere in the novel is anything resembling a periscope even mentioned.

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably Wrong

The idea that Verne anticipated atomic energy has the same source as the idea that there is a balloon in Around the World in 80 Days: the movies. Disney's 20,000 Leagues to be specific. While one hell of a movie, Nemo's explanation of the mysterious power that ran the Nautilus and the titanic explosion that wiped out Vulcania—followed by a towering mushroom cloud—firmly and permanently implanted in everyone's mind that Verne knew all about nuclear energy. Unfortunately, not only did Verne write 20,000 Leagues thirty years before radioactivity was even discovered, he described the Nautilus as being powered by conventional batteries.

Everything You Know About Jules Verne is Probably Wrong

He even mentions the brand name.