Poor Jules Verne: no American respect. No literary survey of the 19th century could truly be complete without him, and by any account he wrote wrote four or five of the most influential novels of all time, and yet, like Dumas, he’s considered a “genre” writer at best this side of the Atlantic, or worse, “for kids.” The “serious” reputation of both authors is ruined in headier circles by their shared lack of interest in “psychology,” (and mediocre bowdlerized translations, and limited availability of their large back catalogs- their respective fans insist.) True, no one would ever confuse either with Henry James, but Henry James features no lost worlds full of dinosaurs, no battles against giant octopi, and no sword-singing avengers in his bibliography. So really, who’s winning?
In 1848, a young Verne arrived at Paris to make literary connections, eager to reach out to the twin rulers of the era: Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas pere. His meeting with the patriarchal Dumas went particularly well: Dumas helped Verne stage his first play at the Lyric Theatre and hired him as a secretary. In turn, Verne ran by Dumas the plan for the “Extraordinary Voyages,” an on-going exploration of boundaries scientific and geographical that would eventually involve 50 + novels. Dumas must have been relieved that Verne’s interest in the past was cursory: the young man was looking to the future through a telescope of rarely-matched power.
And yet Verne’s first serious novel, 1864’s “The Count of Chanteleine,” is very much a Dumas homage, (as if the title didn’t give that away!) and hints at what the father of science fiction might be like, had he dedicated himself to the historical feuilleton.
Dense in historical allusions, “The Count” is a revenge story set in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the Vendee. The Whites and the Blues clash brutally, the nobility and the clergy are imperiled, and the property of the Count of Chanteleine falls under the hands of a dastardly former vassal who is now a powerful Republican “Citoyen.” So the Count, his daughter, and a self-sacrificing servant named Kernan escape – only to come back later under guises to get revenge.
But Dumas can usually look at history with a deity’s bemused remove, (say, pitting Papists against Huguenots in his novels about the Wars of Religion without expressing any particular partiality or undue contempt.) Verne is nothing like that. In “The Count of Chanteleine,” the political lines are clear: his nobles are, well, NOBLE and beyond reproach; the Republicans are dirty Godless bastards. Good royalist Catholics go to Heaven; the rest can go to Hell. (Dumas, Balzac, and Hugo are all much more nuanced about the topic of la Vendee in, respectively, “The Whites and the Blues,” “The Chouans,” and “Quatre-Vingt Treize.” Verne is much closer to the reactionary views expressed in Baroness Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” although this is not to be mistaken for some general political bent of his. It’s more of a story-telling need: Verne wants good guys and bad guys, and clearly the ones with the guillotines are the bad guys.)
And whereas Dumas lets his plots breathe, (sometimes inhaling the entirety of an era within their lungs) here Verne rushes breathlessly from event to event, wrapping everything up with a historical Deux Ex Machina (the 9th of Thermidor) that sadly solves all the character’s problems without making them agents of their own fate.
The problem is that he really wasn’t a romancer; he was a traveler. The romancer examines the heart, the traveler can’t stand still that long. Maybe the biggest hint of where the muse was calling Verne is in the way that he keeps digressing from the Dumasian aspects of his tale in order to enumerate landmarks and describe the flora of the Bretagne. Take the way Verne approaches the “falling-in-love” episode between “the boy” and “the girl.” Dumas would certainly have had the couple banter, first coyly, then wittily, and finally passionately. Verne avoids dialogue. Instead, HIS “boy” takes the “girl” out to give her a thorough geological tour of the northern French coastline – he can name every bay, cliff, promontory and boulder – and we’re meant to believe his knowledge of rocks leave her swooning!
Clearly (and luckily for science fiction), Dumas Pere and Verne were meant to diverge. Instead, Verne become life-long friends with Alexandre Dumas, fils.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for most; INTERESTING for fans of Verne’s bigger hits who would enjoy seeing a different side.