A Jules Verne Centennial: 1905-2005

March 25, 2005 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Jules Verne. Many Verne celebrations were scheduled about this time, including a 6 day seminar in Amiens, where Verne lived, and in the port city of Nantes, France, where Verne was born in 1828. As a child Verne watched the sailing ships come and go from the local port. This admiration of adventure was to become the central theme of his 65 novels of voyage and discovery, the Voyages Extraordinaires.

Although in England and America Verne is considered mainly a children’s author, in France he is considered both an adult and a juvenile author, much as Lewis Carroll is in England. Part of the reason for this may be the poor translations of Verne’s works into English, with scientific omissions and changes which conflicted with the political and religious views of the Victorian Empire.

In fact it was his most popular novels which suffered the worst translations, and it was only after a hundred years in the 1960’s that Walter Miller, a professor at New York University, recognized the damage which had been done, documenting it in the preface of his translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Since then many new translations, faithful to the original, have been made and other neglected translations revived, as the study of Verniana has become a respectable subject in the graduate schools of America.

Although Verne is commonly referred to as the “father of science fiction” he is much more a writer of “scientific fiction”. He was the first person to recognize that the new world of 19th century scientific discovery offered a framework for adventure novels where the science of the day played an important role. Indeed the science was accurate, but it required a hundred years or more for technology to advance to the point where his inventions and adventures became reality. The traversal of the Arctic Ocean under the ice in 1959 by the USS Nautilus made a reality of the undersea adventures of Captain Nemo and his Nautilus. The Apollo project made From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip around It a preliminary exercise. Even the fanciful balloon voyage across Africa in Five Weeks in a Balloon pales in comparison with current 'round the world balloon exploits.

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries is fortunate to have a few early editions of Verne's works with the original engraved illustrations which made his works so popular. Verne and his publisher Julius Hetzel paid acute attention to the details of these illustrations, so that they are almost an integral part of the story. Later reprints usually omitted these engravings, and since the original woodcuts and early printing plates are long gone, all that remains are these images from the early books.

The following selection will give an idea of what was available one hundred years ago – illustrations which introduce the characters, provide panoramas which describe the locale of the adventure and the flora and fauna encountered, give maps where the reader may follow the heroes’ adventures, or illustrate a particularly exciting or scientific moment. They are truly Voyages Extraordinaire.

Norman Wolcott
January 2006