Today in Literary History – February 8, 1828 – Jules Verne is born

Jules Verne, the French novelist and so-called “Father of Science Fiction,” was born in Nantes on February 8, 1828. He is famous for his groundbreaking series of Voyages extraordinaire (“Fantastic Voyages”) – novels such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days.

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Verne’s father was an attorney who pressed him into following his profession. But Verne was a romantic and dreamy young man who had hopes of making a living as a writer, an option his father considered to be frivolous.

At the age of 19 Verne’s father sent him to Paris to begin his legal studies. Verne instead spent much of his time at the theatre and trying his hand at writing plays himself.

On a visit home to Nantes after his first year of law school Verne fell deeply in love with a young woman whose parents objected to the romance. Her family instead pressured her into accepting a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor 10 years older than her.

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The incident never left Verne’s mind and he revisited it several times in his fiction. It seems also to have contributed to Verne’s distaste for Nantes and his decision not to return there to take over his father’s practice after graduation.

Despite earning his law degree, Verne decided conclusively that he wasn’t prepared to spend his life as a lawyer. He remained in Paris and began to make influential friends who helped his writing career. He got to know Alexandre Dumas père (author of The Three Musketeers) and became close friends with his son Alexandre Dumas fils.

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Verne’s real literary success came in the 1860s and ‘70s when he developed his theory of writing what he called romans de la science, “scientific novels” – speculative adventure stories backed by well researched scientific plausibility.

Verne became a wealthy bestselling author, but he still rankled at not being accepted into the highest literary circles. “The great regret of my life,” he said in old age, “is that I have never taken any place in French literature.”

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Many of Verne’s staunchest fans still complain that in the English-speaking world he has been pigeon-holed as a writer of children’s adventure stories and that his work should be taken more seriously. This, they say, is partly because his books have been ill-served by translators and Disneyfied in popular movies.

He has however attracted a lot of academic attention in France and more than a century after his death he is the second most translated author in the world, just after Agatha Christie and just ahead of William Shakespeare!

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