by Jules Verne
“Mr. Fogg seemed a perfect type of that English composure which Angelica Kauffmann has so skilfully represented on canvas.”
Between 1863 and 1905, the French writer, Jules Verne, wrote a sequence of fifty-four novels known collectively as the ‘Voyages extraordinaires’ (‘Extraordinary Voyages’), the purpose of which, according to Verne’s editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, was “to outline all the geographical, geological, physical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format…the history of the universe.”
Number 11 in the series, which also included the popular fictional titles Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, was the highly acclaimed 1873 classic, Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days).
This slim novel tells the tale of an enigmatic English gentleman, Phileas Fogg, who resides at No. 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, and is a familiar face at London’s famous Reform Club. Having made a somewhat rash £20,000 wager with fellow members of this elitist institution, he sets off with Jean Passepartout, his newly hired valet, to prove it is possible to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He departs from London by train at 8:45 p.m. on 2nd October and, in order to win his bet, must return to the club by the same time on 21st December, 80 days later.
Before opening this volume for the first time my only notion of the storyline came from watching the wonderfully debonair David Niven play Phileas Fogg in the 1956 Academy Award-winning epic adventure-comedy, Around the World in 80 Days (there have been other screen adaptions, too). Enchanting though I found this film, it deviated rather from the novel, especially when it came to the now widely-remembered scene of the men taking off from Paris in a hot air balloon, as this simply didn’t happen in the book. Indeed, there was no ballooning of any sort in Verne’s original story. There was, however, an elephant.
Written during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), at a time when Verne was struggling financially, he claimed the idea for Around the World in Eighty Days came to him one afternoon in a Paris café while reading a newspaper. It was one of the most widely read novels of the 19th century, often accredited with playing a major role in shaping European attitudes of the colonized lands, and was to become one of his most highly acclaimed works.
My Nan, whose father was French, always maintained that his side of the family lived next door to Jules Verne. Like the writer, they came from Nantes, a seaport city in Western France. I was a child when I received this information and regrettably failed to elicit further details, but she was a lady known for living by the maxim: ‘While you live, tell truth and shame the Devil’, so I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of her story.
The book I found entertaining, inventive and light-hearted. It is, of course, very much of its time, especially with regard to its depiction of the British Empire, but I can imagine how gripping and modern it must have seemed to those who read it first. It was, nevertheless, ideally suited to my mood for something short and undemanding to read in a single sitting.