In his writing Jules Verne attempted to ‘outline all the geographical, geological, physical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science’. His most famous works, collectively known as Les Voyages Extraordinaires, seem to promote the advance of science and technology, although Verne was doubtful about a technological future. Hetzel, his publisher, persuaded him to modify his ideas in order to sell more novels and was correct about the effect on his success. However, with the publication of modern, unedited translations, one can see the underlying pessimism of Verne’s vision.
Thanks to an error in the English title, as shown here, Verne’s ‘twenty thousand leagues’ are commonly mistaken to be the depth to which the Nautilus dives. The French title is plural – ‘seas’, not ‘sea’ – and twenty thousand leagues is, in fact, the distance that Professor Arronax travels with Captain Nemo.
‘Nemo’ is Latin for ‘no-one’ – an indefinite name for an ambiguous character. Verne originally intended him to be a Polish nobleman, bent on vengeance for the murder of his family during the Russian repression of Poland’s uprising of 1863–64. He obscured Nemo’s motivation, however, following Hetzel’s advice that he might offend Russia, a French ally, and lose the Russian market. In a later novel, The Mysterious Island, Nemo is revealed to be the Hindu son of an Indian rajah, Prince Dakkar. He has a deep hatred of the British conquest of India and following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 has devoted himself to scientific research and developing his submarine, Nautilus. This was named after France’s first (hand-powered) submarine, commissioned by Napoleon in 1800 from its American inventor Robert Fulton.
Verne, along with H.G. Wells, is one of the forefathers of science fiction but rarely wrote about what is today considered typical of the genre, such as extra-terrestrials. He was instead fascinated by scientific development and based his stories on contemporary facts and scientific speculations. His concept for powering the Nautilus with electricity, supplied by sodium/mercury batteries (the sodium being extracted from seawater), pre-dated the first electrical submersible, the Spanish submarine Peral, by eighteen years.
Towards the end of Twenty Thousand Leagues a giant squid attacks the Nautilus, an event more characteristic of modern science fiction and fantasy. At the time giant squid were still semi-mythical creatures, but part of one was recovered by a French gunboat in 1861, which led to wider recognition of the species. Verne used the giant squid’s elusive nature and frightening appearance to create an episode of high drama, while remaining within the world of scientific reality. Nevertheless, there is still no evidence that a giant squid can lift its tentacles out of the water.
Illustration showing giant squid attack from Jules VerneAlphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville drew illustrations for this first edition. A French academic artist, he mostly painted portraits of soldiers and military operations, some of which are now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. He worked closely with Hetzel and Verne in deciding which scenes should be illustrated. On occasion he also corrected Verne: the giant squid rightly has ten tentacles, as opposed to the eight that Verne describes in the novel. The fact that Verne’s novels were illustrated, however, also contributed to the perception of some French critics that they were was only appropriate for children.
First English edition, 1870; published by Sampson Low, Marston, with illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.
NMM library ref: PBB6847
Image reproduction IDs: F5715-001, F5715-003, F5715-004.
Kristian Volsing (Library Co-ordinator)

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