Author: Kyle McKibben

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Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 at 3:14 am
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Jules Verne in Scotland

In November I wrote about Hans Christian Andersen and the trip he made to Edinburgh in 1849. Another nineteenth century literary giant visited Scotland, ten years after Hans Christian Andersen who was at the height of his fame and powers when he came here. Jules Verne, in contrast, was quite unknown. He had yet to publish a book.

He enthusiastically sent a narrative of his journey to Pierre-Jules Hetzel. The latter was an important publisher in nineteenth century France and had previously accepted work by Victor Hugo and Baudelaire. He rejected Verne’s account of his British trip because he thought it wasn’t commercial enough, but must have seen something in the aspiring author. He later published Verne’s first novel “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” in 1863.

Jules Verne’s Edinburgh experiences didn’t appear in French till 1989, as Voyage à reculons en Angleterre et en Ecosse and in an English translation in 1992 as Backwards to Britain. Verne gave himself the name of “Jacques Lavaret” in the book, and his companion Aristide Hignard became “Jonathan Savournon.” Why the author felt the need to do this is unclear. Perhaps it was a convention of the time.

Jules Verne went on to write “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth.” He is considered a giant of French writing, and father of science fiction.

When Hans Christian Andersen had made his trip Scotland was on the brink of a tourist bonanza, thanks to the coming of the railways. They would funnel the middle classes of Europe northward. Because of the industrial revolution this group was growing. They had a large enough income to make travel possible, and were actively wooed by the railway companies.

The major draw was the extraordinary popularity of Sir Walter Scott, although he’d died in 1832. Novels had existed before, but he was held to have re-cast the form. Domestic tourists as well as those from abroad wanted to see the physical scenes where he had set his books. People wanted to see the (site) of the prison, the Tolbooth, the Canongate and Holyrood.

The Gaels (who could be found not far north of Edinburgh) were long since defeated, so coming to see them incurred no risk. Their epic poetry was widely admired, although works by “Ossian”, the “Gaelic Homer,” had already been shown to be largely composed by their “discoverer” James McPherson.

By the time Jules Verne came, in 1859, the routine for travelers was well-established. Waverly station had been built five years earlier. It replaced three adjacent stations operated by rival companies. They thought it logical to co-operate and have one station to serve such an important transport node as Edinburgh.

Verne describes arriving in Edinburgh to find a group of hotels, mostly clustering around the station catering for the up-market traveller; the “North British”, the “Caledonian.” Some of them are still with us (or were recently) with new management and on a different site. Things had moved on since Hans Christian Andersen came on his pioneering visit. Verne and his companion stayed at “Lambret’s Hotel.”

After “doing” Edinburgh, the tourist would be expected to go west. Nineteenth century Glasgow with its industry was considered a necessary evil, but it was the gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, which were well supplied with steamships and carriages for processing tourists.

Jules Verne had arrived in Liverpool by cargo boat. He lived in Paris, but on the chance of a free passage to Britain from Bordeaux, he accepted with alacrity. This gave his book its wry title “Backwards to Britain” since he first had to go south to sail north. The account of his trip was finally published in English in 1992 by Chambers, with an introduction by William Butcher. It was translated by Janis Valls-Russell.

The first chapters concern the dilatoriness and prevarication of the captain in gathering a cargo and setting sail. Once under way Verne informs his readers that “Scots is a mixture of three different dialects: English, Anglo-Saxon and …Gaelic, which is also the language spoken in Lower Brittany.” Jules Verne was obviously not well up on the difference between the P and Q branches of Celtic; Breton is the former, Gaelic the latter, and they are not mutually comprehensible.

On landing at Liverpool, Verne was stunned by the poverty that underpinned the industrial revolution in Britain, but was soon on his way to Edinburgh.

He thought that “English railways are much faster than French ones.” but that “English railways are poorly supervised…Trains pass and follow one another almost continually…” The result was a high rate of accidents. This was not only Verne’s impression; there wasa high accident rate on the railway lines of Britain at the time.

When he arrived in Edinburgh their hotel faced Princes Street. Verne was puzzled on looking out of his hotel’s window in the dark (remember this was before bright street lighting) when he saw lights suspended; they seemed to be far away. The morning brought an explanation; he was looking at the tenements of the old town, across the expanse of Princes Street gardens.

The two friends did the usual tourist things of going to the Castle and climbing Arthur‘s Seat. Verne (or his alter ego “Jacques“) describes the view from the latter in a set piece which I suspect owes something to French guide-books (He makes much of his inability to speak English).

They decided to call on a relation of Jonathan, a man identified only as “Mr.B-”, who lived in Inverleith Row, “on the outskirts of the city.” Professor Ian B.Thompson, a geographer, and a Scottish expert on Verne’s work, has identified him as a Mr. Bain. He was in real life a general manager of the City of Glasgow bank in Edinburgh.

Verne was much taken by his daughter “Amelia”. Her “liveliness, courtesy and grace contrasted with the “more usual British stiffness.” She asked them to dinner (it was a Saturday), but when they politely demurred she explained that as “Jonathan” was a musician she had hoped that he would accompany her on the piano and organ. She said that, although it was a Catholic household “it’s against our principles to have music on Sundays. This is a fast rule for Catholics and Protestants alike.” The two Frenchmen accepted. Jacques” surveyed the drawing room. He decided that “everything was less luxurious but more comfortable” than in France.

He was further surprised when his hostess suggested a visit to the Botanic Gardens. “The lawns were splendid…. and people walked over them as freely as on the sanded paths,” he said in surprise. They now left Edinburgh, and headed to Glasgow and the Trossachs, and then south to England. He had seen the same scenes as his hero, Sir Walter Scott. More important were things he had noticed about present day Scotland.

“L’Indes Noir”, one of his more important novels, is entirely set below Scotland, in a vast mine. (The name is a nineteenth century French term meaning “a coalfield”, published in Britain as “The Child of the Cavern”). Almost twenty years later the names and routes he followed had stuck in Verne’s mind, and he made use of them in the novel.

A later and slighter novel, “The Green Ray”, is set around Oban. It concerns a peculiarly French obsession. On a clear evening, as the sun goes down and its disc has almost disappeared below the horizon, its residual orange glow can sometimes seem to turn green for a couple of seconds. This phenomenon is simply due to the right atmospheric conditions. It can be seen by anyone who looks at the vanishing sun. The French seem unique in Europe in ascribing a moral virtue to those observing it. According to this French tradition, it can only be seen by the pure in heart. This is the book’s central conceit.

Jules Verne’s characters were often given Scottish or Irish names. This signaled his disapproval of the way in which the British Empire (which he was always careful to distinguish from the British people) went about things. He was a complex character; outwardly very conventional, inwardly more negative and gloomy, especially in his last books. The short trip to Scotland for Jules Verne had major influences in his work.

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