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Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas

Jules Verne

  oxford world’s classics


  Jules Verne was born in Nantes in 1828, the eldest of five children in a prosperous family of French, Breton, and Scottish extraction. His early years were happy apart from the drowning of his cousins and an unrequited passion for his cousin Caroline. Literature always attracted him and while taking a law degree in Paris he wrote a number of plays. His books, Journey to England and Scotland and Paris in the Twentieth Century, were not published in his lifetime. However, the publisher Hetzel accepted Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1862, to be followed by sixty other novels covering the whole world and beyond. Verne travelled over three continents, before selling his yacht in 1886. Eight of the books appeared after his death in 1905 — although in fact partly written by his son Michel.

  William Butcher studied at the University of London and the École Normale Supérieure. He has taught languages and mathematics, notably at the École Nationale d’Administration and the University of Hong Kong. He has published Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography (2006) and Jules Verne inédit: Les manuscrits déchiffrés (2016), together with many annotated editions, including Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, Salon de 1857, and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras.

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  The Extraordinary Journeys

  Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas

  Translated with an Introduction and Notes by

  William Butcher

  Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, ox2 6dp, United Kingdom

  Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries

  © William Butcher 1998, 2019

  The moral rights of the author have been asserted

  First published as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 2019

  Impression: 1

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  You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer

  Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

  Data available

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2018944467

  ISBN 978–0–19–881864–9

  ebook ISBN 978–0–19–255064–4

  Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, Elcograf S.p.A.



  List of Abbreviations


  Note on the Text and Translation

  Select Bibliography

  A Chronology of Jules Verne


  Appendix 1: Inception

  Appendix 2: Sources

  Explanatory Notes


  This volume benefits from the publications of Miller and Walter, Destombes, and Gagneux (see the Select Bibliography). Frederick Walter provided many invaluable suggestions for both editions, and Wim Thierens offered judicious feedback. Angel Lui, finally, has given her support and affection unstintingly.

  List of Abbreviations

  MÉR Magasin d’éducation et de récréation: without other reference, MÉR refers to the serial publication of 20T (1869–70)

  MS1 the earlier of the two manuscripts kept in the French National Library

  MS2 the second of the two manuscripts in the French National Library

  20T Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas; references are of the form II 7 (Part Two, ch. 7)

  ‘1869’ refers to the first book edition of 20T (1869–70).

  ‘1871’ refers to the first illustrated book publication of 20T, the basis for this edition.


  If you ask people for the name of probably the world’s most translated writer,1 the popular writer to have increased in reputation the most over more than a century, you will get some surprising answers. If you further enquire as to the identity of the only Frenchman apart from Napoleon to have achieved universal renown, some odd looks may be forthcoming.

  Verne, Nemo, and the Nautilus have entered the world’s collective unconscious; but the only visible signs of their existence, dragged up from the murky depths, are invariably confused. These apologies for a reputation need to be put out of their misery. Thus Verne cannot be considered a science-fiction writer; he did not wish to write for children; the poor style often associated with him is not his. And Captain Nemo does not speak with a mid-Atlantic drawl.

  In order to understand how such ideas came to life, primarily in America and Britain, we should start by briefly examining the author’s life and the publishing history of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas.

  Jules Verne was born and brought up in Nantes, studied and worked in Paris, and spent the rest of his life in Amiens. His first known foreign visits were to Scotland in 1859 and Norway in 1861, experiences which deeply marked him. From about 1870 Verne displayed an increasing pessimism about many of his early enthusiasms, with the admiration for technology replaced by apprehension on social and political issues, and with the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, the heroes of his first novels, sometimes now the villains. The Franco-Prussian War may have been one of the catalysts for the change. The Chancellor (written in about 1870, but published in 1873) was the clear turning-point; but signs of uneasiness are already visible in Twenty Thousand Leagues.

  At the beginning, recognition for the series of the Extraordinary Journeys was slow in the English-speaking countries. The first novels to be translated appeared after Verne had already written most of his best work. It must have been disappointing for the author of The British at the North Pole to see this book unavailable in Britain itself. But when the works did begin to appear, it might have been better if they had not.

  The books were sometimes radically altered. The translators, frequently anonymous, were not always fully competent in French. In the process, they produced some wonderful howlers: the hero visits the ‘disagreeable territories of Nebraska’ or ‘jumps over’ part of an island; reference is made to ‘prunes’ or ‘Galilee’; and Napoleon dies broken-hearted in ‘St Helen’s’. Verne himself wro
te of ‘the Badlands’, ‘blowing up’, ‘plums’, ‘Galileo’, and ‘St Helena’. If we examine in particular Twenty Thousand Leagues (written in 1868–9, published in 1869–70), there have been thousands of editions of this work, possibly making the English version the most frequently published novel of all time. Lewis Mercier’s 1872 translation was typical of the time: adequate on ‘style’ but extremely weak on details. Also, about 22 per cent of the novel was missing! Since then, the majority of editions have reproduced Mercier, many of them making further minor changes, unfortunately without referring back to the French.

  There has also traditionally been a low level of critical commentary on the Extraordinary Journeys in the English-speaking world, sometimes the result of monolinguals studying these inaccurate translations. Nor has the basic textual work been done, in either English or French. The different original editions of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers have hardly been compared; to date no one has studied the manuscripts in detail; and there is no established text, meaning that we should be wary even of modern French editions.

  Twenty Thousand Leagues is Verne’s most ambitious work in terms of themes and psychology. (Readers who do not wish to learn details of the plot are advised to omit the rest of the Introduction.) It recounts a circumnavigation of the globe by submarine, with Nemo (‘nobody’ in Latin) as the sombre hero. It includes many dramatic episodes: the underwater burial of a dead crewman, an attack by Papuan natives, a battle with giant squid, a passage under the Antarctic ice-cap, a farewell to the sun at the South Pole, and a vision among the underwater ruins of Atlantis. But much of the interest comes from the intense if distant relationship between Nemo and his passengers, Dr Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land, and from the anguish gripping the captain. Nemo seems to have an unhealthy interest in shipping lanes and vessels in distress. On one occasion he imprisons Aronnax in a cell. Further mysteries are the portraits in his room of nationalist figures and of a woman and children, later revealed to be his murdered family. At the end of the novel the captain is attacked by an unidentified ship, and responds by sinking it. The three guests escape as the Nautilus fights the Maelstrom.

  Verne’s mastery of the genre is demonstrated by the interlocking and superimposing literary devices and the many vibrant episodes presenting new settings. The number of themes is also impressive: technology of course, biology, the study of the seas, exploration of unknown areas, life on desert islands, history, biblical themes, mythical ideas, even international politics. The characters, too, are more complex than in many of Verne’s works.


  Much of the inspiration for Twenty Thousand Leagues came from Verne’s own experience. He was born on an island in a major slave port; and while preparing the book he consulted his brother Paul, a retired naval officer. In the late spring of 1868 he bought a fishing-boat of 8 or 10 tons, which he claimed to use as a study while sailing along the Normandy and Brittany coasts. In September he sailed to Gravesend, where he wrote: ‘How beautiful [the scenery] is and what fuel for the imagination!’ [19 August 1868].2

  For two scenes, Nemo’s elevated surveying of the ruins of Atlantis and his claiming of the new continent of Antarctica, the author may be drawing inspiration from the King’s Park in Edinburgh. On Verne’s second day outside France, the volcanic Arthur’s Seat dominating the park was the first mountain he had visited. Imbued as he was with Scott and Romanticism, in love with this exotic land, he generated a sublime vision from the classical and marine view. Equally surprisingly, Nemo’s plumbing, furnishings, and general life-style in the heart of the raging depths may be drawn from Verne’s visit a couple of days later to a rain-swept but luxurious ‘château’ in Oakley, Fife. Verne seems indeed to be hinting at the Scottish source when he shows Nemo at the organ, ‘only us[ing] the black keys, giving his melodies an essentially Scottish tonality’ — in Journey to England and Scotland (1859–60), Verne’s friend ‘Amelia’, a young hostess who guides and enchants him, had similarly recommended ‘play[ing] using only the black keys’ (ch. 24).

  Verne’s other sources are wide-ranging, taken from literature, science, geography, and history, and are often openly acknowledged. In 1865 the novelist George Sand suggested to Verne that the sea was the one area of the globe where his ‘scientific knowledge and imagination’ had not yet been put to use. There is clear influence from the Bible, Hugo, Michelet, Scott, and Poe. Moby-Dick presents many affinities in details and plot (see Appendix 2: Sources, which includes full references).

  The most important non-literary sources are the scientists and popularizers Maury, Figuier, Mangin, Agassiz, and Renard. Many of the naturalists Twenty Thousand Leagues quotes, including Buffon, Gratiolet, Lacépède, Milne-Edwards, d’Orbigny, Quatrefages, and Tournefort, were researchers at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, like Dr Aronnax. Although the novel cites one contemporary encounter with a giant squid (at the time dismissed by science), an unquoted source, Denys de Montfort, is probably the main origin of the captain’s epic battle. The life of Nemo himself may be based partly on Gustave Flourens, a French scientist and international freedom-fighter.

  Many commentaries have concentrated on the originality of the Nautilus, but it should be emphasized that Verne’s technology was not innovative. The captain’s presentation of his vessel provides more than enough information about its length and girth, but his only explanation of its motive power is in terms of an electricity which is ‘not the commonly used sort’, multiplied by ‘a system of levers’! Submarine craft had in any case been used in the American War of Independence and Civil War; and there were even submarine vessels named Nautilus, including one the author must have seen on his visit to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867. At least three books with titles like Journey to the Bottom of the Sea and The Submarine World were published in France in 1867–9 alone. So crowded indeed were the deeps that Verne feared being accused of plagiarism.

  The novelist himself was categorical: ‘I am not in any way the inventor of submarine navigation.’ He even claimed he was ‘never particularly interested in science’, only in creating dramatic stories in exotic parts. Amongst the tales of submarines, only Verne’s has survived — undoubtedly because of the living nature of his text. His originality lies in his unbridled literary imagination.


  The book seems to have been planned over a considerable period. The correspondence, predominantly with his lifelong publisher, Jules Hetzel, shows what Verne considers the novel to be about, and reveals his mounting excitement:

  I’m also preparing our Journey under the Waters, and my brother and I are arranging all the mechanics needed for the expedition. I think we’ll use electricity, but it’s still not completely decided. (10 August [1866])

  After 15 months of abstinence [while writing Geography of France (1867)], my brain greatly needs to burst: so much the better for the Journey under the Waters, there will be abundance, and I promise to have myself a great time. [29 July 1867]

  In about March 1868, Verne began writing his most ambitious book. Over the next few months, his excitement continues to grow at the idea of what he called the ‘unknown man’ and the ‘perfect’ subject:

  I’m deep in Journey under the Waters. | I’m working on it with tremendous pleasure . . . I very much want this machine to be as perfect as possible. [10 March 1868, to his father]

  This unknown man must no longer have any contact with humanity . . . He’s not on earth any more . . . the sea must provide him with everything, clothing and food . . . Were the continents and islands to vanish in a new Flood, he’d live the same way, and I beg you to believe that his ark will be a bit better equipped than Noah’s . . . I’ve never held a better thing in my hands. [28 March 1868]

  What is difficult is to make things that are highly implausible seem very plausible. [23 July 1868]

  Oh the perfect subject, my dear Hetzel, the perfect subject! [11 August 1868]

  It is certainly serious, very unexpected, and n
o one has ever done anything like it before. [14 August 1868]

  In addition to the novel as ‘machine’, we may note the metaphor of what Verne heatedly holds in his hands and the ‘abundance’ of his textual production. But we can also observe the emphasis on sea-based self-sufficiency and the biblical reference.

  In the autumn of that year, Verne submitted the first volume to Hetzel, with the proofs ready at year’s end. From the end of April until mid-June 1869, however, the publisher sent a series of harrowing letters about the second volume, very critical especially of the ending.3

  The number and severity of the changes the publisher proposed or imposed can be seen by reading the second of the two manuscripts. These complex questions, which go to the very heart of the novel, and which mean that the published version must be considered fundamentally flawed, are studied in the Explanatory Notes and Appendix 1.

  The Nautilus

  One initial way of coping with the complexity of the novel is simply to study the behaviour of the submarine. Its very freedom and power mean that, to create tension, it must encounter dangers of some sort. Most of the threats to its shiny self-containment fall into four categories: perforation, invasion, immobilization, or suffocation. (Mechanical problems are out of the question. That the hatch might let in water never seems to cross anybody’s mind, either.)

  Thus it risks rupture by man’s most advanced ballistic technology or by massed sperm whales and intrusion by giant squid. The most frequent problem, however, is that the ‘cigar-shape’ has an uncontrollable desire to slip into passages for which ‘it’s too big’, as Farragut’s sailors put it. This enables it to reach its home base via an underwater tunnel and to find the passage connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, and hence to visit the seven seas without retracing its steps. But under the ice-cap its bold thrusting creates dangers, as the submarine manages to get into a tunnel which is not only closed at both ends but shrinking by the hour. In another episode, potentially involving all four dangers, it chooses to pass through the ‘most dangerous strait on the globe’, duly gets stuck on the rocks, and attracts hundreds of natives.