Jules Verne: His Life and Writings

Learn about the father of science fiction

Jules Verne's (1828-1905) study in Jules Verne house-museum, Amiens, Picardy, France
Jules Verne's (1828-1905) study in Jules Verne house-museum, Amiens, Picardy, France. De Agostini / S. Gutierrez / Getty Images

Jules Verne is frequently called the "father of science fiction," and among all writers, only Agatha Christie's works have been translated more. Verne wrote numerous plays, essays, books of nonfiction, and short stories, but he was best known for his novels. Part travelogue, part adventure, part natural history, his novels including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth remain popular to this day.

The Life of Jules Verne

Born in 1828 in Nantes, France, Jules Verne seemed destined to study the law. His father was a successful lawyer, and Verne went to boarding school and later traveled to Paris where he earned his law degree in 1851. Throughout his childhood, however, he was drawn to the stories of nautical adventures and shipwrecks shared by his first teacher and by the sailors who frequented the docks in Nantes.

While studying in Paris, Verne befriended the son of the well known novelist Alexandre Dumas. Through that friendship, Verne was able to get his first play, The Broken Straws, produced at Dumas's theater in 1850. A year later, Verne found employment writing magazine articles that combined his interests in travel, history, and science. One of his first stories, "A Voyage in a Balloon" (1851), brought together the elements that would make his later novels so successful.

Writing, however, was a difficult profession for earning a living.

When Verne fell in love with Honorine de Viane Morel, he accepted a brokerage job arranged by her family. The steady income from this work allowed the couple to marry in 1857, and they had one child, Michel, four years later.

Verne's literary career would truly take off in the 1860s when he was introduced to the publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, a successful businessman who had worked with some of the greatest writers of nineteenth-century France including Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac.

When Hetzel read Verne's first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne would get the break that finally allowed him to devote himself to writing. 

Hetzel launched a magazine, the Magazine of Education and Recreation, that would publish Verne's novels serially. Once the final installments ran in the magazine, the novels would be released in book form as part of a collection, Extraordinary Voyages. This endeavor occupied Verne for the rest of his life, and by the time of his death in 1905, he had written fifty-four novels for the series.

The Novels of Jules Verne

Jules Verne wrote in many genres, and his publications include over a dozen plays and short stories, numerous essays, and four books of nonfiction. His fame, however, came from his novels. Along with the fifty-four novels Verne published as part of Extraordinary Voyages during his lifetime, another eight novels were added to the collection posthumously thanks to the efforts of his son, Michel.

Verne's most famous and enduring novels were written in the 1860s and 1870s, at a time when Europeans were still exploring, and in many cases exploiting, new areas of the globe. Verne's typical novel included a cast of men—often including one with brains and one with brawn--who develop a new technology that allows them to journey to exotic and unknown places.

Verne's novels take his readers across continents, under the oceans, through the earth, and even into space.

Some of Verne's best-known titles include:

  • Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863): Ballooning had been around for nearly a century when this novel was published, but the central character, Dr. Fergusson, develops a device that allows him easily to change the altitude of his balloon without relying on ballast so that he can find favorable winds. Fergusson and his companions traverse the African continent in their balloon, encountering extinct animals, cannibals, and savages along the way.
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864): The characters in Verne's third novel don't actually go to the true center of the earth, but they do travel across all of Europe through a series of underground caverns, lakes, and rivers. The subterranean world Verne creates is illuminated by glowing green gases, and the adventures encounter everything from pterosaurs to a herd of mastodons to a twelve-foot-tall human. Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of Verne's most sensational and least plausible works, but perhaps for those very reasons, it has remained one of his most popular.
  • From the Earth to the Moon (1865): In his fourth novel, Verne imagines a group of adventurers building a cannon so large that it can shoot a bullet-shaped capsule with three occupants to the moon. Needless to say, the physics of doing this are impossible—the speed of the projectile through the atmosphere would cause it to burn up, and the extreme g-forces would be lethal to its occupants. In Verne's fictional world, however, the main characters succeed not in landing on the moon, but in orbiting it. Their stories continue in the novel's sequel, Around the Moon (1870).
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870): When Verne wrote his sixth novel, submarines were crude, small, and extremely dangerous. With Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus, Verne imagines a miraculous vehicle capable of circling the globe underwater. This favorite novel of Verne's takes his readers to the deepest parts of the ocean and gives them a glimpse of the strange fauna and flora of the world's seas. The novel also predicts the globe-circling nuclear submarines of the 20th century.
  • Around the World in Eighty Days (1873): Whereas most of Verne's novels push science well beyond what was possible in the nineteenth century, Around the World in Eighty Days presents a race around the globe that was, in fact, feasible. The completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the opening of the Suez Canal, and the development of large, iron-hulled steamships made the journey possible. The novel certainly includes elements of adventure as the travelers rescue a woman from immolation and are pursued by a Scotland Yard detective, but the work is very much a celebration of existing technologies.

    Jules Verne's Legacy

    Jules Verne is frequently called the "father of science fiction, although that same title has also been applied to H.G. Wells. Wells's writing career, however, began a generation after Verne, and his most famous works appeared in the 1890s: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). H. G. Wells, in fact, was sometimes called "the English Jules Verne." Verne, however, was certainly not the first writer of science fiction. Edgar Allan Poe wrote several science fiction stories in the 1840s, and Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein explored the resulting horrors when scientific ambitions go unchecked.

    Although he wasn't the first writer of science fiction, Verne was one of the most influential. Any contemporary writer of the genre owes at least a partial debt to Verne, and his legacy is readily apparent in the world around us. Verne's influence on popular culture is significant. Many of his novels have been made into movies, television series, radio shows, animated children's cartoons, computer games and graphic novels.  

    The first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, was named after Captain Nemo's submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Just a few years after the publication of Around the World in Eight Days, two women who were inspired by the novel successfully raced around the world. Nellie Bly would win the race against Elizabeth Bisland, completing the journey in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.

    Today, astronauts in the International Space Station circle the globe in 92 minutes. Verne's From the Earth to the Moon presents Florida as the most logical place to launch a vehicle into space, yet this is 85 years before the first rocket would launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Again and again, we find the scientific visions of Verne becoming realities.

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    Grove, Allen. "Jules Verne: His Life and Writings." ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/jules-verne-biography-4151934. Grove, Allen. (2017, September 29). Jules Verne: His Life and Writings. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jules-verne-biography-4151934 Grove, Allen. "Jules Verne: His Life and Writings." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jules-verne-biography-4151934 (accessed November 18, 2017).