Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jules Verne and Nellie Bly

Jules Verne was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid, and I was pleased that Fillius came to share my taste for 19th century authors in general and Jules Verne in particular. Lately he has been reading aloud Five Weeks in a Balloon to me while I wash the nightly dishes. I had never read it before because it was not readily available when I was young. (This was back in the Pleistocene, dear children, before one could read obscure works on Project Gutenberg or order them online from used booksellers.

Though his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon already has the hallmarks of Verne's more well known works: a scientifically ingenious apparatus, stalwart comrades, personal bravery, a loyal servant (who also provides comic relief), exotic scenery, and exciting adventure. The story concerns Dr. Ferguson, an Englishman, his faithful servant Joe, and his Scottish friend Kennedy, who have set out in hot-air balloon to cross the continent of Africa. Dr. Ferguson has invented a new apparatus which eliminates the need to either release gas or to drop ballast in order to control the balloon's altitude thus allowing longer balloon voyages than have hitherto been possible. It's a jolly good adventure story.

At various points in their journey, our heroes rescue a Catholic missionary about to be killed by hostile natives, nearly die of thirst while becalmed in a desert, are attacked by condors, are mistaken for gods by credulous natives, and discover a gold deposit from which they are unable to profit since its untold wealth is much too heavy for them to cart away in their balloon. Not to mention the incendiary pigeons! And throughout the novel, the exotic flora and fauna of Africa are breathtakingly described. (Well, I suppose it was breathtaking to the Frenchmen reading the novel when it first came out.) Towards the end, the balloon begins to suffer technical difficulties and sinks lower and lower. Unless Dr. Ferguson can think of a remedy, our heroes will either be permanently stranded in the wilds of Africa, or will fall into the clutches of the fierce horsemen who are currently pursuing them. Whew!

(N.B. Modern readers may be surprised at Kennedy's enthusiasm for shooting big game as well as the author's depiction of non-Europeans as being fierce, primitive, and superstitious. I did not find this to be a problem because when I travel in time, I Expect Things To Be Different.)

As a follow-up to this novel, I am now reading Around the World in Seventy-two Days by Nellie Bly, an American journalist who set out to beat Phileas Fogg at his own game. (Fogg was the hero of Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.

When Bly originally proposed this stunt to her editor she was turned down.

"It is impossible for you to do it," was the terrible verdict. "In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. . . . so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this."

"Very well," I said angrily, "Start the man, and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him."

A year later her editor gave her the go-ahead -- but with only one day's notice! Despite his skepticism, she was she able to beat Fogg's travel record, and she was able to shop and pack for the trip in less than a day. This was quite a feat when you consider that when she began shopping for her traveling dress at 11:00 in the morning, it was still just a length of fabric. By 5:00, and two fittings later, it was complete. She confined her baggage to a single piece of hand luggage.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one's ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.

. . . Over my arm I carried a silk waterproof, the only provision I made against rainy weather. After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage. At every port where I stopped at I could have bought anything from a ready-made dress down . . . .
Well, I found all of these details fascinating. It's the sort of thing a male writer wouldn't have mentioned. I was also interested in reading about the challenges she faced as a woman traveling alone. And I very much enjoyed reading about her brief visit with Jules Verne and his wife as she passed through France. Both of them were very gracious to her despite the language barrier.

Through her translator she asked how he came to write his novel.
"I got it from a newspaper," was his reply. "I took up a copy of Le SiƩcle one morning, and found in it a discussion and some calculations showing that the journey around the world might be done in eighty days. The idea pleased me, and while thinking it over it struck me that in their calculations they had not called into account the difference in the meridians and I thought what a denouement such a thing would make in a novel, so I went to work to write one. Had it not been for the denouement I don't think that I should ever have written the book."
I'm enjoying Nellie Bly's book, but I wish I had a real copy of it. Like Nellie Bly, I prefer to travel light.

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