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Rhonda Valentine Dixon

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

I’ve always believed Jules Verne to be a writer of science fiction, a genre that I’ve not rushed out to buy, although I’ve never minded the odd sci-fi television show. So here I am in middle age, reading my first Verne classic. I now know that Verne is known as ‘the father of science fiction’. His many books, written in the mid to late 19th Century, feature extraordinary machines – aeroplanes, spacecraft and submarines – that man hasn’t yet invented. Verne’s amazing imagination provides a blueprint for the future.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this book; certainly, a trip – with some sci-fi perhaps? However, Verne’s many other works feature the sci-fi content whereas Around the World in 80 Days concentrates on real-life situations. There is a journey of course, prompted by a wager between the wealthy protagonist and his friends at their gentlemen’s club in London. A contemporary news article prompts the wager. The newspaper reports that with the opening of a new railway in India, it is now possible to circumnavigate the world in eighty days. The book’s protagonist, Phileas Fogg, runs his life with mathematical precision and has already determined, through careful planning, that he can successfully complete the journey in eighty days. The bet is waged, and he takes off – accompanied by his new manservant, a Frenchman named Passepartout. At the same time, it is believed by the local constabulary that a bank has been robbed and that the eccentric Englishman carrying a carpetbag filled with cash (for his use on the journey), is the robber.
The novel then documents the exploits of the gentleman and his servant and the pursuit of them by a detective determined to apprehend Fogg with the loot in hand.
Considerable research has gone into many incidents the story highlights. This gives the tale appreciable authenticity. For example, while travelling through India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a woman from a funeral pyre upon which she is placed to burn with her deceased husband. Though ‘suttee’ has been punishable by law since the early 19th Century, adherents to its application do still emerge from time to time and Verne’s employment of the practice in his tale provides for robust character development and an exciting episode within the story. I’d always wondered how women allowed this awful custom to happen. Verne speaks of the alternative as the prospect of a woman’s hair being cut off and of her being starved and ousted by her family. This apparently proves to be enough incentive for most women to embrace the old Hindu custom. In fact, the hair-cutting and banishment from all that a woman has known prevail over religious fanaticism or any love and respect a woman might have for her deceased husband. Verne also provides a reason as to how the woman could allow it. Quite simply, in this instance, she doesn’t. She’s drugged by men, with hemp and opium. She’s in such a stupor that she cannot stand, let alone escape.
Verne clearly drew from his life experiences. He had owned a ship himself so his descriptions of the ocean-going leg of his protagonist’s voyage, which presented the travellers with counter-currents, great squalls and capricious weather changes, must surely have been taken from personal experience. Verne gave Fogg a strength of character that would ensure that rather than being alarmed by the prospect of a typhoon at sea, he would be enthusiastic. Fogg’s thinking was not of personal fear, but that the tempest would propel his boat in the very direction he needed to go.
The unexpected separations the central characters experience, the customs, norms and differences of the countries and nationalities they encounter and the extraordinary occurrences in which they participate, swiftly propel the story forward. This book must have whetted the appetite of many a dreamer who desired travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s a jolly good yarn. I really like it and I feel I’m ready, now, for some of Verne’s more fanciful work.
Rhonda Valentine Dixon

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