Jules Verne and Edinburgh

William Butcher

This title may seem suprising, linking as it does the Capital City with the author of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Mysterious Island and From the Earth to the Moon. It is not generally known that Scotland was considered by Jules Verne (1828-1905) to be his spiritual home, that it was the first foreign country he visited, and that it provided the setting for two of his novels. Indeed Scotland was "in his blood": the first part of Verne's mother's maiden name, Allotte de la Fue, came from a Scottish archer called Allott. He emigrated from Scotland in 1462 to join Louis XI's Scottish Guard, and did so well for himself that he earned the right to keep a "fuie", a dovecote, plus a "de" in his name. On his father's side, "verne" meant "alder" in Breton, and whether or not this was the real origin of the name, Jules Verne's birth and upbringing in Nantes in Britanny encouraged him to think it was, and to consider himself as a pure "Celt", and to identify with the at least 200 "Celtic" characters in his novels.

In 1859, four years before publishing his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne was living in cramped conditions in the Latin Quarter with his pregnant wife and two step-daughters, when a musician friend called Aristide Hignard invited him to come on a free trip to Britain. Verne was overjoyed; the two sailed to Edinburgh, Liverpool and London (where he saw the Great Eastern being built), and Verne wrote up in his notes as Voyage en Angleterre et en Ecosse ("Journey to England and Scotland").

The parts on Edinburgh are readily accessible, for Verne transcribed them, more or less wholesale, in the first of his Scottish novels, Les Indes Noires (1877), usually translated as Child of the Cavern. The Black Indies - a reference to England's "other" Empire, under the Scottish soil - is about a family living underground in a disused coalmine, the new seam they stumble on, mysterious acts of sabotage, and a girl called Nell they find who has never been above ground and who speaks only Gaelic (!). They try to re-educate her, obstructed by interventions of the "spirit" of the mine, who turns out to be her own grandfather, previously sacked from the mine. The original plan for the book was pure science fiction, involving a "parallel world" stretching under the whole of Britain and inhabited by the working class (twenty years before an identical idea in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine); but Verne's editor disliked the idea, and so he fell back on the theme of the exhaustion of energy sources, itself well ahead of its time.

The first chapter opens with a letter addressed to "Mr J.R. Starr, Engineer, 30 Canongate, Edinburgh", and describes Starr's journey to the mine, via Holyrood, the inn where Scott's Waverley stayed, the Prison with its sundial, John Knox's House, the Bridges, the "General Railway" Station, and Newhaven ("a pretty fishing village" with a chain pier), where he embarks on the Prince of Wales, sees the "snowy peaks of the Grampians" from Queensferry, lands at Crombie Point, and from there travels to Callander.

The action comes back to Edinburgh towards the end of the novel, for Nell's first experience above ground is to climb Arthur's Seat: after landing at Granton by night, the Child of the Cavern, her future husband and a chaperone (in real life "Miss Amelia", Verne and Hignard) go past Calton Hill with its Observatory and Monument to Nelson, along Regent Street, and then past the Canongate Church. Nell is introduced to the history of Scotland by seeing the Palace of Holyrood ("a large country-house which looked as if its feudal appearance had been maintained through some whim of its owner"), the Abbey of Holyrood, Salisbury Crags, and the road up the Queen's Park, which Sir Walter Scott claimed to have built "by writing a few lines in a novel".

At sunrise, Nell and her companions see the "green ray". This is not another science fiction idea, but, as Verne informs us, an effect caused by refraction of the rising sun, occurring over the sea in very clear conditions, and visible only to the pure in heart. (The Green Ray will be the title of his other Scottish novel, set in the West.) The whole of Edinburgh then becomes visible to Nell, "the newly built, carefully laid-out New Town, the higgledy-piggledy houses and labyrinthine streets of the Old Town. Two hills dominated Auld-Reekie, the Castle clinging to its basalt outcrop, and Calton Hill with the modern ruins of a Greek monument on its rounded brow. Magnificent tree-lined avenues spread outwards from the capital to the countryside. To the North, on the incision of the Firth of Forth, the Port of Leith could be seen. Even further, the harmonious shore of the County of Fife was spread out. A single road, as straight as the one to Piraeus, joined this Athens of the North to the Sea. To the West stretched the fine beaches of Newhaven and Portobello, with their yellow sand tinging the edge of the breakers. Further out, two or three steam-boats were sending furry cones of blackish smoke into-the sky (. . .)". The three then come down to earth with a hearty breakfast at "Lambret's Hotel"; and travel finally to Loch Lomond on the "Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway".

Although Verne's panorama strangely resembles a spread-out map, it can be concluded that he knows his Edinburgh well and that he loves all things Scottish. The interest accorded Scotland's Capital by one of her more famous great-grandchildren does honour to both writer and country, and, given the continuing importance of the Auld Alliance, deserves to be better known.