Backwards to Britain is a time-bomb. It proves that Verne is not a science fiction author; it reveals the poetic and literary sensibilities of his writing; and it shows that Scotland was always his first love.
The author of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days still has an image problem in Britain. The best-selling novelist of all time is now recognised on the continent as authentic, mainstream literature. Thirty or so books have been written studying the Extraordinary Journeys, plus a good score of doctorates. Twenty-two miles away, the world's most translated writer remains an invisible man. Condescension or sub-Disney fantasising constitute "Djoolsvurn’s" lot in this tight little island.
It seems a little curious, then, that Verne's style and vision should have been formed in part by his experiences in Britain. Curiouser still, on reading the first book he wrote. Composed in his early thirties, this is no preparation for greater things; but springs forth fully-formed, an artistic achievement in its own right. The book constitutes an artistic manifesto, an inverted palimpsest of the whole Extraordinary Journeys.
Verne was proud of his Scots ancestry. His mother's maiden name, Allotte de la Fuÿe, came from an archer, Allott, who joined Louis XI's Scottish Guard, earning the aristocratic prerogative of keeping a `fuie' (`dovecote'), plus a `de' in his name. Verne's first novel was set in Empire territory, the second one appeared as The British at the North Pole (1864), and a score of others had British heroes. The Scottish settings of The Child of the Cavern (1877) and The Green Ray (1882) were about as close to home as his exotism-seeking ever got.
Voyage en Angleterre et en Ecosse is a lightly fictionalised account of Verne's first trip outside France, in 1859. It was rejected, however, by his publisher Hetzel in favour of the more topical Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863): a genre that Verne was never able to escape. It appeared only in 1989, the last of Verne's complete prose works to be published.
The volume starts by viewing Scotland in late-Romantic mode, as the centre of the dreams of `Jacques' and `Jonathan' (Verne and his friend Hignard). After waiting impatiently in France for over a fortnight, the two travel to Liverpool. They disembark to shocking, Dickensian conditions, including child prostitution. Following a virtuoso description of the docks, they travel on to Edinburgh.
They awake to Arthur's Seat and medieval ten-storey houses. Jacques claims never to have seen a `mountain' or a `lake' before and is completely bowled over by `the terrible poetry of old Scotland'. From this point on, a litany of architecture, literature, food and ale flows from his amazed pen. The counter-weighted windows, the pretentious banks, the fetid slums, the broad avenue up the Queen's Park; verdant cemeteries and exotic botanical gardens, a royal `pleasure-château' and the New Town with its arched `bridges' to the front doors. A whole new world.
Verne falls for a local lass, Amelia; on her advice they sail up the Forth towards Stirling, Glasgow and Loch Katrine. They discover a landscape that is history, with its `savage, melancholy and plaintive' nature, its `sublime beauties', its people full of `abnegation and devotion'.
Many of the major Vernian themes are already visible: the haunting music, the technology–literature link — Scott and Watt's statues are interchangeable — the `sinuosities' of Loch Lomond, hiding-place for untold mysteries; and above all the dream of the North, the root of Captain Hatteras's Polar suicide and of the lines-on-a-map generation of half-a-dozen novels. The savage grandeur of the Falls of Oversnaid prefigures that of Fingal's Cave in The Green Ray, the Greenwich Footway Tunnel strangely resembles the route from Iceland down towards the centre of the Earth, and the fine canvases and comfortable toilets in a windswept Fife wilderness brilliantly anticipate Nemo's salon with its perfect plumbing amidst the raging depths.
Verne's northern urge is abruptly curtailed after only a day in the Highlands. Each successive stage of the departure, Mary, Queen of Scots-style, breaks his heart. After Linlithgow Castle, the Pentlands and the Water of Leith, an overnight journey to London and consolation in the imperial monuments and a performance of Macbeth. Paris, concludes Verne, is where `the real journey begins, for imagination will now be our guide, and we will travel only in our memories'.
Backwards to Britain is a young man's work, full of humorous exaggeration and enthusiasm — even if melancholy, decay, murder and suicide also abound. It reveals the fascination with travel that is Verne's fundamental driving force. It also forms a hymn to Walter Scott, with each successive town, loch and hillside coloured by The Heart of Midlothian or Rob Roy.
Verne clearly anticipated the threat of tourism, in his hell-is-other-people descent to London, but also in casual remarks like the trippers' `exogenous crinolines': over-sized and foreign to the sober Highland spirit. Trains are appreciated when they fit into the landscape, contributing to the gothic romanticism of the Border Country. But they autocratically cut across the London skyline, and they move too quickly for the Queen to be more than a blur or for the Crystal Palace even to be named.
Ben Lomond constitutes the true hero of the book, mentioned on page one and repeatedly thereafter. And the Forth is its handmaiden, River and Firth, faithfully guiding the two friends through the countryside. Every water-course in the following books will imitate its combination of purposeful direction and open-sea freedom; and every subsequent mountain will have to have its own pet stream, even if only of boiling lava.
But it is not as if Verne stays within the conventional limits of mid-nineteenth-century travel writing. He slips in literary devices that seem more typical of later writing, with in particular a frequent self-reference or self-reproduction. The number of reflexive verbs in sone sign of a self-regarding tendency, a self-absorbed introversion. Thus many anagrams of the word `verne' appear in the French text ("ventru", "nervures" and "vernis"), and, more generally, there are many written documents within Verne's own text. Both devices surreptitiously refer back to the status of the text as text and therefore point to the author, constituting a discrete `self-reference' that will be visible in many experimental writers of the twentieth century. The text thus cannibalistically reproduces itself - just as the prostitutes sell their own bodies and the island villagers of Trentemoult do nothing but intermarry.
Backwards to Britain is similarly governed by many persistent metaphors, especially those establishing eqivalences between machines and living beings. Thus trains whinny and bolt, and try to throw themselves off the rails. A ship beats its wings, groans and roars, is `out of breath, . . . has a weak chest'. Masts or industrial chimneys appear as bristling forests. One machine plays music on its own; and another will possibly serve as a device to automatically convert the natives of the South Seas.
The artificial and the natural, the biological and the mineral constantly switch places. Streets are tributaries for Verne, and architecture is in perpetual `efflorescence': mere stones are permanently springing to life. Buildings finish up `spreading themselves out, squaring their shoulders, or casually reclining'. As if to compensate, the land displays inviting cavities and rumps, and it is a `poetry of stones'. In Verne's imagination, mountains, although fleshless, have heads, feet and flanks, are kings. They kill trees, and these trees hang human beings. Humanity, in consequence, seems to be on the bottom rung of evolution: its members are described as mere `inert machines', their heads forming raging torrents of boulders.
The compulsive word-play also appears in the description of a railway in Liverpool as a "lacet enchevêtré" ("entangled lace" or "laces" but also "tousled" or "criss-crossing meanders"): linearity and networks, sensual curves and brutal straight lines. In these two words we get a glimpse of Verne’s view of the world.
In his discussion of the bowdlerisation of Shakespeare, Verne's text remarkably anticipates the mutilation and disfigurement he himself will be subjected to over the next century under the pretext of "translation": the same mutilation and disfigurement that are one of the major themes within Shakespeare's and Verne's texts!
The ultimate mechanical metaphor, sex, throbs everywhere in the text. Jacques frantically stabs with his compasses at the map of Scotland; and exploited seamstresses appear without petticoats and blouses. But the nameless activity is most interesting when re-metaphorised. In Verne, ships `couple in the middle of the river', and the already living steam-cranes are also steam-driven sluts (`grues à vapeur'). A tart has creamy plums hidden in its moist, golden sides, `loves are rinsed in gin and brandy', girls seem ripe for plucking, `bride' and `bread' are interchangeable, sandwich-men parade, freshly-guillotined heads lie like bloody roast-beef. Food seems to form an eminently satisfying substitute for sex, with a strong cannibalistic streak never far from the Vernian imagination. The French word "bassin" ("bowl", "dock" or "pelvis"), repeated in its various senses throughout the book, is a prime example of Verne's three-way puns, uniting the artificial with the natural, the earth with the water, the human with the land. Underneath the apparently simple text, then, there are all sorts of illicit goings-on.
In conclusion, Verne is much more complex than his reputation in Britain will allow. In particular, his literary devices serve to avoid some of the oppositions characteristic of his age. The Romantic vision of transcendental ideas and the Realist transcription of mere things, purplest passion and materialistic modernity are partly reconciled into Verne's distinctive `world-view'. So is the gulf between humanity and its environment, with man's dominance of nature abolished and the whole physical world brought exuberantly and animistically to life.
Verne's devices also help solve the problem of the writer. These hidden mechanisms enable him to comment indirectly on what he sees, without revealing his own vulnerability. The aim of both travel and adventure writing is in this way achieved: being both personal and impersonal, a semi-detached involvement, masking oneself behind one's own exposed viscera. Backwards to Britain, in sum, constitutes the author's artistic manifesto, a concise statement of intent for the whole of the next sixty years.
Verne's reputation somehow got misplaced at the beginning, due to literary snobbery and to the truncated, howler-full `translations'. As a result, this lost manuscript, this un-Hetzel-censored book, this truly Extraordinary Journey, has never before been published in English. The Count of the North has been in a third-class cattle-truck for well over a century now, obliviously riding to the Highlands under a pouring umbrella. But the time-capsule laid down in 1859 can now finally be opened.
Backwards to Britain will surely transform the conventional wisdom on Jules Verne.