Jules Verne: From Failed Stockbroker to Father of Science Fiction
“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” (A Journey To The Center Of The Earth)
Recently I wrote about 15 Fascinating Legal Late Bloomers — folks who detoured to law school before following their magnificent creative impulse.
Turns out I missed one.
Believe it or not, Jules Verne (1828-1905) graduated from law school, then bombed at writing comic operas. By age 29, he gave up theater and became a stockbroker.
Yet today we know him as the author of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and Around The World In 80 Days (links to free books).
How did Verne transform himself from failed playwright to stockbroker to father of science fiction?
Dramatist and Stockbroker
Jules Gabriel Verne was born in the beautiful Loire River town of Nantes, France. From the window of his family’s summer house, he watched schooners and clipper ships arrive from their exotic ports of call, which gave him a life-long yearning for faraway places.
Beautiful Nantes in the 1890s
His father, Pierre, was a wealthy lawyer who wanted Verne to follow in his footsteps. Jules left for Paris at 19 to study law.
But he fell in with an artsy uncle who introduced him to Paris’s theaters and literary salons. Verne met Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers), who encouraged him to write. Dumas even premiered Verne’s first play at the Lyric Theatre, which he owned.
Verne graduated from law school at 22 and informed his father he had no intention of practicing. Pierre promptly cut off his allowance.
Dumas hired Verne to act as the Lyric’s secretary for a nominal stipend. For the next eight years, Verne wrote almost two dozen plays and operettas. Only a few got produced and none made him enough money to live on.
At 29, he fell in love with Honorine de Viane, a young widow. They wanted to marry, but he couldn’t support her. So Honorine’s brother got Verne a job as a stockbroker and the two wed.
Honorine encouraged her husband to continue writing. Verne rose at 5 am and wrote for five hours most days before going to the exchange. Burnt out on theater, he started experimenting with different forms and genres.
At age 35, Verne met Victor Hugo’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel published Verne’s story “Five Weeks In A Balloon.” It didn’t do well, but Hetzel loved the concept.
Hertzel and Verne then conceived a whole series of “Voyages Extraordinaires.” Hetzel contracted Verne to write two stories a year, and guided him toward more popular offerings. From their 20-year collaboration came our most-beloved early science fiction and fantasy stories.
Fame and Tragedy
By the time Verne turned 43, he was a wealthy man and a chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honor. He’d just published 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in two volumes.
But his life took a tragic turn at the height of his success. His father died the same year. The two never reconciled.
Verne’s only son Michel, born in 1861, was a trial. At 19, Michel eloped with an older actress, then abandoned her for an underage girl. One year, Verne cleared Michel’s gambling debts to the tune of U.S. $60,000 in today’s currency.
When Verne was 58, his nephew Gaston shot him in the leg. The wound never healed, and he limped for the rest of his life. The Verne family hid the incident from the press and had Gaston committed. No one has put forth an explanation for Gaston’s behavior other than “insanity.”
(Although one biographer believes Gaston might have been Verne’s son, not his nephew. Tantalizing, but no proof. Gaston’s motive remains a mystery.)
Pierre-Jules Hetzel passed away a week after the shooting.Verne lost both a publisher and a dear friend. But Verne and his son reconciled through these tragedies, and even collaborated on a few projects.
Verne wrote prolifically until his death at age 77, and Michel finished several of his novels posthumously.
Science and Fiction
Most people regard Verne as an astonishing visionary. Just how many of our modern marvels did he foresee?
National Geographic summarizes 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True. They include
- electric submarines
- solar sails
- lunar modules
But Rosalind Williams, historian of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, doesn’t find Verne’s prophecies so revolutionary:
“He predicted a lot of things that have happened, but that’s because he was reading a lot and talking with people and he knew what was going on in the world around him, so why should we be surprised?
“It wasn’t magic. He was just paying attention to things.”
In 1989, Verne’s great-grandson discovered a lost manuscript entitled Paris In The 20th Century.
The story describes fax machines, global communications, high-speed trains, cars powered by gasoline, and skyscrapers made of glass and steel. But, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “…as the book’s protagonist discovers, not even the most talented poet can find a place for himself unless he’s willing to produce odes to blast furnaces or locomotives.”
Paris In The 20th Century was Verne’s second novel, but Hetzel rejected it as too dark. He published Journey To The Center Of The Earth instead, and ironically steered Verne toward offerings that would appeal to 19th-century masses.
In his 20s, Jules Verne broke away from his bourgeois upbringing and spent ten years following his passion for the theater. In his 30s, he became a stockbroker to support his family, but never abandoned his love of drama and storytelling.
His path to later blooming was a series of stops and starts and useful mistakes, which little by little lead to the truth.
What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Jules Verne
“The chance which now seems lost may present itself at the last moment.”
(Around The World In Eighty Days)
- Jules Verne reminds us to keep the fire alive, even while duty calls, by paying attention and practicing daily. You never know when that chance will come!
- Later blooming is a spiral process, not a linear one. What useful mistake have you made that lead to the next level?
So, do you think Jules Verne was a visionary or just an observant guy? Join other Later Bloomers on my Facebook page.
Jules Verne FAQ
The Works of Jules Verne: all 85 listed with short descriptions
Much of Jules Verne’s work is in the public domain. Read him at Project Gutenberg or through Amazon Kindle.