Revisiting favourites

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, March 16, 2009 ,

One of Tory Historian’s favourite childhood writer was Jules Verne with “Around the World in Eighty Days” being one of the most cherished and frequently re-read books. However entertaining and glamorous the film was with David Niven in the main part, it could never live up to the splendour of the book.

Imagine Tory Historian’s excitement at finding a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of this wondrous novel in a charity shop. £1.99 was quickly handed over that book brought home to be read with delight.

Ahem, there seems to be something wrong here. When did somebody get hold of the novel and slip in completely idiotic things about English customs?

One of the curious things about Jules Verne is the frequency with which he makes Englishmen (sometimes Scotsmen) or Americans his heroes and, conversely, Frenchmen the entertaining secondary characters. He makes gentle fun of the heroes as well but clearly perceives them as the can-do people that he so admires, who are so in tune with the modern world. (Though Brian Aldiss’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition insists that M Verne, like H. G. Wells, eventually lost faith in technological advance and, indeed, became horrified by its possibilities. In Tory Historian’s opinion that case remains unproven.)

The hero of “Around the World in Eighty Days”, as every school child knows, is the unflappable and rather mysterious Englishman, Phileas Fogg, whose past is never quite explained but there is some indication that he must have made his money by being master of some merchant vessel. There is double praise there – not only is he completely unflappable but adventurous, he is also a practical man, something that Mr Aldiss does not mention in his introduction, preferring to dwell extensively on the alleged rather distasteful importance of money.

The first three chapters of the novel remained in Tory Historian’s memory as among the most delightful ones – the description of Mr Fogg’s life in Savile Row, the arrival of Passepartout (one of those charming comical Frenchmen, Verne was so fond of) and the time passed in the Reform Club before the fateful card game and bet.

Many of the memories proved to be accurate on re-reading, though Tory Historian had forgotten the detail that Mr Fogg was supposed to live in the house once occupied by the great Sheridan. (Actually, the number is wrong but that is a minor detail.)

The number of steps taken by Phileas Fogg by his right foot (575) and his left foot (576) to reach the steps of the Reform Club may or may not be correct. Verne visited England only once and very briefly so he is unlikely to have counted out those steps, but the image is a delight.

Then we get inside the Club and we have trouble. Tory Historian did vaguely recall that the description of the food was somewhat less than appetizing for when it came to gastronomy, Jules Verne had no opinion of the British or the Americans.

For all of that, the description of Phileas Fogg’s day until he sits down to play whist with his acquaintances (he has no friends, of course) is rum, to put it mildly:

Mr Fogg leaves his house at half past eleven and, we must assume, arrives at the Reform Club around quarter to twelve.

Phileas Fogg went immediately to the dining-room, with its nine windows opening on to an attractive garden with trees that had already turned an autumn brown. There he sat down at his usual table where his place was already set. His lunch consisted of a starter, followed by poached fish served with a first-rate Reading sauce, a blood-red steak accompanied by mushroom ketchup, a rhubarb and gooseberry pie and a slice of Cheshire cheese, all of which was washed down by several cups of tea, an excellent variety that had been specially picked for the
pantry of the Reform Club.

At forty-seven minutes past midday, the gentleman got up and walked over to the main drawing-room a magnificent place decorated with richly framed paintings. There a servant handed him an uncut copy of The Times, which Phileas Fogg proceeded to carefully unfold with a skilfulness that demonstrated a considerable familiarity with this delicate operation. Phileas Fogg continued reading this newspaper until three forty-five, followed it with the Standard, which took him up to dinner. The meal followed the same pattern as lunch, except for the addition of “Royal British

At twenty to six the gentleman appeared again the main drawing-room and engrossed himself in the Morning Chronicle.
Half an hour later his whist-playing companions appear and the plot begins to unfold.

Well now. What Tory Historian recalls from childhood reading, apart from the reference to the poached fish, which somehow remained in the memory, is the astonishment that anybody can pass days like that. In any case, the subsequent card game, discussion and bet drive the description of Mr Fogg’s behaviour out of the reader’s mind.

Let us look at it a little more carefully. All those sauces are Jules Verne’s joke at the expense of the blandness of English food. But why does Mr Fogg eat lunch at such an unearthly hour? Is it because the equivalent word in French is déjeuner, a midday meal, which is really a second breakfast, the first one being petit déjeuner? That would account for the peculiar idea of a solid meal being washed down by cups and cups of tea, however excellent it might be.

Even more peculiar is the fact that Mr Fogg seems to have dinner at around twenty to five, not really the habit in the better classes of London by 1870 when the book was written. Whatever happened to tea? And why does Mr Fogg wash his extremely solid dinner down with tea? We are not talking about the homely habits of a train driver or a factory foreman.

Most peculiar. There is no need even to enquire why the man eats rhubarb and gooseberry pies in the autumn. That Jules Verne should have known as gooseberry certainly is eaten in France but much earlier in the year.

So what is Tory Historian to do? Persevere and risk further disappointments as well as, possibly finding some forgotten gems or retreat into the happy memories of a much-loved book?


  1. Major Major Says:
  2. When Verne gets to l'Amerique he goes off les rails, too.

    He has a volcano in North Carolina and politically, a U.S. national police force (Master of the World). He has couples being married in Virginia according to the French civil marriage service (The Chase of the Golden Meteor). He has a city with an entire independent army in Oregon (The Begum's Millions).

    Of course, in that last one, he also has a baronetcy being granted by the Indian government and inherited by a descendant of the original grantee's sister . . .

    Joseph T Major

  3. I have been told by American friends that the beginning of "From Earth to the Moon", which I read with great pleasure, is accurate.

    Americans crop up in other novels: "Mysterious Island", "Adventures of Captain Hatteras" and a few more. Then there is "North against South". Great adventure story but don't know how accurate it is.

  4. Major Major Says:
  5. Oh did I mention the 600-foot hill in Florida in From the Earth to the Moon?

    There is a science fiction club in Tampa. They observe that the location given for "Stone's-Hill" is flat. Sigh.

    Mysterious Island has the "governor of Richmond" building a balloon to communicate with General Lee. That would have entailed an hour's ride down to the Petersburg siege lines. Evidently Verne was thinking of the siege of Paris.

    No, he was very imaginative, but let it do for research sometimes.

  6. Oh dear. Well, maybe one should not bother to re-read and keep one's memories of those exciting adventures.

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