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20,000 leagues under the sea


"Ah, my dear Hetzel, if I missed this book, I would not console myself. I have never had a more beautiful topic in my hands".

So says Jules Verne in a letter written to his friend and publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, on 28 March 1868.

While writing one of his masterpieces, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the author drew his inspiration from the Bay of the Somme, where he had taken up residence, to deliver a lavish novelistic fresco that was destined for lasting and universal success.

Written in the first person, the book is presented as the diary of the adventures of its narrator, Pierre Aronnax. A rational scientist, he nevertheless succumbs to the charisma of the elusive Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, "the ship par excellence". An ode to technical prowess and the spirit of adventure, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is also "the true book of the sea", a world so dear to its author.

On the strength of his recent success, Verne decided to settle in Amiens, "a wise, polite, even-tempered city", where he could enjoy the peace and quiet necessary for his incessant writing. He lived there until his death in 1905. The imprint of this novel is still strong today in the author's adopted city. The names of Nemo, Nautilus or Aronnax ring in the ears of its inhabitants every day.

The Musée de Picardie offers a tribute to this monument of literature around its manuscript, exceptionally loaned by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, taking up Captain Nemo's invitation to "travel to Wonderland".




8 February 1828: Jules Verne is born in Nantes

1848 : Jules Verne prepares for his law exams in Paris, where he meets Alexandre Dumas, who steers him towards literature

1856 : At a friend's wedding in Amiens, Verne meets the bride's sister, a young widow, Honorine, whom he falls in love with and marries in 1857

1862 : The publisher Hetzel agrees to publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon

1864 : Publication of Journey to the Centre of the Earth

1865 : Publication of From the Earth to the Moon

1865-70 : Seasonal settlement in Le Crotoy and purchase of the boat Saint-Michel

1867-68 : Publication of the novel In Search of the Castaways

1866-1869 : Writes Twenty thousand leagues under the sea

1871: Moves to Amiens

1875 : Publication of The Mysterious Island, which features Captain Nemo

24 March 1905 : Jules Verne dies in Amiens


I. Jules Verne, the sea and the bay

In 1865, Jules Verne discovered Le Crotoy, where he came for a few weeks to be cured. He liked the little port and, from then on, he and his family rented a villa to come back to every summer. It was in Le Crotoy, in September 1865, that he began writing Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a novel enriched by the impressions he had gathered from his contact with the sea, talking to sailors or sailing aboard a boat he had bought, the Saint-Michel. A writing tablet enabled him to work anywhere, on the beach or on a boat.
The Saint-Michel was a fishing boat, of the type used daily by the fishermen of Le Crotoy. Verne had the boat transformed so that it could take on the high seas. He sailed it up and down the English Channel and even reached the English coast.
In March 1869, Verne thought of leaving Paris and moving to Le Crotoy, to a slightly larger house in the rue Jeanne d'Arc (now the Quai Léonard), where he had work carried out.
After this first boat came the Saint-Michel II and above all the Saint-Michel III, a yacht that took the novelist on long cruises in the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Jules Verne would not give up the sea until after an accident that crippled him from 1886 onwards.


II. Writing the novel

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was born in 1865 from a robinsonnade project and a letter from George Sand, who suggested that Jules Verne turn to the depths of the sea. The French were interested by the idea, and numerous publications presented the fauna, flora and mysteries of the seas. The 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris gave pride of place to the deep sea, presented in giant aquariums, as well as to the means of discovering it : submarines and diving suits.
Armed with a wealth of documentation, both from what he had read and from what he had seen, the novelist set about writing, talking to his publisher Hetzel in person or by correspondence. This novel was written as close as possible to the sea that inspired Jules Verne, whether at Le Crotoy or on board his ship.
The character of Nemo evolves as the novel progresses: he is a rebel who has fled society, but he is also altruistic, learned and keen to pass on his knowledge, and above all a mysterious being who disappears at the end of the novel without having revealed his identity or the precise reasons for his vengeance. The novel took four years to write, as evidenced by the manuscript and letters exchanged between Jules Verne and Hetzel. Its publication was somewhat disrupted by the war of 1870, but this did not prevent it from becoming a success.


III. From idea to manuscript

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was born of the influence of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe on Jules Verne. In September 1865, he told his publisher : "I'm dreaming of a magnificent Robinson. I absolutely must write one, I can't control myself. Superb ideas come to me".

Then the project evolved and, in a way, split into two: the Robinson story was left aside (and became The Mysterious Island in 1875) and, in June 1867, the idea of a character who would be separated from the rest of the world because the sea provided him with everything was born. This would be Nemo in his Nautilus. But on reading the manuscript, Hetzel was disappointed: he felt that the story lacked romance and invited the author to rework it. It took him almost two years to develop the character of Nemo.
Jules Verne was aware that readers had to be given the reason why this character isolated himself from humanity. He imagined him as an outcast who had had to leave his country, who had suffered and whose loved ones had been killed. Revenge is his driving force. The idea was to make Nemo a Pole who had taken part in the revolt in his Russian-occupied country and had to flee. But for commercial reasons, the publisher Hetzel rejected the idea. In the end, the author and publisher agreed to leave Captain Nemo a mystery.


IV. Characters and plot

In 1866, three shipwrecked members of a scientific expedition, the French scientist Aronnax, a professor at the Paris Natural History Museum, his Flemish servant Conseil (named after the inventor of a semi-submersible boat) and the Canadian harpooner Ned Land, are rescued and held prisoner on the Nautilus by Captain Nemo and his crew. Nemo, who hides his true identity under the nickname "Nobody", taken from an episode in the Odyssey, is an ambiguous hero: a "genius of the seas", a man of culture, a musician, compassionate towards the poor and oppressed, he lives on the fringes of society, driven by an inexplicable desire for vengeance and capable of extreme violence. A mysterious character (we have to wait for The Mysterious Island to find out about his origins), Nemo defies human laws but respects and loves the sea, a place of freedom, and the underwater world, a "wonderland". The year-long underwater world tour of the Nautilus gives his guests the chance to travel the oceans with him, admiring the flora and fauna, confronting monsters and discovering buried cities and treasures. In this way, Verne wrote "the true book of the sea", a project he lent to Aronnax.


V. The Nautilus itinerary

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is subtitled "A World Tour Underwater". As Nemo said to Aronnax, whom he welcomed aboard his Nautilus, "You are about to travel to Wonderland". The itinerary he followed led the submarine's passengers to contemplate a wide variety of landscapes.

Nemo picked up Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land in the south of Japan, then took them to the Pacific Ocean where they went on an underwater hunt near Crespo Island, before passing the Pomotou and Viti archipelagos. After rounding Australia, she invites her passengers to discover the coral kingdom around Indonesia, then Ceylon. Up the Red Sea, the Nautilus arrives in the Mediterranean, skirting the Greek archipelago and passing through the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the Atlantic Ocean. After visiting the ruins of Atlantis, Nemo headed for the South Pole, which he reached and where he planted his flag. Heading north, he skirted Martinique, fought octopus and found the wreck of the Vengeur along the English coast. Shortly afterwards, he rammed a warship from an unknown nation. He heads up the English Channel and finds himself drawn into the whirlpools of the Maelström of Norway. Aronnax and his companions take advantage of this to escape, leaving the submarine and its crew to an uncertain fate.


VI. The ocean between science and reverie

The specifications imposed on Verne by his publisher were scientific: "to summarise all the geographical, geological, physical and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science" (Foreword to Captain Hatteras' Voyages and Adventures, 1866). Verne researched the world of the sea in magazines (World Tour, Magasin Pittoresque, Bulletin of the Geographical Society) and in various popularised books. Aronnax was the embodiment of science, and his forced circumnavigation of the globe was punctuated by precise geographical and topographical surveys. From an encyclopaedic point of view, Verne produced abundant lists of fish and shellfish. However, his depiction of the ocean goes far beyond the limits of science. The descriptions open up the secrets of the sea, giving way to underwater forests, the kingdom of coral, mythical Atlantis and extraordinary monsters such as the squid "of colossal dimensions", which the sailors engage in an epic battle. The enumeration of fish and shellfish is far removed from realism, in favour of assonance, alliteration and the poetic interplay of sounds. The sea, "vehicle of a supernatural and prodigious existence", "movement and love", "living infinity", is in line with The Sea by Michelet and Toilers of the Sea by Hugo, foreshadowing Rimbaud's "Then I bathed in the Poem of the Sea, Infused with stars, the milk-white spume blends" in The Drunken Boat.


VII. Reception and posterity of the novel

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of Verne's bestsellers. It was well received by its contemporaries, reprinted several times and adapted for the stage, and was immediately translated into a number of foreign languages. It was also made into comic strips and graphic novels, and manga are evidence of the interest shown in it in Japan. But its influence extends far beyond the circle of readers. Adapted from the earliest days of cinema, from the 1950s onwards it gave rise to numerous films, TV movies and cartoons. Since the end of the 19th century, the Nautilus and the adventures of Captain Nemo have been popularised by the creation of derivative objects, from models of the submarine to various everyday objects, right up to the recent "escape games" and video games. Many restaurants, bars and nightclubs today bear the name of the Captain or the Nautilus, reflecting the way in which popular culture and the media have appropriated Verne and his main hero. Nemo also occupies public space. In 2005, he was featured in a group of sculptures by Élisabeth Cibot, raised in Nantes; the same year, a sculpture by José Molares representing him was installed in the bay of Vigo (Galicia). François Schuiten's Nauti-poulpe will soon be installed in Amiens.


VIII. A film novel

Verne, who died in 1905, was a contemporary of the beginnings of cinema, although he did not mention it in his novels. His son Michel, on the other hand, was aware of the visual potential of his works, and in 1912 set up the company Le Film Jules Verne to adapt his most famous novels. The history of Verne adaptations goes hand in hand with that of special effects in cinema. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has inspired cinema since Wallace McCutcheon's short film (1905) and the silent films by Méliès (1907) and Paton (1916): Paton's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first film to introduce underwater shots thanks to the Williamson photosphere, a kind of magic lantern capable of descending several dozen metres underwater. Disney got hold of the novel in 1954, confirming its popular appeal. This has continued to be the case in more recent adaptations. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is also the starting point for animated films, such as Karel Zeman's The Stolen Airship (1967, essentially inspired by Two Years' Holiday but featuring Captain Nemo and the Nautilus) and Nadia, the Secret of Blue Water, a 39-episode season created in Japan in 1990 by Hideaki Anno. From the United States to Japan, via various European countries, the whole world has taken hold of the Nautilus. In 2022, Disney announced a new series entitled "Nautilus" for the Disney Plus platform.


IX. Picardy puppets and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Puppet theatre enjoyed its heyday in the second half of the 19th century in Amiens. Numerous theatres put on shows combining classical repertoire and buffoonery, with the character of Lafleur taking centre stage. The programming of the cabaret theatres reflected that of the Municipal Theatre, itself influenced by the Parisian stages. Among the performances given to the public, the adaptations of Jules Verne's novels were particularly successful. Around the World in Eighty Days or Michel Strogoff were quickly performed in Amiens, probably in front of their author, who was a regular spectator, and then revived by puppeteers at the Bouffes-Picards theatre, the Grandes Galères theatre and the Folies dramatiques theatre.

After a pause during the First World War, the Picardy puppet tradition was revived between the 1930s and 1960s. While the authors once again drew on the Vernien repertoire, the plays were heavily reworked and tended to echo the world of the famous writer.


X. 20,000 leagues under the sea at the House of Jules Verne

Amiens is home to the house where Jules Verne lived with his family from 1882 to 1900. This fine bourgeois residence, recognisable by its tower decorated with an armillary sphere designed by François Schuiten, is located at 2, rue Charles Dubois, on the edge of the Henriville neighbourhood. Acquired by the City of Amiens in 1980, it is now a visitor centre dedicated to the famous writer.

To coincide with the exhibition devoted by the Musée de Picardie to the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the “Maison de Jules Verne” is displaying a number of objects and documents illustrating the incredible fame that this work has enjoyed over the years. From collectors' items (coins, medals and stamps) to models of the Nautilus, from comic strips to a wide range of derivative objects (board games, plates, pens and even ties!), this presentation highlights the unique place that this book and its author have held in popular culture.


Maison de Jules Verne

2 rue Charles Dubois

Open every day except Tuesday, from 10am to 12.30pm and from 2pm to 6pm.

Tours fleurs © Samuel Crampon