Jules Verne: From Failed Stockbroker to Father of Science Fiction

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

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.

Nantes in the 1890s

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.

20,000 Leagues Under the SeaBut 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
  • newscasts
  • solar sails
  • lunar modules
  • videoconferencing

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.

Jules Verne’s Seeds for Late Bloomers

The chance which now seems lost may present itself at the last moment. (Around The World In Eighty Days)

  • 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? 

Hope you enjoyed this! I publish just two to four times per month, so please sign up to get posts by email, the 2014 Later Bloomer Calendar, news of the next Later Bloomers anthology, and random freebies. (Your email will never be shared.)

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Franklin

I love Later Bloomers. I’m in my 60s and am currently re-training myself as a writer and playwright (while still working as a communication consultant.) I’ve never really believed in or cared much about age — I think it is mostly social construct. I’ve always hated being pigeonholed or faced with age-based expectations. I’ve felt that way my whole life, at every age. I hated the book Passages! I adopted a kid at 65 and didn’t like when people said “Wow…at your age” Why do we ever limit our sense of who we are or what we can do? We should not! Your posts always make me feel great! Keep it up. Barbara

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Elle B.

Yay, Barbara! I agree with you. Age is a construct, something we’ve absorbed from a culture obsessed with youth, which doesn’t value the wisdom of elders like many have in the past. And don’t get me started on the concept of “retirement.” You’ve made my day. Thank so much for commenting!

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viviane

Love your blog Elle! We do not have an expiration date on our development and you give real life examples and how much folks can transform themselves in a life time.

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Elle B.

Thanks so much, Viviane. You’ve said it perfectly, “We do not have an expiration date on our development.” I might have to use that!

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Blair Sedgewick

I hadn’t heard this side of Jules Verne before. How interesting! I agree, it’s never too late to make a new start and begin a new path. Jules Verne was truly the founder of science fiction in my eyes. Funny how his journey to become who we know him for was not his plan from the beginning. I’ve always believed in this quote “find out who you are, and do it on purpose” – Dolly Parton

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Debra Eve

Thanks for stopping by, Blair. That’s a great quote by Dolly Parton. Your Syfy movie based on Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island looks phenomenal. I’ll be happy to help promote it to my readership if you have that sort of thing going.

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Louise Behiel

thanks so much for this series of blogs, Debra. As a fellow late bloomer it’s motivating to have this info at my fingertips and I look forward to your posts.
Louise Behiel recently posted..Child Abuse: Neglect

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Debra Eve

They’re a joy to write and research, Louise. Glad you like them!

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Fabio Bueno

I begun to read Jules Verne when I was 10. He’s one of my favorites authors ever, top 5, really. A genius and a visionary. I lived in his worlds.
I didn’t know he was a late bloomer, though. Thank you so much for shining a light on him, Debra!
(BTW, I like the concept of later blooming being a spiral process.)
Fabio Bueno recently posted..ROW80 Update 6 + Gratitude

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Fabio. Have to admit Verne’s one of my favorites, especially after his failed career as a comic opera writer. So many would have just given up then!

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David Stevens

What a tremendous offering Debra, always have loved the Jules Verne stories/movies. Very interesting past that you have divulged, thankyou
be good to yourself
David
David Stevens recently posted..Living Life Today – Have we lost “The Art of Happiness”?

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Debra Eve

Thanks, David. He’s an amazing individual. Glad you enjoyed it.

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florence fois

Now, I have found you !! I wanted to comment about Jules Vern and his amazing science fiction. There were few in history who have been noted as predicting the inventions as he did. I am partial to Journey to the Center of the Earth, but loved his great adventures and vision :)
florence fois recently posted..The Writer’s Life … Pot Holes

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Debra Eve

It is amazing when you think about it. There’s no doubt he was observant, but then his magnificent imagination took over. Thanks, Florence!

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August McLaughlin

Thanks for the informative post, Debra! You’re a savvy teacher. ;)
August McLaughlin recently posted..Special Announcement: Celebrate Beauty & Win Fab Prizes

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Debra Eve

My pleasure, as always, August!

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Marcy Kennedy

I have a feeling I’m not your target audience at all (since I’m only 30), but I love these posts. It’s so inspiring to hear about how some of these very successful people got to where they are. This was especially appealed to me since I’m a fantasy writer and grew up loving the stories of Jules Vern.
Marcy Kennedy recently posted..The Most Underestimated Key to Success from The Matrix

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Marcy. Only 30? You write with such talent and authority! Verne is one of my favorites too. I believe he truly was a visionary, not just an observant guy. I’m still waiting for a truly superb modern movie adaption of any of his works.

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Rachel Funk Heller

Debra, this is so funny as my husband is a lawyer, he loves to read science fiction and when we met, his on-line name was based on a Jules Verne character. Plus all of your posts give me — a very late bloomer — lots of hope. Keep up the good work.

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Rachel. That’s a fun set of coincidences! I’m so fascinated by how many creative late bloomers started as attorneys I wrote a post about it. Your husband might enjoy: http://www.laterbloomer.com/legal-late-bloomers

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Melinda VanLone

I love the comment “He was just paying attention”. Um, yes and that’s how most discoveries are made! That doesn’t make them any less visionary. HE noticed them, the rest of the masses didn’t. So easy to scoff in hindsight, isn’t it? One of those “I could have thought of that” type statements. Yes, but you didn’t, did you?!

I’m enjoying these posts, and I’m not going to comment on whether or not I’m in the target audience ;-). It’s inspiring, no matter what age you are. Thanks for sharing this!
Melinda VanLone recently posted..I Almost Got Shot Getting This Shot

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Debra Eve

Thank you, Melinda. I agree — that’s such a typical academic statement. As far as I’m concerned, my target audience is anyone who took a detour somewhere along the way :)

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