“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
Is 35 too young to be a “late” bloomer?
I use age 35 as a cutoff for these biographies because until very recently, adulthood came earlier. People often married, started a family, and embraced life-long vocations while still in their teens. With that much early responsibility, following an artistic passion after age 35 could be daunting (it still is), especially for those not born to wealth.
But money guarantees nothing if you buck the status quo, as Jules Verne (1828-1905) discovered. When Jules decided to pursue a theater career, his father disowned him. Unfortunately, Jules wasn’t a very good playwright, so he became a stockbroker to support his family.
How did he evolve from failed playwright to father of science fiction by age 35?
Stocks and Operas
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.
His father, Pierre, was a wealthy lawyer who wanted Jules to follow in his footsteps. At age 19, Verne left for Paris to study law.
But he fell in with an artsy uncle who introduced him to Paris’s theaters and literary salons. Jules met Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Three Musketeers author), who encouraged him to write. Dumas even premiered Verne’s play at his father’s Lyric Theatre.
Verne graduated from law school at 22 and informed his father he had no intention of joining the family business. “I can be a good writer,” he wrote, “whereas I would always be a bad lawyer…” Pierre promptly cut off his allowance.
Dumas convinced his father to hire Verne as the Lyric’s secretary. For the next eight years, Verne wrote almost two dozen plays and operettas, but the theater only produced a few, including The Companions of the Marjolaine and Blind Man’s Bluff (both around 1850). They didn’t do well.
At 29, Verne fell in love with Honorine de Viane, a young widow with two daughters. They wanted to marry, but her family rejected the penniless playwright. Honorine’s brother came through and secured a place for Verne on the Paris stock exchange. Pierre overcame his disappointment and helped Verne buy in. Honorine and Verne wed and, in 1861, their only child, Michel, was born.
Honorine supported her husband’s writing and encouraged him to branch out. Verne rose at 5 am and wrote for five hours most days before going to the exchange. He started experimenting with different forms and genres.
At age 35, Verne approached Victor Hugo’s publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, with an African adventure story called Five Weeks In A Balloon. Hetzel loved the concept and suggested some changes. The novel sold well. They’d created a promising new hybrid genre—adventure fiction combined with science and geography.
An urban legend relates that Verne’s resignation from the Paris stock exchange went: “My boys, I believe that I’m about to desert you. I had the kind of idea Emile Girardin says every man must have to make a fortune. I’ve just written a new kind of novel, and if it succeeds it will be an unexplored gold mine. In that case I’ll write more such books while you’re buying your stock. And I think I’ll earn the most money!” His coworkers reportedly sniggered.
Hertzel and Verne conceived a whole series of “Voyages Extraordinaires.” Hetzel contracted Verne to write two stories a year and guided him toward the most marketable ideas. He also introduced Verne to Felix Nadar, a renaissance man who brought Verne into his scientific circle. When Nadar founded the Society for Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier-Than-Air Craft, Verne became a board member. From this 20-year collaboration came our most-beloved early science fiction and fantasy stories.
By age 43, Verne was a household name. Right after he published 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, he became an honorary knight of the realm. Even better, his wealth far surpassed that of any stockbroker of the era.
Fame and Tragedy
But at the height of his success, Verne’s life took a tragic turn. His father died that year. His only son, Michel, a ne’er-do-well who caused Verne constant heartache, eloped with an older actress then abandoned her for an underage girl. Creditors constantly hounded Verne for Michel’s gambling debts.
When Verne was 58, his paranoid nephew Gaston attacked him and shot him in the leg. The Verne family concealed the incident from the press and committed Gaston. The wound never healed. Verne limped for the rest of his life.
Pierre-Jules Hetzel passed away a week after the shooting.Verne lost both a publisher and a dear friend. Hetzel’s son took over, but he didn’t have his father’s passion for the venture. Verne was left crippled and rudderless. His fiction grew darker. It predicted futuristic weapons of war, including the guided missle.
But one bright spot illuminated Verne’s last years. Michel, the prodigal son, returned. He settled down, mar to become his assistant and collaborator. Verne regained his momentum, but passed away from diabetic complications at age 77, leaving several novels for Michel to finish 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
- the concept of the Internet
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 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 his own truth.
Ideas for Midlife Exploration
- Jules Verne reminds us to keep the fire alive, even when responsibility calls, by paying attention and practicing daily.
- Remember: “The chance which now seems lost may present itself at the last moment.” ~Around The World In Eighty Days
- Later blooming is a spiral process, not a linear one. What useful mistake have you made that lead to the next level?
- Jules Verne FAQ
- The UnMuseum
- 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.
- The opening image is Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.