Jules Verne’s Most Famous Books Were Part of a 54-Volume Masterpiece, Featuring 4,000 Illustrations: See Them Online

Not many read­ers of the 21st cen­tu­ry seek out the work of pop­u­lar writ­ers of the 19th cen­tu­ry, but when they do, they often seek out the work of Jules Verne. Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth, Twen­ty Thou­sand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days: fair to say that we all know the titles of these fan­tas­ti­cal French tales from the 1860s and 70s, and more than a few of us have actu­al­ly read them. But how many of us know that they all belong to a sin­gle series, the 54-vol­ume Voy­ages Extra­or­di­naires, that Verne pub­lished from 1863 until the end of his life? Verne described the pro­jec­t’s goal to an inter­view­er thus: “to con­clude in sto­ry form my whole sur­vey of the world’s sur­face and the heav­ens.”

Verne intend­ed to edu­cate, but at the same time to enter­tain and even artis­ti­cal­ly impress: “My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the uni­verse,” he said. “And I have tried at the same time to real­ize a very high ide­al of beau­ty of style.” This he accom­plished with great suc­cess in a time and place with­out even what we would now con­sid­er a ful­ly lit­er­ate pub­lic.

As philoso­pher Marc Sori­ano writes of the 1860s when Verne began pub­lish­ing, “The dri­ve for lit­er­a­cy in France has been under­way since the Guizot Law of 1833, but there is still much to do. Any well-advised edi­tor must aid his read­ers who have not yet achieved a good read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy.”

Hence the need for illus­tra­tions: beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly and nar­ra­tive­ly faith­ful illus­tra­tions, and above all a great many illus­tra­tions: over 4,000 of them, by the count of Arthur B. Evans in his essay on the series’ artists, “an aver­age of 60+ illus­tra­tions per nov­el, one for every 6–8 pages of text.” Still today, “most mod­ern French reprints of the Voy­ages Extra­or­di­naires con­tin­ue to fea­ture their orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions — recap­tur­ing the ‘feel’ of Verne’s socio-his­tor­i­cal milieu and evok­ing that sense of far­away exoti­cism and futur­is­tic awe which the orig­i­nal read­ers once expe­ri­enced from these texts. And yet, to date, the bulk of Vern­ian crit­i­cism has vir­tu­al­ly ignored the cru­cial role played by these illus­tra­tions in Verne’s oeu­vre.”

Evans iden­ti­fies four dif­fer­ent types of illus­tra­tions in the series: “ren­der­ings of the pro­tag­o­nists of the sto­ry — e.g., por­traits like the one of Impey Bar­bi­cane in De la terre à la lune”; “panoram­ic and post­card-like” views of the “exot­ic locales, unusu­al sights, and flo­ra and fau­na which the heroes encounter dur­ing their jour­ney, like the one from Vingt mille lieues sous les mers depict­ing divers walk­ing on the ocean floor”; “doc­u­men­ta­tion­al” illus­tra­tions like “the map of the Polar regions (hand-drawn by Verne him­self) for his 1864 nov­el Les Voy­ages et aven­tures du cap­i­taine Hat­teras”; and por­tay­als of “a spe­cif­ic moment of action in the narrative—e.g., the one from Voy­age au cen­tre de la terre where Prof. Liden­brock, Axel, and Hans are sud­den­ly caught in a light­ning storm on a sub­ter­ranean ocean.”

Verne and his edi­tor Pierre-Jules Het­zel com­mis­sioned these illus­tra­tions from no few­er than eight artists, a group includ­ing Edouard Riou, Alphonse de Neuville, Emile-Antoine Bayard (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture), and Léon Benett — all well-known artists in late 19th-cen­tu­ry France, and made even more so by their work in the Voy­ages Extra­or­di­naires. You can browse a com­plete gallery of the series’ orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions here, and if you like, enrich the expe­ri­ence with this exten­sive essay by Ter­ry Har­pold on “read­ing” these images in con­text.

Togeth­er with the sto­ries them­selves, on the back of which Verne remains the most trans­lat­ed sci­ence-fic­tion author of all time, they allow Har­pold to make the cred­i­ble claim that “the tex­tu­al-graph­ic domain con­sti­tut­ed by these objects is unmatched in its breadth and vari­ety; no oth­er cor­pus asso­ci­at­ed with a sin­gle author is com­pa­ra­ble.” Human knowl­edge of the uni­verse has widened and deep­ened since Verne’s day, but for sheer intel­lec­tu­al and adven­tur­ous won­der about what that uni­verse might con­tain, has any writer, from any era or land, out­done him since?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Émile-Antoine Bayard’s Vivid Illus­tra­tions of Jules Verne’s Around the Moon: The First Seri­ous Works of Space Art (1870)

Jules Verne Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts What the 20th Cen­tu­ry Will Look Like in His Lost Nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1863)

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned Life in the Year 2000: Draw­ing the Future

Hear Rick Wakeman’s Musi­cal Adap­ta­tion of Jules Verne’s Jour­ney to the Cen­tre of the Earth, “One of Prog Rock’s Crown­ing Achieve­ments”

Petite Planète: Dis­cov­er Chris Marker’s Influ­en­tial 1950s Trav­el Pho­to­book Series

The Art of Sci-Fi Book Cov­ers: From the Fan­tas­ti­cal 1920s to the Psy­che­del­ic 1960s & Beyond

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • azteclady says:

    Thank you so much for this piece; I have read most of Verne’s Extra­or­di­nary Voy­ages, and yet, I did not know until now that they were for­mal­ly part of one series.

  • Giorgio Zamparelli says:

    >Human knowl­edge of the uni­verse has widened and deep­ened since Verne’s day, but for sheer intel­lec­tu­al and adven­tur­ous won­der about what that uni­verse might con­tain, has any writer, from any era or land, out­done him since?
    Yes, we can safe­ly say sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers after Jules Verne has out­done him. Safe­ly. I believe Jules Verne him­self read­ing sci­ence fic­tion that came after him­self would say so him­self.

    Believ­ing that one moment in the past was bet­ter than all the future moments is a clas­sic form of roman­tic nos­tal­gia in the style of Mid­night in Paris of Woody Allen.

    I believe Jules Verne books were incred­i­bile for the time and inspired mil­lions of read­ers.

    Believ­ing that Jules Verne was the apex though is very sad. It’s absolute­ly the oppo­site of what Jules Verne was. Jules Verne was a dream­er believ­ing in progress. When you believe that the Jules Verne was the apex of sci­ence fic­tion progress you are spit­ting in the face of his opti­mism.

  • Nayantara Prabhakar says:

    I just con­cludud read­ing 20000 leagues under the Sea and was left astound­ed by the sheer futur­is­tic descrip­tions of the sub­ma­rine and tech­nol­o­gy used. I wish I had read this book half a cen­tu­ry ago. Im 64 now and thor­ough­ly enjoyed it. A true clas­sic. Wish chil­dren today read it but sad­ly dont see that hap­pen­ing.

  • Ville says:

    Jules Verne tru­ly amaz­ing, he is by far my favourite sci­ence fic­tion writer with william gib­son, and i do read a lot of sci­ence fic­tion.

    Fan­tas­tic arti­cle, thank you.

    To any­one read­ing this, stay well and safe my friend.

  • Steve Southard says:

    Very infor­ma­tive and inter­est­ing post. I knew about Voy­ages Extra­or­di­naires, but not the rea­son for all the won­der­ful illus­tra­tions. It would seem many of Verne’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers may have strug­gled with his prose, but fol­lowed the sto­ries bet­ter with the pic­tures.

  • James D. Keeline says:

    What pub­lish­ers call a “series” is more often con­sid­ered a “pub­lish­er’s library.” Often a pub­lish­er would issue books under a head­ing like “𝑉𝑜𝑦𝑎𝑔𝑒𝑠 𝐸𝑥𝑡𝑟𝑎𝑜𝑟𝑑𝑖𝑛𝑎𝑟𝑒” for the con­ve­nience of adver­tis­ing.

    Most would imag­ine a “series” would have some con­ti­nu­ity of plot or char­ac­ters who are found in mul­ti­ple sto­ries. There is a lit­tle of this for Verne.

    The obvi­ous exam­ple are the three Moon sto­ries — From the Earth to the Moon, Around the Moon, and the book var­i­ous­ly pub­lished as Top­sy Turvy or The Pur­chase of the North Pole. All fea­ture char­ac­ters from the Bal­ti­more Gun Club. The last one is lit­tle known oth­er than the Fitzroy edi­tion in paper­back from Ace.

    Three of Verne’s longest sto­ries, each com­pris­ing 18 months in Het­zel’s 𝑀𝑎𝑔𝑎𝑠𝑖𝑛 𝑑’𝑒́𝑑𝑢𝑐𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑒𝑡 𝑑𝑒 𝑟𝑒́𝑐𝑟𝑒́𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 or three vol­umes from his con­trac­tu­al com­mit­ment with the pub­lish­er, have char­ac­ters which appear. How­ev­er, con­tra­dic­tions in the sto­ries make it impos­si­ble to cre­ate a cohe­sive nar­ra­tive or time­line from them. The sto­ries are Twen­ty Thou­sand Leagues Under the Seas; Cap­tain Grant’s Chil­dren / In Search of the Cast­aways / Voy­age Round the World; and The Mys­te­ri­ous Island (orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in three vol­umes). Some of the con­nec­tions are slight such as a char­ac­ter or two from Cast­aways land­ing on the Mys­te­ri­ous Island.

    There are sev­er­al duolo­gies among Verne’s sto­ries such as Cap­tain Hat­teras; La Jan­ga­da (800 Leagues on the Ama­zon and The Cryp­togram); The Steam House; the two sto­ries about Robur (Robur the Con­queror / Clip­per of the Clouds and Mas­ter of the World); Ker­a­ban the Inflex­i­ble; The Barsac Mis­sion, and a cou­ple oth­ers.

    The Scrib­n­er Illus­trat­ed Clas­sics or the Win­der­mere series are called “series” by pub­lish­ers but they are real­ly pub­lish­er libraries reprint­ing clas­sics with col­or plate illus­tra­tions. Het­zel was the first pub­lish­er (in France) of the Verne sto­ries but call­ing them a “series” can lead to mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

    If you are going to read Verne in Eng­lish, get good mod­ern trans­la­tions. The old ones are usu­al­ly very bad and omit large por­tions of the sto­ries such as an entire chap­ter that describes the inte­ri­or of the Nau­tilus. You would­n’t want to miss that.

  • Scott Tefkin says:

    Very few peo­ple even knew the Verne wrote any­thing besides 20000 leagues (sp) Under the Sea. I remem­ber a few oth­er titles like “The Demon of Cow­per (sp) sor­ry. The Vil­lage in the Tree­tops and others.Being born with Dyslex­ia I did not learn to read until I was 14. The first book I chose to read? 20000 leagues under the sea. My spelling is still rusty but my lust for sci­ence fic­tion was kin­dled as was my love of pipe organ and Bach. Bon Chance Friends.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.