My friend J. asked me the other day whether as a child I’d read stories set in schools. I said I couldn’t recall reading any, despite being a greedy reader – unless you counted Tom Brown’s schooldays, a present from some well-intentioned aunt, which I found unreadable and never finished. The only explanation I could offer was that my less than enjoyable experiences of real school made exploring fictional schools redundant. (Comics were different, of course: the Bash Street Kids I could cope with.)
Among the books I did read were ‘ripping yarns’, those adventure stories of the late Victorian and Edwardian period that feature intrepid explorers in exotic parts of the world (or other worlds), facing and overcoming impossible odds to triumph in the last chapter. Few children, I suppose, read these stories today, so the full satiric bite of, say, Michael Palin’s Ripping yarns will be lost on them.
A Radio 4 programme last week looked at some of these adventure stories and tried to account for their popularity and their hold on the child’s imagination. One of their obvious contexts was the British Empire. The adventurers all assume that the whole world is freely available for them to roam in. A large part of the globe, after all, was already ‘British’, or soon would be. However many unwelcome surprises awaited them abroad they felt a sense of entitlement to tramp – and trample – at will, and to demand cooperation and obedience from the natives. A good example is the trilogy of African stories by Henry Rider Haggard, beginning with King Solomon’s mines, the model for later ‘lost worlds’ novels. Its hero, Allan Quartermain, travels north from Durban to find an unknown kingdom ruled by a cruel tyrant, King Twala, and his old counsellor, the wicked witch Gagool. Quartermain was modelled on Frederick Selous, a noted slaughterer of African wildlife and ally of the unspeakable Cecil Rhodes. But in fact King Solomon’s mines is by no means as racist and imperialist is it might have been, and the third novel in the series, She, contains enough to keep dozens of students of sexual politics occupied.
Another adventure author I remember reading was Jules Verne, especially his Twenty thousand leagues under the sea. The radio programme reminded me what a strange book this is, with a very different ideological colouring. It tells the story of Professor Aronnax, a French biologist who joins an American expedition to track down a dangerous sea monster. The ‘monster’ turns out to be a futuristic, electricity-powered submarine, the Nautilus, commanded by Captain Nemo. The rest of the book recounts Aronnax’s experiences as a captive aboard the craft, as it roams the oceans. Nemo (Latin for ‘no one’) is an enigmatic character. Of obscure origin, he’s driven, it seems, by a visceral hatred of imperialism, and the British empire in particular. Conversely, he sympathises with oppressed people, like the Cretans under Turkish rule and the pearl divers of Ceylon (‘that Indian, sir, is an inhabitant of an oppressed country; and I am still, and shall be, to my last breath, one of them!’). He speaks ‘French, English, German and Latin equally well’ and explains to the Professor, ‘I am not what you call a civilised man! I have done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not, therefore, obey its laws.’ He obtains all he needs from the sea, and avoids land if he can. When the Professor asks whether he is rich, Nemo replies, ‘immensely rich, sir; and I could, without missing it, pay the national debt of France.’
High pieces of furniture, of black violet ebony inlaid with brass, supported upon their wide shelves a great number of books uniformly bound. They followed the shape of the room, terminating at the lower part in huge divans, covered with brown leather, which were curved, to afford the greatest comfort. Light movable desks, made to slide in and out at will, allowed one to rest one’s book while reading. In the centre stood an immense table, covered with pamphlets, amongst which were some newspapers, already of old date. The electric light flooded everything; it was shed from four unpolished globes half sunk in the volutes of the ceiling. I looked with real admiration at this room, so ingeniously fitted up, and I could scarcely believe my eyes.
‘Captain Nemo,’ said I to my host, who had just thrown himself on one of the divans, ‘this is a library which would do honour to more than one of the continental palaces, and I am absolutely astounded when I consider that it can follow you to the bottom of the seas.’
‘Where could one find greater solitude or silence, Professor?’ replied Captain Nemo. ‘Did your study in the Museum afford you such perfect quiet?’
‘No, sir; and I must confess that it is a very poor one after yours. You must have six or seven thousand volumes here.’
‘Twelve thousand, M. Aronnax. These are the only ties which bind me to the earth. But I had done with the world on the day when my Nautilus plunged for the first time beneath the waters. That day I bought my last volumes, my last pamphlets, my last papers, and from that time I wish to think that men no longer think or write. These books, Professor, are at your service besides, and you can make use of them freely.’
I thanked Captain Nemo, and went up to the shelves of the library. Works on science, morals, and literature abounded in every language; but I did not see one single work on political economy; that subject appeared to be strictly proscribed. Strange to say, all these books were irregularly arranged, in whatever language they were written; and this medley proved that the Captain of the Nautilus must have read indiscriminately the books which he took up by chance.
This is an interesting passage, reflecting possibly the value Verne himself attached to libraries: he spent many hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale researching the backgrounds to his novels. To Roland Barthes, in his essay ‘The Nautilus and the drunken boat’, the Nautilus, with its familiar comforts like the library, represents a false, individualised, over-homely way of exploring the world.
Verne seems to have had several models for Captain Nemo. One was clearly the hero of the Odyssey, doomed to wander the oceans for ten years before coming home to Ithaca. Odysseus, in order to escape imprisonment by Polyphemus, tells the one-eyed giant that his name is ‘No One’. Another model is Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, a fellow maritime obsessive.
Verne’s third model is not a fictional but a real man, Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol. Monturiol, a Catalan, trained as a lawyer but began his career as a publisher and pamphleteer, writing in support of radical causes, including Catalonian republicanism, socialism, feminism and pacifism. In 1844 he published his first work, an attack on the death penalty. He was a follower of the utopian communist Étienne Cabet, who set up a workers’ commune called Icaria in the Red River area of Texas.
Following political oppression after the 1848 revolutions Monturiol turned to engineering projects from his base in Barcelona. Submarines were the focus of his work. He was attracted by the possibilities of harvesting coral, and of pursuing scientific research underwater. In 1859 he launched Ictíneo 1, a vessel with two frames, one fish-shaped, the other cylindrical, in Barcelona harbour. It could hold six people and dive to a depth of 20 metres. Monuriol described the experience of diving:
The silence that accompanies the dives; the gradual absence of sunlight; the great mass of water, which sight pierces with difficulty; the pallor that light gives to the faces; the lessening movement in the Ictíneo; the fish that pass before the portholes—all this contributes to the excitement of the imaginative faculties. . . . there are times when nothing can be seen outside by natural light, when one sees nothing but the obscurity of the deep; all noise and movement stops; it seems as though nature is dead, and the Ictíneo is a tomb.
He made several dives with this vessel (a replica can be seen in the city today) before an accident destroyed it. With the aid of money from a public appeal Monturiol built a new, much longer submersible, Ictíneo 2, launched in 1864. Three years later it was able to move (a little) using an anaerobic steam engine, but could only keep going for twenty minutes underwater before overheating. Then Monturiol went bankrupt. All he could do now was write a comprehensive book, Essay on the art of navigating under water, not published until six years after his death. He returned to politics and in 1873 became a deputy in the Constituent Assembly of the first Spanish Republic. He continued to publish radical papers.
Monturiol was a prolific inventor. Among the devices he created were a machine for printing notebooks of lined paper for students, a cigarette manufacturing machine, a dryer for glue-based postage stamps, and a military cannon (perhaps he was no longer a pacifist by this stage). He also developed, but failed to realise, plans for a device for improving wine, printing ink, a velograph (for copying letters as they were being written), soap and a method for conserving meat.
Twenty thousand leagues under the sea, then, is a far cry from the standard English imperialist adventure novel. Then so too is my favourite adventure novel, which I read many times as a child and still take down from the shelf to read now. Again it’s not an English, but this time a Scottish novel – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, an even more solidly anti-imperial work, and an inexhaustible source of complex questions about the personal and the political.