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Project 52 ’11 13: Around the World in Eighty Days

April 1, 2011

Before university I had never really read any “classic” adventure stories. Since then – and since being compelled to read a couple for one of the subjects I was studying – I have devoured quite a lot of Victorian / Edwardian tales of daring do. I love reading writers like H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells; anything really which might be classed as a “ripping good yarn”. I can’t imagine anyone not getting a kick out of such easy to read and enjoyable books. You do have  to remember the time in which they were written when you come across the casual racism and try not, as a whole, take them too seriously.

I thought it was about time I tackled Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, which had been sat waiting to be read since last August when I made a trip to Hay-on-Wye (a Mecca if you like book shops). I, like most people, was mostly familiar with the basics of the story but had never actually got around to reading the original book.

I was at first surprised by how short the book is. My edition is 260 pages long, but the typeface is huge, barely fitting 300 words to a full page of uninterrupted narrative. The longest of the 37 chapters was no more than about ten pages, so it made for ideal commuter reading . I managed to sail through it in four days, snatching a few pages on trains on the way to work, so I am certain that a reasonably fast reader could polish it off in a few hours. And I have to say – it’s well worth polishing off.

As might be expected from such a short book which centres around a race, the pace is break-neck and the narrative moves very rapidly. Sometimes thousands of miles are reduced to mere sentences. Europe is almost non-existent. In other books I might have felt cheated by this, but I thought the way in which Verne matches the pace of the narrative to the pace of the travellers enhanced the feel of the whole book. Poetic descriptions are few and far between (Verne even resorts to quoting when he can’t adequately describe the beauty of Aouda) but there is a noticeable obsession with facts such as times, speeds and distances which also fits the narrative.

The characters are not massively interesting or well developed. The main characters seemed to me to be straight from the Victorian ‘Stock Character’ cupboard.  Phileas Fogg himself is almost unlikeable at times and flat and uninteresting:  he is an automaton and a slave to time and mathematics. A typical, emotionless English gentleman with a stiff upper lip. I suppose a lot could and probably has been said about Fogg and his relationship with time but I found him difficult to connect with or to sympathise with.

Passepartout is the typical servant: diligent, loyal, subservient, brave, at times stupid and the source of a lot of the comedy in the book. He is, at least, a lot more human and easier to relate to than Fogg.

Aouda would be the dullest character of them all – the passive Victorian gentleman’s love interest – were it not for the fact that she is Indian. Verne is quick to point out  how fair and European she is in her mannerisms and education, but the fact that she is Fogg’s love interest at all is noteworthy in a book published in an era ripe with fears about interbreeding, miscegenation and race.

The book does endeavour to capture something of the countries into which it ventures. Sometimes this leads to outright racism, particularly in India and The Raj, but it is most successful in America. Verne captures pioneering America perfectly and give us a real insight into the world view of America at the time. For the record, that view hasn’t changed much.

This book is thoroughly enjoyable. It is fast paced, funny, adventuresome and genuinely exciting even when the ending is so well known. It manages to avoid the overly romantic nature of a lot of Victorian novels whilst still maintaining the happy ending I knew was coming. Even though the story is widely known and much reproduced, I don’t think that there is a film out there which has managed to exactly capture the true or just nature of the narrative. But, then again, do they ever?

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