Journey to the Centre of. Fife; Jules Verne Presents

Daily Mail (London), August 15, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Journey to the Centre of. Fife; Jules Verne Presents

Byline: by Jim McBeth

IT took scientists a century to catch up with Jules Verne's fantastical prophesies of lunar expeditions and submarines sailing to the ocean's depths. In other amazing tales, his characters were marooned on islands where dinosaurs existed outwith their place in history and, in the author's most celebrated excursion, Phileas Fogg circumnavigated the globe in just 11 weeks and three days.

There was no journey on earth, or beyond, that could not be conceived in the imagination of the father of science fiction. But Fogg, the hero of Around the World in 80 Days, would not have heard of, let alone visited, Oakley in Fife, nor the Rob Roy country of the Trossachs or Sir Walter Scott's Edinburgh Old Town.

Yet, 150 years ago this month, these were all landmarks on a trip by Verne to the country he regarded as his spiritual home. It is an obscure facet of the life of the fourth-most translated author in literary history that he regarded himself as a Scot, despite being born in Nantes in Britany.

He may have taken generations of readers from the earth to the moon and miles beneath the waves but it was the sentimental trip to infinitely more prosaic destinations that absorbed the French writer.

Verne had Scottish blood on his mother's side. A military forebear of Sophie de la Fuye's had taken advantage of the Auld Alliance, 300 years before she was born, to become an archer in Louis XI's Scottish Guard.

Although a Breton on his father's side, Verne was raised on his mother's stories and regarded himself as a Celt. He longed to return 'home' and the opportunity came at the age of 31, when he took his first trip outside France, accompanying his friend, the musician Aristide Hignard, on a tour of Britain.

It was a journey that would define Verne's heritage and inform his work. Many of his 66 books, including a recently rediscovered 1877 classic lost long ago in poor translation, would be set in Scotland. No fewer than 40 of the characters who inhabited his writing were Scottish.

Even Captain Nemo, the stateless anti-hero of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, played piano on the black keys, to give his mournful music 'an essentially Scottish tonality'.

This month, Verne's association with his 'homeland' will be commemorated in Fife, where local archivists have organised a series of events to mark the anniversary of the author's visit to the village of Oakley in 1859.

This will include an exhibition, walks tracing the writer's footsteps through West Fife, a book launch and film screenings.

Kerr Doig, of the Dunfermline Archives, says: 'This is an opportunity for local people, many of whom don't know that Jules Verne visited Scotland, let alone Fife. We have worked with volunteers to create events to mark the occasion and we hope locals will be proud that a world-renowned author not only visited, but used his experiences in his novels.'

In 1859, Aristide Hignard had invited Verne to take the 'free' trip with him. The author, who was at the time living in the Latin Quarter of Nantes with his pregnant wife and had just published his first novel, was overjoyed at the prospect.

The two men arrived in Liverpool and took the Caledonian Railway to Edinburgh, where Verne, entranced by Sir Walter Scott's city, used Scott's novel Heart of Midlothian as a tour guide. He would recount his experiences in a Voyage a Reculons en Angleterre et l'Ecosse, published in English only ten years ago as Backwards to Britain.

Verne and Hignard climbed Arthur's Seat - as do the main characters in the lost classic, The Underground City - and Verne wrote that 'no pen can do justice to this breathtaking scene'.

Verne explored the slums of the Canongate and offered a stark account: 'The area that leads to the royal palace [of Holyrood] is one of utter misery. Naked children, barefoot women and girls dressed in rags, beggars with hats, jostle, pass, drag themselves along and slink past the tall tenements with their pinched, starved features.

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