It’s been more than a year since the last entry in my Reading Jules Verne series, and that’s largely because the next book in the series was damned easy to procrastinate. I wasn’t looking forward to Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, which in English is known variously as In Search of the Castaways, Captain Grant’s Children and A Voyage Around the World. It looked long and tedious, and I was not disappointed. This was a slog.
The story is about an expedition to rescue Captain Grant, whose message in a bottle turns up in the stomach of a shark. The message is badly damaged and our heroes make several false attempts at figuring out where Grant is, but it’s clear that he was shipwrecked on the 37th parallel south. The expedition to rescue him circles the world trying to find him where land intersects that parallel, transecting Chile and Argentina, Australia and New Zealand before finally encountering him, quite by accident, on a remote island that has since been proven not to exist.
Verne has had English, German and American adventurers before; this time, the adventurers are Scots: Captain Grant was off to found a colony for Scotland (it’s been done) when he got shipwrecked, and the expedition to rescue him are the Scottish Lord and Lady Glenarvan, who take the captain’s children with him on their yacht. They are joined by Paganel, a bumbling French geographer, because nothing must happen without a French point of view (see also From the Earth to the Moon).
The story is thinly plotted but thick with description, full of pointless misdirections to ensure the maximum amount of geographic wanderings and lengthy descriptions of faraway places, much of which have not dated well. Human conflict doesn’t occur until halfway through the book, when a treacherous survivor of Grant’s expedition turns up.
The rampaging colonialism we saw in Five Weeks in a Balloon is back in full force here: the natives are either noble and savage, as in Patagonia, childlike and savage, as in Australia, or cannibalistic and savage, as in New Zealand, and they all need to be civilized and Christianized. (And I can’t tell whether Verne is being tongue-in-cheek about it or not, because that’s precisely the sort of thing that would be lost in translation.) This is not a book that would stand up well today, even compared to other Verne novels.
And yet this book is more progressive than other Verne novels so far in one way: there are two women in it! And they come along on the voyage! There was a point where I thought this book was at real risk of passing the Bechdel test, but in truth there’s not exactly much resembling agency here; Lady Glenarvan and Mary Grant are along for the voyage.
It’s quite likely I read a poor translation: the English translation on Project Gutenberg has several fewer chapters than the French original. There doesn’t appear to be a better, modern translation out there. But it’s hard to see the virtues that would inspire one, short of academic completeness.
Next on the list is one of Verne’s most famous books; hopefully it won’t take me more than a year to get to it.