Sunday, November 8, 2009

Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days, as a title, is simple, descriptive and enticing. As with any title that works superbly well, it has generated a huge number of parodies, puns and spin-offs. A short sample includes: Around the World in Eighty Ways (film), Around the World in Eighty Dreams (TV series), Around the World in Eighteen Days (film), Around the World in Eighty Dates (book), Around the World in Ninety Minutes (documentary), Around the World in 18 Minutes (film), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (film), Around the World in Eighty Treasures (TV series) and The Simpsons: Around the World in Eighty D’Ohs. And this is only scratching the surface. Of course, it all began with Jules Verne, and his Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours. Or did it?

Several theories have been propounded for the origin of Le Tour du monde. Verne himself claimed that the idea was sparked in 1871 when he read a newspaper article about a Thomas Cook round-the-world tour package. But there is one man whose career so closely parallels the fictional Phileas Fogg that it would be rash to ignore him: an eccentric American railroad magnate called George Francis Train.

Born in 1829, Train made his fortune in opium trading and transportation (a nice mixture) and in 1869 began campaigning for the US presidency with the rather unmelodious slogan of ‘Get aboard the express train of George Francis Train!’ In the middle of his campaign, ‘Citizen Train’ announced that he would make a trip around the world in eighty days or less. This might have been a publicity stunt - perhaps he wanted to advertise his new railway and the wonders of super-rapid opium-fuelled transportation - but whatever his motives, he started from New York in late July 1870, taking the Union Pacific Railroad to California, and on August 1 shipped on board the Great Republic bound for Yokohama. From there he sailed to Hong Kong, then Singapore, the Suez Canal, and Marseilles. In Lyons his luck ran out and he was thrown into prison. After appealing to the international media for help, Train was released, but not before 13 days of his precious 80 had been wasted. He hot-footed it to Liverpool, where he boarded the steamer Abyssinia for New York, and arrived finally in late December, having missed his deadline by at least two months. He claimed he had only taken the stipulated 80 days; no-one seemed to be bothered enough to count them. His presidential hopes were soon dashed. The 1872 election was won in a landslide by Ulysses S Grant.

And there the matter might have rested, except for Jules Verne. Verne was already a highly successful writer, having produced several of the Voyages Extraordinaires series that included A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But he needed a new idea. In late 1870 and early 1871 news of Train’s exploits was arriving in France. Verne, who may have seen the Thomas Cook advertisement but had not yet made the additional conceptual leap from the idea of a leisurely sightseeing trip to a race against time, very probably saw - the coincidences are surely suggestive - the news about Train, and the 80-day limit. He quickly dashed off the tale of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and sold the idea as a serial to Le Temps, who published it in daily instalments from late 1872.

Verne never acknowledged Train as the inspiration for his book. Train lived on until 1904, and made three more round-the-world trips, beating his record each time, finally achieving 60 days flat. He did not take kindly to Verne’s fiction, and once told an English journalist: ‘Remember Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days? He stole my thunder. I’m Phileas Fogg. But I have beaten Fogg out of sight. What put the notion into my head? Well, I’m possessed of great psychic force.’

Costello, Peter: Jules Verne, Inventor of Science Fiction (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978)
Wallace, Irving: The Square Pegs (Hutchinson, 1958)

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