It’s one thing to watch a film, and quite another to read the book on which it’s based. The two experiences should be different. Typically, I read a book before I watch the movie.
In the case of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” however, it was the other way round. As a child, I’d seen its Oscar-winning 1956 film version, starring David Niven as Mr. Fogg, never having read the classic.
Now, more than 30 years later, when I began reading it, I knew what to expect. But I didn’t quite expect to enjoy it as much as I did.
In 1873, the year it was published, Victorian gentlemen had already begun to debate whether the world was growing smaller. Mr. Phileas Fogg, the most taciturn, yet, visible, member of the elite Reform Club, was of the opinion that it was.
When he tells his fellow card players that it’s possible go around the world in 80 days, they dare him to put his conviction to the test. Willingly, he accepts a wager of £20,000 (the equivalent of roughly £1,511,978, today), bids them a prompt adieu, promising to be back in London, after 1,920 hours or 115,200 minutes, on Saturday, December 21, 1872, at 8:45 p.m.
Without delay, he and his newly-hired French valet, Jean Passepartout, take a train from Charing Cross, with only a carpetbag, a mackintosh, a traveling cloak, a few clothes, some pairs of stout shoes, and set off on their eccentric voyage.
In the context of traditional Anglo-French rivalry, why should a French penman, have for his protagonist, an Englishman; and a Frenchman, as his servant? Perhaps Verne was an unabashed Anglophile, with a disdain for his own people.
The book is an adventure novel of the 19th century, but it’s also a panegyric to the British Empire, which, at the time, was at the peak of its imperial power. Mr. Fogg is an embodiment of the all the virtues that Verne sees in the British, bestowing on him, only the noble qualities of fortitude, punctuality, loyalty, chivalry, honor, and duty.
It’s a tale of one man, and the imperturbable calmness and quick-thinking with which he overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even when his fortune is at stake, and his life is at risk.
The individual, who inspired this work, though, wasn’t, a persnickety British bachelor, but a peripatetic American entrepreneur. In 1870, George Francis Train, a wealthy Bostonian, performed a feat of making the fastest trip around the world.
“Phileas Fogg lived in 1872, at No. 7 Saville Row, Burlington Gardens.” He was “an enigmatic personage, about whom little was known, except that he was a polished man of the world.”
He was “exactitude personified.” He was so exact that every day, he would “shut the door of his house at half-past eleven, and having put his right foot before his left, five hundred and seventy-five times, and his left foot before his right foot, five hundred and seventy-six times, reached the Reform Club.”
He encounters perils, both foreseen and unforeseen, but mostly, those he hadn’t taken into consideration. In India, when the train line between Bombay and Calcutta abruptly terminates, he’s left to arrange for his own transport. In the capital of British India, he’s arrested, sentenced to prison, and slapped with a hefty fine.
The departure from the former, tiny British colony of Hong Kong, costs him still more dearly. He misses his ship and loses his servant.
More mishaps await him in America. In San Francisco, he gets swept up in an agitated political mob, and gets socked. The train he’s traveling in goes rattling over a frail bridge, nearly leaping from one to the other bank of a river. It then comes under attack by an armed band of Sioux Indians. He has to speed across the frozen prairies on a sledge with sails. In New York, he’s forced to charter a cargo vessel, bribe its crew, and when the coal runs out, to burn it to its hull.
Stacking up the odds against him is a Scotland Yard detective, dispatched to shadow him, mistaking him to be a thief. A few days before his departure, there’d been a heist at the Bank of England. A robber had made off with a package of banknotes of the value of £55,000 from the cashier’s desk.
Luckily, the daring exploit ends on a happy note. The credit for that goes to Mr. Fogg and his sense of confident collectedness and precision. If there were ever a genteel robot, with a golden heart and a gallant soul, it’d have to be Mr. Fogg.
At the fifty-seventh second, the door of the saloon opened, and the pendulum had not beat the sixtieth second, when Phileas Fogg appeared, followed by an excited crowd, who had forced their way through the club doors, and in his calm voice, said, “Here I am, gentlemen!”
It may be argued that a less affluent man wouldn’t have succeeded in his mission, for money had smoothed away many of Mr. Fogg’s roadblocks. Still, it must be said that geography too, favored him massively.
Phileas Fogg, had without suspecting it, gained one day on the journey, and this merely because he had traveled constantly eastward; he would, on the contrary, have lost a day had he gone in the opposite direction, that is, westward.
The narrative is littered with what would, seem to us, jarringly disparaging assessments of the cultures of the Orient, even Americans. His descriptions are so comically incorrect that they draw chuckles.
A mango, he writes, “is a fruit as large as good-sized apples, of a dark brown colour outside, and a bright red within, and whose white pulp [melts] in the mouth.”
Clearly, the French penman hadn’t seen the tropical fruit, let alone having tasted it. And it shouldn’t surprise. Verne, himself, didn’t set foot in the places he wrote about, gathering knowledge about them about by poring over newspapers clips and books.
But he was right about one thing.
The world has, of course, been getting progressively smaller since the time of Mr. Fogg, even flat. Today, it’s possible to circumnavigate the globe in a jetliner, in about 47 hours.