Steampunk and the French Connection

072115 Chris Banner

Many articles that discuss the modern steampunk genre reference the influence of Victorian England. Authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are mentioned as being significant inspirations. Yet Jules Verne was not a British subject: he was a French author whose novels were first translated into English during the Victorian era. Due in part to the translated texts being widely available worldwide, Verne’s novels have long been mistakenly associated in mainstream culture with Britain and not his native France.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

It is not so unusual that a culture seeped in the ideas of colonialism should culturally appropriate Verne’s work. What is odd is that this appropriation still occurs. Simply look at modern cinematic versions of one of Verne’s novels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, for revealing examples: these films designate Captain Nemo’s national origin as English or British-occupied India to fit in with this perception. Even the steampunk-inspired League of Extraordinary Gentlemen depicts Nemo as a citizen of Victorian Era India. The actors who portray Nemo generally tend to use a British accent for the character.* There is no “nod” to the French nationality of the author in these films—no indication that the author intended the character to represent anything beyond the British social realm.

Perhaps this is somewhat understandable because Verne created Nemo as a man without a nationality or a name in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In Latin, “Nemo” means “nobody,” so filmmakers may have felt justified in simply assigning a nationality. It is only when Vern publishes the Mysterious Island that a biography of sorts appears for the character.

Patrick Stewart plays a very British-sounding Nemo in this adaptation of Verne's novel.

Patrick Stewart plays a very British-sounding Nemo in this adaptation of Verne’s novel.

Although he was born in India during the Victorian era, Nemo was the son of a rajah in an independent territory. At the age of ten he was sent to Europe for an education, where he remained until the age of thirty. When he returned home, it was with the specific purpose of leading his people out from under the tyranny of the British occupiers. With his upbringing in continental Europe and his intense hatred of the British, why would anyone assume Nemo would adopt their manner of speech?

In Verne’s novels elements of French culture and philosophy fill the pages alongside the descriptions of futuristic science/technology and fantastic places/creatures. So it is not a stretch to say that French literature and culture had an impact on the creation of steampunk, especially for fans of his work. Someday, perhaps, mainstream filmmakers will catch up with history and present Jules Verne’s creations with the appropriate nod to their creator’s nationality.

Until then, we can enjoy the modern French steampunk-themed destination travel sites, cinema projects, and novels that continue to enrich the steampunk aesthetic. Speaking of which . . .

French Steampunk Destination Travel Featuring Jules Verne

Croquis du Grand Elephant provided by Francois Delaroziere

Croquis du Grand Elephant provided by Francois Delaroziere

Nantes, in western France, is the birthplace of Jules Verne. It hosts one of the most important French pieces of machinery-made art, Les Machines de L’îles, which mixes “the invented worlds of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci, and the industrial history of Nantes.” One of the unusual mechanical pieces at this site is the Great Elephant. It is made of wood and steel and takes visitors for an imaginary ride in the dockyards. But the place is also a haven for mechanical sea creatures gathered in a giant carousel.**

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*There are notable exceptions to this, including José Ferrer’s portrayal of Nemo in The Amazing Captain Nemo TV Miniseries that features Burgess Meredith as a villain who threatens to destroy Washington DC unless he is paid a billion dollars in gold. In this case Ferrer uses an American accent for Nemo.

**What is it about steampunks, giant squids, and carousels? If you live in the U.S. and want to visit a steampunk/fantasy inspired carousel and giant squid closer to home, check out my article on House on the Rock.

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