Wrecked on a Reef
— V — Influence of Raynal's Wrecked on a Reef on Jules Verne's Novels
Influence of Raynal's Wrecked on a Reef on Jules Verne's Novels
In the 1860s when Jules Verne started writing novels, sailing ships and steamships were competing to benefit from the developing trade in goods and passengers created by western expansion and the gold rushes all over the world.
Geography, the world, is in it…
Commerce opening, the sleep of ages having done its work,
races reborn, refresh'd,
Lives, works resumed…1
Shipbuilding took advantage of the latest technologies, with steel gradually replacing timber to create larger, safer and faster ships. The new era of steel and steam is best represented by the giant Great Eastern,2 a hybrid vessel incorporating archaic features of six masts and paddle wheels with the modern features of five chimneys and propeller. After an unsuccessful run as a passenger ship it was used to lay the Atlantic cable, being the only vessel large enough to house the 4,500 tons of steel cable. Then it was transformed again into a passenger ship for the Universal Exhibition of 1867, plying the Atlantic route.
Accompanied by his brother, Jules Verne sailed on the Great Eastern to New York in March-April 1867, with only a week on land to visit the city and Niagara Falls before returning home. This trip gave him a chance of describing page 247the giant vessel in glowing terms later, underlining its modern features and reporting on incidents in the handling of such a large ship. Eventually, his narrative was accepted by the serious newspaper Le Journal des Débats, where it was published as A Floating City between July and September 1869.3
The narrator of the story is travelling on the Great Eastern with an eccentric doctor named Dean Pitferge, whose one obsessive wish is to undergo the experience of shipwreck. He is disappointed, for the Great Eastern is not going to be shipwrecked. Back home the narrator forgets all about his eccentric companion until, eight months later, he receives:
…a letter covered with stamps and starting with these words:
- "On board the Coringuy, Auckland reefs. At last we've been shipwrecked…"
- And ending with: "I have never felt better!
- Yours cordially,
- Dean Pitferge."
These concluding words of the short novel underline Jules Verne's humour in enlisting his readers' complicity by mentioning Raynal's story of shipwreck and survival in the Auckland Islands with the words: 'Auckland reefs'. For Jules Verne and his readers had just discovered Raynal's narrative, published in Le Tour du Monde in July 1869. Raynal's name and the adventures of the Auckland Island castaways had probably found a place in Parisian newspapers of the time.
This first brief allusion to Wrecked on a Reef was followed by numerous references and borrowings from the text in a number of Verne novels, centring on the theme of shipwreck and survival.
Shipwrecks and desert islands have pride of place in Jules Verne's adventure novels, from a dramatic and an ideological viewpoint. Critics have accounted for this recurring theme by mentioning the books he read as a child, namely The Swiss Family Robinson by Rudolph Wyss,4 The Crater by Fenimore Cooper, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and the numerous adaptations for children of the marooned Robinson Crusoe story. However, modern critics have omitted to mention Auckland Island among Verne's shipwreck islands, though as we have seen earlier, it certainly was the shipwreck island par excellence during the second half of the 19th century, and Jules Verne was well aware of the fact — at least as early as 1869.
Therefore it does not come as a surprise that Verne should mention both Raynal and the Auckland Islands towards the beginning of Mysterious Island, published in 1874.5 By that time, Raynal's book had been published and the prize it was awarded by the Académie Française had drawn attention to it.
It looks as if Jules Verne was seeking to put his fictional heroes on the same plane as their predecessors when he comments in chapter VI:
The imaginary heroes created by Daniel Defoe or Wyss, as well as Selkirk and Raynal, castaways on Juan Fernandez or the Auckland Island Group, were never as absolutely destitute as these castaways … They found plenty of resources in the wreck of their ship … They never were so totally at the mercy of nature. But here, there was not a single tool to be found. They had to create everything from nothing…
Putting real heroes and places side by side with fictional ones is a device often used by the novelist to enhance credibility by association.
In the last part of the novel, when the castaways of Mysterious Island have turned into prosperous settlers, Jules Verne has no need to mention Raynal or the Auckland Islands by name any more, for now the allusion is apparently clear for his contemporaries:
The settlers [of Mysterious Island] were not in the same situation as those abandoned castaways who fight for their miserable life with nature and are constantly tormented by their anxious desire to return to inhabited lands.6
Mysterious Island is a long novel in three parts; the first part is the closest to Wrecked on a Reef, from its very title to the incidents reminiscent of Raynal's narrative. Its title of 'Castaways of the air' is a reminder of Raynal's narrative in its original French, which is Les Naufragés, meaning The Castaways. However, Verne's characters arrive on their desert island in a deflating balloon, an inventive variation on the maritime shipwreck.
The novelist achieves greater credibility by making reference to contemporary events, in this case the American Civil War. He introduces his characters as Yankees, North American heroes by definition, since they are declared enemies of slavery. Prisoners of the Southerners during the war, they escape to freedom in a balloon, which ends up somewhere in a deserted island in the Pacific.
Their geographic position is nevertheless given in chapter XIV — after they have taken their bearings in a manner similar to Raynal and Musgrave's — though they are far from equalling their precision. For they find themselves on an island situated "between the 35th and 37th parallels, and between the 150th and 155th west meridians from Greenwich." This so-called scientific indication prevents exact localisation on the map, and gives the novelist plenty of scope to explore a unique island of his own making. It allows him to bring back into the story characters and incidents from his two previous novels: A Voyage Round the World,7 and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.8 They will play an important role in the second and third parts of the novel and help to bring it to an optimistic conclusion, when the island finally disappears in a superlative volcanic eruption.page 249
Incidentally, all allusions to dangerous reefs, a steep basaltic coast, and the volcanic nature of Auckland Island are so many echoes of Raynal's descriptions, combined however with other alien geographic features. Two incidents in Raynal's narrative were to kindle Verne's imagination and echo the important motif of the cave in Mysterious Island.
We find the first 'cave' in chapter XV of Wrecked on a Reef. Raynal has gone seal hunting north of Epigwaitt and "at a special part we called the Bridge," he comes across "a crevasse about seven feet wide, and thirty-three feet deep … its opening almost entirely concealed by a quantity of broad-leaved plants, tufts of ferns, and masses of lianas." The second incident happens in the next chapter. Raynal and Alick are exploring the mountain situated behind their hut and find "a black cavern sunken deep … When seen close at hand, the cavern appeared to be an ancient crater, one of the sides had fallen in; the other, remaining erect, hung over it, like half an arch above a gulf … descending into the interior of the cavern, we examined it at leisure. The vitrified character of its walls left no doubt upon our minds of its volcanic nature." These details, combined with Verne's evocations of the subterranean world he had so lavishly described in his previous Voyage to the Centre of the Earth9 must have led him to refine them when he thought of the castaways' home in a cave in part I. The cave motif reappears in Part III chapter XV of Mysterious Island magnified into the cave hideaway of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's submarine in the volcanic island of the castaways.
The climate on their 'Lincoln Island' has not much in common with the wet, cold and windy Auckland Island, and even less to do with ordinary geography. It has a lush exotic flora, and it is sunny and fertile. But winters are frosty, with quite a lot of snow as well — an unlikely characteristic at the supposed latitudes. From a dramatic point of view, this is a particularly welcome feature because it ensures that Verne's castaways enjoy studious evenings by the fire — like Raynal and his companions.
In Mysterious Island, as in Wrecked on a Reef, the action is set in the mid-1860s; but Verne's castaways stay in their island twice as long as Raynal, four years from March 1865 to March 1869. The extension in time allows for their transformation of the desert island into a fertile land.
While Auckland Island offers few natural resources, 'Lincoln Island' is replete with animals and plants such as penguins, seals, kangaroos, agoutis, peccary, bustard, foxes, to name but a few. The fibrous sugar tasting plant found on Auckland Island is replaced by syrup from 'maples' growing side by side with 'breadfruit and tobacco.' In fact, every negative feature on Auckland Island turns super-positive in Verne's Mysterious Island, so much so that the once castaways become convinced settlers. One could hardly blame them, especially when the single grain of wheat found by Harbert in his pocket gives rise in time to a rich harvest.
There is nothing comparable on Auckland Island, just a few mussels when the tide is right, and as Raynal puts it in chapter VI, the chance of eating "black, tough and oily seal meat, as equally awful to taste as to smell" — provided the seals are not migrating. Starvation continually threatens, whereas the page 250'castaways of the air' enjoy a varied and plentiful diet, as shown by one of their menus: "two small peccary, kangaroo soup, smoked ham, almonds, Dracaena juice, Oswego tea 10…" And when they happen to kill seals, it is to make bellows with their skins — according to Raynal's recipe.
In Verne's novel, as in Wrecked on a Reef, there are five male characters. The most remarkable one is Cyrus Smith, a true genius of an engineer.11 "The engineer was a microcosm, a compound of all sciences and human intelligence … with him, one would never be short of anything. With him, one could not despair."12
Cyrus Smith shares with Captain Thomas Musgrave and Francois Raynal a keen sense of responsibilities, a strong willpower, and a talent for social organisation. Like Raynal at the beginning of the story, he is unwell and weakened by the ordeal. Nevertheless, he is the chosen leader of the group, unlike Raynal who accepts Captain Musgrave's leadership and remains second in command, while playing a vital part in the common survival and final salvation.
The engineer's scientific knowledge is encyclopedic; besides, like Raynal, he has extraordinary technical and practical skills. He is aware of Raynal's techniques, occasionally improves on them, and delights in explaining how to make soap, lye, mortar, a bellows, tools, and shoes with sealskin. He will know how to make pottery, a fire with watch lenses, and even nitroglycerine. During his "metallurgical period" he will make a smithy to process iron ore benevolently provided by the island — so that nails and tools become available for their colonising requirements.
Raynal's practical skill for boatbuilding is passed on to another character of Mysterious Island named Pencraft, who is a devoted and capable sailor, reminding us of Musgrave's special talent as a seaman. Raynal's duty of keeping the logbook is passed on to another character, the journalist Gideon Spilett.
In fact, according to Verne, these Yankee characters are superior castaways: "For they knew and the man who knows will succeed where countless others will exist miserably and are sure to perish."
Would not these very words provide an excellent definition of Raynal's own talent?
It can be said that in Mysterious Island, La Fontaine's maxim13: 'Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera' turns into 'Aide-toi, Nemo t'aidera,' because of dramatic necessity.14 The mysterious interventions of the unknown benefactor are multiplied as we reach the second and third parts of Verne's novel; they are qualified as "providential, miraculous, and supernatural," for as the title of the series tells us, we are indeed in the realm of "Extraordinary Journeys to Known and Unknown Worlds."15
When Verne's characters happen to mention God, their invocations appear like slips of the tongue rather than genuine prayers. Their keenest religious sentiments seem directed towards the mysterious presence so obviously engaged in supporting their welfare. For Pencroff and Nab, the humbler members of the group, this presence is that of "a God special to this island … whose occult power seemed limitless," and Verne comments: "for they were carried away to the realm of the Supernatural."16 Their fervour is not shared by the engineer whose mind seeks logical explanations.
In contrast, the Auckland Island castaways recover: "religious feelings asleep or stifled in their hearts, and feel a genuine need for piety after every ordeal," especially after experiencing an earthquake in chapter XIII. Though they belong to different religions, they often pray together and read the Bible. During the long Auckland Island winters, Musgrave and Raynal taught their crew how to read and write; such studious evenings were repeated and brought to a superior level on Lincoln Island. I leave to interested readers the task of completing the list of parallels to be found in Mysterious Island and in Wrecked on a Reef, and turn to the next novel indebted to the latter.
The French original of Two Years' Holiday
It is not in a serious mode this time, but with a rather liberal hand for self-parody. Once again The Swiss Family Robinson provides the atmosphere, though the influence of Raynal is again very much at play. The voyage starts and ends in the city of Auckland this time — an echo perhaps of the ill-fated island?
Boys from Chairman Boarding School in Auckland, which provides a select education for the sons of New Zealand and overseas well-to-do families, are preparing for a great circumnavigation of New Zealand with their fathers during the holidays. An unexpected incident— in which we recognise again the powerful force of dramatic necessity — carries them away through the Pacific Ocean eastwards, without their parents.
As may be expected, this boarding school of mini-Robinson Crusoes is going to be shipwrecked on an island where they will repeat the experience of the castaways of Mysterious Island rather than the ordeals of those of Wrecked on a Reef. Verne could not inflict on his boys the great hardships described by Raynal; the point of his tale is to convince his youthful readers to become self-reliant and to act in unison with others.
Many incidents are again borrowed from Raynal, such as young Bryant's feat of carrying a cable from their sinking ship to the land, as Alick had done after the wreck of the Grafton. Later they put up a mast on a hill, explore their new domain, name landmarks, shoot birds, enjoy studying in winter by the fire, and eventuallv they start repairing the boat that will take them back to civilisation.
Other incidents are adapted from Mysterious Island, such as the social organisation of the group, the election of a leader, sharing duties, teaching the younger boys and making playing cards and games.
If only to remind us that Jules Verne did read Raynal's book down to the last pages, we come across an incident where reality is stranger than fiction, and in another twist, produces more fiction! In his last chapter, Raynal told us how Captain Musgrave stopped in Port Ross after picking up his last two companions from Carnley Harbour. There, under a dilapidated shelter, he found the corpse of a sailor with a bandaged foot, and buried him. (He would learn later that he had been on the crew of the Invercauld.)
Both cave and chart will prove useful to the college boys. Like their predecessors of Mysterious Island they will settle comfortably in the cave after stripping their wrecked vessel of everything they need: furniture, clothes, food, weapons, tools etc … they are luckier than the Grafton castaways, inasmuch as their yacht was provisioned with more than the essentials. They only shoot birds and wild pigs to supplement their diet, and if they kill seals it is because oil is needed to light up their cave at night.
Their menus are similar to the rich diet of the castaways of Mysterious Island. Finally, after an episode with pirates, they engineer their own salvation by repairing a longboat, conveniently abandoned on the beach by the nasty pirates they have vanquished. The young heroes are indeed fortunate, for they have the help of an honest sailor whom they free from the pirates. He will guide the boat through "the canals of the Magellan Archipelago," until they are all picked up by the steamer Grafton, and returned to their parents in the city of Auckland. The name Grafton provides further evidence that Verne had Raynal's wreck in mind.
Verne would remember Wrecked on a Reef again in an unfinished novel entitled En Magellanie, written towards the end of his life in 1897-98. It was published posthumously in 1909 in a modified version entitled Les Naufrages du Jonathan, edited by his son Michel. In chapter IX of En Magellanie(which has not been translated into English) the name Musgrave reappears very briefly. However, it is a Musgrave demoted from captain to mate of the Jonathan; during the storm which drives the ship to the coast, "he is mortally wounded" and disappears…
Readers equally fascinated by Wyss may find it valuable to read Verne's sequel to his story, and note the reappearance of details inspired by Raynal in the novel.
In 1991 another unfinished manuscript of a shipwreck and survival story by Verne found publication, entitled L'Oncle Robinson19 It would seem that Verne started writing it during the winter of 1869 but stopped short when his publisher Jules Hetzel rejected it as boring and lifeless. Anyone reading it today can only applaud Hetzel's wise decision, for it is still very close to Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson and fails to show any real originality.
Thanks to the character of the engineer, the castaways in Mysterious Island think in much wider terms than the building of huts and rafts; they discover chemistry, for Jules Verne wanted his tale to be "a chemical novel".21 They have to lower the level of a lake by two feet to make an entrance to the cave in a granite cliff where they will create a home. A recipe for nitroglycerine is provided, and a way to detonate the explosive without endangering human life is found.
It seems that Wrecked on a Reef had a decisive and liberating influence on the Vernian imagination. The contemporary shipwreck and survival story caused him to revisit Defoe's 18th century fable of the marooned Robinson Crusoe, and its equally popular family adaptation by Rudolph Wyss. His new story developed in Mysterious Island is better adapted to his times when science and technology ensure the survival of a group of men who display a similar ingenuity and spirit as the Auckland Island castaways.
Once the 'castaways of the air' fulfil the essential needs of food, shelter and companionship under the influence of Raynal in the first part of the novel, Verne's imagination takes wing. Parts II and III move away from a castaway story to explore the extraordinary unknown world of an 'Erewhon' where it is possible to recreate — at least for the duration of the novel — a colony where the soil is generous, science is the key to immediate knowledge, where villains are redeemed by good example, a monkey humanised, and men survive happily in the secure shelter of the womb-cave of their own making.
Among the many shipwreck islands created by Jules Verne, we can be sure that the model of his famous Mysterious Island happens to be the Auckland Islands, revealed to the novelist by his compatriot Francois Raynal. Now that these islands have achieved the status of a World Natural Heritage site, it would be appropriate to mention them as a World Literary Heritage site as well, for they provided the backdrop to the adventures of the real castaways who haunted Verne's imagination.
1 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass,'A Broadway Pageant,' Airmont Publishing Company, New York, 1965, section 2, p180
2 Colin, DM, 'Le leviathan ou le fil de la vie,' Revue Jules Verne No I, Revue du Centre de Documentation Jules Verne, Amiens, 1 st semester 1996, pp16-21
3 Published in book form in 1871 (publication dates quoted here are of the French editions)
4 Johann Rudolph Wyss (1782-1830) was a professor of philosophy at Bern University from 1805. He wrote The Swiss Family Robinson in 1812; it was translated into French in 1813 and English in 1820. A new translation, signed by E Muller and PJ Stahl (Jules Hetzel's nom de plume) was published by Hetzel in 1864 in the Magasin d'Education etde Recreation.
5 Mysterious Island, 1 st part, chapter VI, published 1874
6 ibid, Part III, chapter I
7 A novel in three parts published respectively in 1865, 1867, and 1868; publication in one volume in 1867. The third part takes place in the thermal district and Taupo region of the North Island of New Zealand.
8 A novel in two parts: the first published in 1869, the second in 1870 — publication in one volume in 1871.
9 First edition 1864; a slightly enlarged edition came out in 1867
10 Mysterious Island, Part I, chapter XXII
11 This first name recalls Cyrus Field, chief engineer of the Transatlantic Cable Project
12 Verne, op cit, Part I, chapter IX
13 La Fontaine, Fables, VI, 18, Le chartier embourbe
14 'Heaven helps those who help themselves'
15 This is the global title of Jules Verne's series of novels
16 Mysterious Island, Part III, chapter XIII
17 Verne's own words in the Preface to Two Years' Holiday
18 Two Years' Holiday, Chapters VIII and IX
19 Le cherche midi editeur, 1991
20 Mysterious Island is considered one of Verne's best novels. It has attracted the attention of such critics as Roland Barthes, Jean Chesneaux, Simone Vierne, the philosopher Michel Serres, and enthusiastic praise from diverse French writers: Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giono, Michel Butor, Le Clezio, to name but a few.
21 Verne's letter to his publisher, Jules Hetzel, 2 February 1873, I. BNF, 1 7004 fo 199-200