Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #23: Le Rayon vert

“Betty!”

“Bess!”

“Betsey!”

One after another these names re-echoed through the hall of Helensburgh; it was the way the brothers Sam and Sib had of summoning their housekeeper.

But just now these diminutives had no more power of bringing forth the worthy dame than if her masters had bestowed on her her rightful title.

It was Partridge the factor, who, with his hat in his hand, made his appearance at the hall-door.

Addressing the two goodnatured-looking gentlemen seated in the embrasure of a bow-window in the front of the house, he said,—

“You were calling Dame Bess, masters, but she is not in the house.”

“Where is she, then, Partridge?”

“She has gone out with Miss Campbell for a walk in the park.”

A considerably underappreciated tale, Le Rayon vert, or The Green Ray, is a tale of poetry and love on the western coast of Scotland. Verne was enthusiastic about Scotland; he like to yacht, and visited Scotland several times in his life. Part of his interest was that geography was one of the loves of his life, and Scotland, with its many unusual features, variety of islands, and untamed coasts with picturesque ruins spoke to that part of him completely. We tend to think of Verne as a science fiction writer, and he did deliberately pursue that aspect of his fiction, but many of his tales are, first and foremost, geographical stories: it's the 'geographical' part that usually gives us the voyages in the Voyages Extraordinaires. Part of his interest was that he was part Scottish himself, through an ancestor who had been an archer in the service of King Louis XI, and from an early age had an enthusiasm for Scottish literature, which he read in French translation -- Sir Walter Scott and Ossian, in particular, his love of which comes through on practically every page of The Green Ray.

The Green Ray tells the story of the Melville brothers, Sam and Sib, and their niece and ward, Helena Campbell, on whom they dote. She is of the age to marry, and they have in mind an excellent candidate, Aristobulus Ursiclos; but Helena, being of romantic temperament, has read about the Green Ray, a flash of green light that sometimes appears just as the sun passes the horizon at sea when the sky is clear, and, it is rumored, the viewer of that phenomenon will find his or heart's desire. She insists that she will marry no one until she has seen the Green Ray (although one wonders how much is enthusiasm for the Green Ray and how much of it is reluctance to marry Aristobulus). So off her uncles take her to Oban, in an adventure attempting to find a proper viewing point for the Green Ray. In the course of the story -- which should be read with a map of western Scotland -- Verne satirizes those who would attempt to disparage poetic, artistic, and even just whimsical approaches to the phenomena of nature in the person of Aristobulus Ursiclos, who is a devoted natural historian. Aristobulus's enthusiasm for science is in fact, as we begin to see clearly over the course of the tale, a form of narcissism; it is a way of being self-absorbed. Of course, Helena herself borders on self-absorption throughout -- she has been practically spoiled by her doting uncles -- and her pursuit of the Green Ray could very well have tended in that direction; but as she tours the western coast and islands of Scotland, she will learn to rise above the self-absorption. And in that way she will indeed find her heart's desire.

(Those who are interested in Verne's connection with Scotland might be interested in Ian B. Thompson, "Jules Verne, Geography and Nineteenth Century Scotland".)

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