Thursday, December 20, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #8: Une ville flottante

On the 18th of March, 1867, I arrived at Liverpool, it, tending to take a berth simply as an amateur traveller on board the "Great Eastern," which in a few days was to sail for New York. I had sometimes thought of paying a visit to North America, and was now tempted to cross the Atlantic on board this gigantic boat. First of all the "Great Eastern," then the country celebrated by Cooper.

This steam-ship is indeed a masterpiece of naval construction; more than a vessel, it is a floating city, part of the country, detached from English soil, which after having crossed the sea, unites itself to the American Continent. I pictured to myself this enormous bulk borne on the waves, her defiant struggle with the wind, her boldness before the powerless sea, her indifference to the billows, her stability in the midst of that element which tosses "Warriors" and "Solferinos" like ship's boats. But my imagination carried me no farther; all these things I did indeed see during the passage, and many others which do not exclusively belong to the maritime domain. If the "Great Eastern" is not merely a nautical engine, but rather a microcosm, and carries a small world with it, an observer will not be astonished to meet here, as on a larger theatre, all the instincts, follies, and passions of human nature.

The Great Eastern, launched in 1858, was a vast steamship, the largest of her day, designed to carry 4000 passengers from England to Australia without a stop. In that was her downfall; there really wasn't demand on the scale to make her original intended voyages to the East financially viable, and she was, really, too big for Atlantic routes where most of the money could be found. She made a number of voyages, but as steamship transportation became increasingly competitive, she could not compete, and she was so expensive to repair that she contributed heavily to the bankrupting of the company that owned her. She was bought, quite cheaply, and converted into a cable-laying ship, where she had what was perhaps her greatest success in helping to lay crucial telegraph cables. In the late 1860s and 1870s there were tentative attempts to see if she could be successful as a commercial liner, but none of it really amounted to much, and she was sold for scrap in 1888. Always stunningly impressive in idea, she never quite managed to fulfill that idea in practice.

In 1867, however, Jules Verne and his brother Paul had taken one of the trips that the owners were using to test out whether she could be succeed as a liner, and while aware of her difficulties, Verne was fully taken with her idea -- she was not so much a ship, he thought, as a floating city that had broken off from England and landed on the American shore. The Vernes used their trip to America for a brief visit to Niagara Falls and then returned. Given Verne's interest in the power of technology to expand our geographical experience of the world, it is perhaps inevitable that the trip would inform some of the Voyages Extraordinaires. One sees traces of the experience in a number of Verne's novels, but, of course, one sees it most in A Floating City, in which the narrator takes a trip across the Atlantic on the Great Eastern and visits Niagara Falls.

The story is a straightforward story, much taken with life aboard the 'floating city'. We become acquainted with various interesting characters, like the pessimistic yet constantly joking Doctor, or the romantic young man Fabian, or the strange weeping woman Emily and her ruthless husband. A centerpiece of the tale, in classic Verne melodramatic style, is a duel aboard ship. But all goes well in the end, even if it is only with the help of a bit of lightning.

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