The Begum's Fortune

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The Begum's Fortune
'The Begum's Fortune' by Léon Benett 01.jpg
Author Jules Verne
Original title Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum
Translator Mrs. Agnes Kinloch Kingston and W. H. G. Kingston (1879), I. O. Evans (1958), Stanford L. Luce (2005)
Illustrator Léon Benett
Country France
Language French
Series The Extraordinary Voyages #18
Genre Utopian, Dystopian novel
Publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel
Publication date
1879
Published in English
1879
Media type Print (Hardback)
ISBN N/A
Preceded by Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen
Followed by Tribulations of a Chinaman in China

The Begum's Fortune (French: Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum), also published as The Begum's Millions, is an 1879 novel by Jules Verne, with some elements which could be described as utopian and others which seem clearly dystopian. It is remarkable as the first published book in which Verne was cautionary and to some degree pessimistic about the development of science and technology.

As came out long after the book's publication, it is actually based on a manuscript by Paschal Grousset, a Corsican revolutionary who had participated in the Paris Commune and was at the time living in exile in the USA and London. It was bought by Pierre-Jules Hetzel, the publisher of most of Verne’s books. The attribution of plot elements between Grousset's original text and Verne's work on it has not been completely defined. Later, Verne worked similarly on two more books by Grousset and published them under his name, before the revolutionary finally got a pardon and was able to return to France and resume publication in his own name.

The book first appeared in a hasty and poorly done English translation soon after its publication in French – one of the bad translations which are considered to have damaged Verne's reputation in the English-speaking world. W. H. G. Kingston was near death and deeply in debt at the time. His wife, Mrs. A. K. Kingston, who did the translation for him, was certainly otherwise preoccupied than with the accuracy of the text and may have had to rely on outside help. Recently, a new translation from the French was made by Stanford L. Luce and published by Wesleyan University.

I. O. Evans in his introduction to his "Fitzroy Edition" of The Begum's Fortune suggested a connection between the creation of artificial satellites in this novel and the publication of The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale in 1879.

Plot summary[edit]

Two men receive the news that they are part-inheritors to a vast fortune due to being the last surviving descendants of a French soldier-of-fortune who many years before settled in India and married the immensely rich widow of one of its native princes – the begum of the title.

One of the inheritors is a gentle French physician, Dr. Sarrasin, who has long been concerned with the unsanitary conditions of the European cities. He decides to use his share of the inheritance to establish a utopian model city which would be constructed and maintained with public health as the primary concern of its government.

The other inheritor is a far from gentle, German scientist Prof. Schultze – very stereotypically presented as an arrogant militarist and racist, who becomes increasingly power-mad in the course of the book. Though having had himself a French grandmother, (otherwise he would not have gotten the inheritance), he is completely convinced of the innate superiority of the "Saxon" (i.e., German) over the "Latin" (primarily, the French) which would lead to the eventual total destruction of the latter by the former. Immediately when first introduced to the reader he is in the process of composing a supposedly scholarly paper entitled "Why do all French people suffer, to one degree or another, from hereditary degeneration?", to be published in the German "Physiological Annals" (though his official academic specialty is Chemistry). Later it is disclosed that Schultze had done considerable "research" and publication conclusively proving the superiority of the German race over the rest of humanity.

The Utopian plans of his distant French cousin not only seem to Schultze stupid and meaningless, but are positively wrong for the very fact that they issue from a Frenchman and are designed to block "progress" which decreed that the degenerate French are due to be subdued by the Germans. Schultze proposes to use his half of the inheritance for constructing his own kind of utopia – a city devoted to the production of ever more powerful and destructive weapons – and even before the first stone was laid in either city, vows to destroy Sarrasin's creation.

The two (each one separately) quite improbably manage to get the United States to cede its sovereignty over large parts of the Pacific Northwest, in order to enable the creation of two competing city-states, located at southern Oregon at a distance of forty kilometres of each other on either side of the Cascades – a tranquil French city of 100,000 on the western side, and a bustling German city of 50,000 to the east, with its industrial and mining operations extending far eastward, causing extensive pollution and environmental destruction as far as The Red Desert in Wyoming (see,[1][2]).

Verne gives the precise location of Sarrasin's "Ville-France" (France-Ville or Frankville in English translations) – on the Southern Oregon sea shore, eighty kilometres north of Cape Blanco, at 43°11'3" North, 124°41'17" West. This would place it at the southern end of Coos County, Oregon – a county which already existed at the time, though very thinly populated (and remained so, having 62,779 inhabitants as of 2000).

The nearest real-life town seems to be Bandon with a 2,833 population registered in the same 2000 census, located slightly north-east of the site of Ville-France, (see [3]), and which was founded by the Irish peer George Bennet in 1873 – one year after Verne's date for the creation of Ville-France. The Coquille River, at whose southern bank Bandon is located, is presumably the unnamed "small river of sweet mountain waters" which Verne describes as providing Ville-France's water.

As depicted by Verne, brief negotiations with the Oregon Legislature in December 1871 suffice to secure the grant of a 16 kilometre-wide area extending from the Pacific shore to the peaks of the Cascades, "with a sovereignty similar to that of Monaco" and the stipulation that after an unspecified number of years it would revert to full US sovereignty (Verne does not mention any United States Department of State or Congressional involvement in the deal). Actual construction begins in January 1872, and by April of the same year the first train from New York pulls into the Ville-France Railway Station, a trunk line from Sacramento having been completed.

The houses and public facilities of "Ville-France" are constructed by a large number of Chinese migrant workers- who are sent away once the city is complete, with the payment of their salaries specifically dependent on their signing an obligation never to return. Reviewer Paul Kincaid noted that "The Chinese coolies employed to build the French utopia are then hurriedly dispatched back to San Francisco, since they are not fit to reside in this best of all cities".[4]

The book justifies the exclusion of the Chinese as being a precaution needed in order to avoid in advance the "difficulties created in other places" by the presence of Chinese communities. This might be an oblique reference to the Chinese Massacre of 1871, when a mob entered Los Angeles' Chinatown, indiscriminately burning Chinese-occupied buildings and killing at least 20 Chinese American residents out of a total of some 200 then living in the city.

Most of the action takes place in Schultze's "Steel City" (Stahlstadt) – a vast industrial and mining complex, where ores are taken out of the earth, made into steel and the steel into ever more deadly arms, of which this has become within a few years the world's biggest producer. The now immensely rich Schultze is Steel City's dictator, whose very word is law and who makes all significant decisions personally. There is no mention of Steel City's precise legal status vis-a-vis the Oregon or US Federal authorities, but clearly Schultze behaves as a completely independent head of state (except that he uses Dollars rather than mint his own currency).

The strongly fortified city is built in concentric circles, each separated from the next by a high wall, with the mysterious "Tower of the Bull" – Schultze's own abode – at its center. The workers are under a semi-military discipline, with complex metallurgical operations carried out with a Teutonic split-second precision. A worker straying into where and what he is not authorised to see and know is punished with immediate expulsion in the outer sectors and with death in the sensitive inner ones. However, the workers' conditions seem rather decent by Nineteenth Century standards: there are none of the hovels which characterised many working-class districts of the time, and competence is rewarded with rapid promotion by the paternalistic Schultze and his underlings.

Dr. Sarrasin, in contrast, is a rather passive figure – a kind of non-hereditary constitutional monarch who, after the original initiative to found Ville-France, does not take any significant decision in the rest of the book. The book's real protagonist, who offers active resistance to Schultze's dark reign and his increasingly satanic designs, is a younger Frenchman – the Alsatian Marcel Bruckmann, native of the part of France forcibly annexed by Germany in the recent war.

The dashing Bruckmann – an Alsatian with a German family name and fiercely patriotic French heart – manages to penetrate Steel City. As an Alsatian, he is a fluent speaker of German, an indispensable condition for entering the thoroughly Germanised Steel City, and is able to pass himself off as being Swiss – "Elsässisch", the German dialect spoken in Alsace, being very close to Swiss German. He quickly rises high in its hierarchy, gains Schultze's personal confidence, spies out some of the tyrant's well-kept secrets and brings a warning to his French friends. It turns out that Schultze is not content to produce arms, but fully intends to use them himself – first against the hated Ville-France, as a first step towards his explicit ambition of establishing Germany's worldwide rule.(He casually mentions a plan to seize "some islands off Japan" in order to further the same.)

Two fearsome weapons are being made ready – a super-cannon capable of firing massive incendiary charges over a distance of 40 km (just the distance from Steel City to Ville-France), and shells filled with gas. The latter seems to give Verne credit for the very first prediction of chemical warfare, nearly twenty years before H. G. Wells's "black smoke" in The War of the Worlds. Schultze's gas is designed not only to suffocate its victims but at the same time also freeze them. A special projectile is filled with compressed liquid carbon dioxide that, when released, instantly lowers the surrounding temperature to a hundred degrees Celsius below zero, quick-freezing every living thing in the vicinity.

Ville-France prepares as well as it can, but there is not very much to do against such weapons. Schultze, however, meets with poetic justice. Firstly, the incendiary charge fired by the super-cannon at Ville-France not only renders the cannon unusable, but also misses its mark. The charge flies harmlessly over the city and into space, apparently owing to Schultze's failure to account for the roundness of the globe when firing a projectile over such distances. Secondly, as Schultze sits in his secret office, preparing for the final assault and writing out the order to his men to bring him the frozen bodies of Sarrasin and Bruckmann to be displayed in public, a gas projectile which he kept in the office accidentally explodes and feeds him his own deadly medicine.

The entire edifice of "Steel City" collapses, since Schultze had kept everything in his own hands and never appointed any deputy. It goes bankrupt and becomes a ghost town. Sarrasin and Bruckmann take it over with the only resistance offered being from two rather dimwitted Schultze bodyguards who stayed behind when everybody else left. Schultze would remain forevermore in his self-made tomb, on display as he had planned to do to his foes, while the good Frenchmen take over direction of Steel City in order to let it "serve a good cause from now on." (Arms production would go on, however, so as "to make Ville-France so strong that nobody would dare attack it ever again".)

Influence, commentary, and appraisals[edit]

The book was seen as an early premonition of the rise of Nazi Germany, with its main villain being described by critics as "a proto-Hitler" (see [5]). It reflects the mindset prevailing in France following its defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870-1871, displaying a bitter anti-German bias completely absent from pre-1871 Verne works such as Journey to the Center of the Earth where all protagonists (save one Icelander) are Germans, and quite sympathetic ones. In his extensive review of Verne's works, Walter A. McDougall commented with the regard to The Begum's Millions: "After the Franco-Prussian War, Verne began to invent mad scientists and evil geniuses".[6]

Throughout the book, Verne repeatedly ridicules Schultze's racist ideas and their author (the word "Vaterland" in German continually occurs within the French rendering of Schultze's diatribes). As reviewer Paul Kincaid points out (see [4]), Verne's ridiculing of the German's ethnic stereotyping can be regarded as itself part of an ethnic stereotyping in the opposite direction.

A more obvious ethnic stereotyping is the repeated references to Schultze eating nothing but sausages and sauerkraut in enormous quantities, washed down by huge mugs of beer – even after becoming one the richest people in the world, who could afford any kind of delicacies. In one scene he is shown commiserating with the benighted nations which are denied the benefits of the above-mentioned foods. For his part, the disguised French spy Bruckmann heartily loathes the same kind of food, but dutifully ingests it day after day in the patriotic interest of gaining Schulze's confidence – somewhat ironic, as both ingredients are quite common in Alsatian cuisine, and in combination as choucroute garnie now a common dish across France.

The book, in Hebrew translation, enjoyed some popularity in 1950's Israel. The depiction of Schultze and the Divine Retribution which eventually overtakes him were very much in tune with prevailing Israeli attitudes at the time. Following the Holocaust, Israeli Jews had an even stronger reason to be bitter at Germans than French people of the 1870s. However, the Hebrew version omitted a passage in the original (Chapter 11) where Octave Sarrasin, the doctor's dissolute son, is being cheated by "foreigners with long noses" as well as ones belonging to "the black and yellow races".

  • A passage in the book is clearly intended as satire of the already formidable American advertising industry. When looking for manpower to build their Utopian new city, the founders of Ville-France find it sufficient "to publish daily ads in all of San Francisco's 23 daily papers, and to have a special wagon completely covered with advertisements attached to the Transcontinental trains" and they "find unnecessary" the "quite cheap offer of an advertising agency to inscribe advertisements into the flanks of the Rocky Mountains". Verne's idea here anticipates Robert A. Heinlein's own in "The Man Who Sold the Moon" to use the surface of the Moon as "a billboard for Coca Cola which would be visible from everywhere on Earth".
  • At the time of writing, public opinion in France was moved by the liberal subscriptions made by the citizens of San Francisco to a relief fund for the sick and wounded soldiers of France during the Franco-Prussian war. In acknowledgement, the French government donated to the newly established San Francisco Art Association a collection of copies from original marbles in the Louvre, including twenty-five pieces of the Parthenon frieze.[7] This may have affected Verne's choice of the US Pacific Coast as a congenial setting for his ideal French city.

Common themes with "Facing the Flag"[edit]

Researcher George Klein noted that "The Begum's Fortune shares its main theme with Verne's Facing the Flag (Original French title: "Face au drapeau"), published in 1896: French patriotism faced with the threat of futuristic super-weapons (what would now be called weapons of mass destruction) and emerging victorious".[8] In both books, a symbolic extension of France (the Utopian community of Ville-France in the one book, a French warship is in the other) is threatened with a fearsome WMD and seems doomed, only to be saved in the very last moment. In the one book the weapon is created by a sworn and fanatic enemy of France, who is destroyed by his own weapon; in the other, it is the creation of a renegade Frenchman, who at the moment of truth returns to his allegiance and destroys his weapon and himself rather than shoot on the Tricolour. Either way, both books end – and are clearly designed to end – with the material and moral victory of France.

Autobiographical influence[edit]

Verne's depiction of Dr. Sarrasin's "prodigal son," Octave Sarrasin (initially a weak character who is kept from moral degradation only by the leadership of his friend Marcel) is reminiscent of the writer's own strained relationship with his son Michel. As Marcel departs into United States and ultimately into Steel City, Octave, deprived of Marcel's guidance, with the newly inherited riches at hand, is allowed to follow his own frivolous ways. However, having wasted much of his father's fortune and finally realizing the absurdity of his existence, Octave arrives at Ville-France (much to the joy of his parents), reunites with Marcel and becomes his courageous and trusted companion.

Film adaptations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ [1][dead link]
  2. ^ [2][dead link]
  3. ^ "Bandon, Oregon: Welcome to Bandon, Oregon". El.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  4. ^ a b Rodger Turner, Webmaster. "The SF Site Featured Review: The Begum's Millions". Sfsite.com. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  5. ^ "Michael Dirda - Michael Dirda". Washingtonpost.com. 2006-03-05. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  6. ^ [3][dead link]
  7. ^ "The California School of Design: Supplement of the Mark Hopkins Institute Review of Art". Sunsite.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 2014-05-11. 
  8. ^ Dr. George V. Klein, "19th Century Notions of Patriotism and Nationalism and Their Long-Term Implications" in Tamara Brown (ed.) "The Road to 1914 and Thence to 1939"

External links[edit]

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