- The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution by Jules Verne
Popularity and literary recognition do not often go hand in hand. The works of Jules Verne, one of the most widely read French authors in the world, paid the price for their success: free adaptations and poor translations all but obliterated the original quality of Verne's complex œuvre. For an entire generation, [End Page 288] Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea erased the prodigious novel that had inspired Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel, and Georges Perec. But if fanciful movies and shortened versions of Verne's novels continue to flood the market, a number of scholarly editions have recently been published by Oxford University Press, Wesleyan University Press, and the University of Nebraska Press. The Palik Series, sponsored by the North American Jules Verne Society, joins these presses with a specific goal: to publish first-time English translations of Verne's most overlooked works, plays, or short stories that throw a new light on the writer's inexhaustible imagination. One of their recent publications, The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, deserves special attention. Verne's tale of war, treason, and patriotic fervor is one of his early works (it was published in 1864 in the Musée des familles).
The novella takes place in Brittany during the 1793 Vendée war against the Republic, and exploits themes familiar to those who have read Balzac's Les Chouans, or Hugo's later Quatrevingt-treize. Two ideals pitted against each other: on one side the Republican Army receiving orders from Paris; on the other, disorganized groups of poorly armed local nobles, peasants, and priests fighting for their traditions. Like Balzac, Verne explores the betrayals that divided camps, families, villages, but on a more intimate scale. Verne's account of the solidarity between the nobility and the peasants is also distinct from Hugo's description of an arrogant Lantenac leading a fanatical crowd of illiterate peasants. Still, similar themes appear in their works: the need for confession; the value of sacrifice and redemption. As Hugo later will, Verne seizes on the symbolic importance of landscapes dominated by church steeples (anyone familiar with Batz-sur-Mer will recognize Verne's precise description of the church seen from afar as the most recognizable landmark of the region). Verne, however, opts for a happy ending, and his hero is saved from the guillotine by the events of 9 Thermidor.
There is also a distinct quality to Verne's story: he grew up in Nantes, where the memory of Carrier's noyades endures, and where many family traditions still evoke ancestors divided between Bleus and Blancs. The guerre de Vendée fully belongs to local history, with its heroes glorified in image books and popular songs. The plot moves at a fast pace on a topic the author clearly knew well, not just from historical books but from oral transmission and personal knowledge of the land.
Among the works inspired by the guerre de Vendée, Barbey d'Aurevilly's Le Chevalier des Touches (published the same year as The Count of Chanteleine), is perhaps the closest to Verne's intimate rendering of the war [End Page 289] against the Republic. Both authors side with the Chouans, those who have remained loyal to their priests and lost everything in return. But Barbey is an ultra-royalist, Verne is not. In the opening scene of the Count of Chanteleine, Chanteleine fights for the people. He does not lead a grandiose scheme with a tactical battle plan, but a desperate effort to save the innocents from the devastation of the Republican army. At some point in the novel, as Brian Taves notes in his remarkable introduction, Verne gives some credit to the Committee of Public Safety, the only effective government in a country attacked from all sides. One of the last chapters gives a brief overview of the Vendée war, quoting De Maistre and...