Verniana — Jules Verne Studies / Etudes Jules Verne — Volume 2 (2009–2010) — 23–46

Brunel’s Great Eastern and the Vernian Imagination: The Writing of Une Ville flottante

Timothy Unwin


Ships have a privileged place in Jules Verne’s work, and none offered him a more spectacular example of the nineteenth century’s technological advances than the Great Eastern, designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1850s. This essay examines Verne’s response to the Great Eastern in his novel Une Ville flottante (1870), a story that conveys a new sense of man’s relationship to the global space he inhabits, and underlines the excitement (as well as the anxiety) of modern travel. The novel is seen as broadly representative of the stylistic techniques of the Voyages extraordinaires, and the hypothesis that it might not have been written by Verne himself is firmly refuted. The essay offers a close analysis of the ways in which Verne negotiates and assimilates factual realities through his textual representations, and argues that there is no simple transcription of the “real” into the “imaginary” in Verne’s world. For Verne, as for Balzac, the world is never not fiction: the real already has magical, make-believe properties, and in that respect the Great Eastern was the perfect site for a story. Far from being a documentary or factual account, Verne’s text is intensely stylized and fictionalized, partly because “reality” itself is already so mesmerizing for its author, and partly because his writing is characterized by its verbal energy and exuberance. And while Verne’s extraordinary and innovative style matches the invention that he describes, we shall suggest in the latter stages of this essay that the story also offers a nuanced reflection on the future of technology.

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