Haklin on Butcher (2015)


Butcher, William. Jules Verne inédit: les manuscrits déchiffrés. ENS Éditions, 2015, pp. 492, ISBN 978-2-84788-559-0

Kathryn A. Haklin, Johns Hopkins University

With Jules Verne inédit, William Butcher fills a major gap in Verne scholarship: he conducts a meticulous examination of the oft-translated author’s manuscripts, an investigation heretofore unaccomplished. Despite frequently referencing the contentious relationship between Verne and his editor/publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, scholars have tended to consult their correspondence in order to understand the interaction between author and editor, without turning to the manuscripts. However, as Butcher convincingly demonstrates, the published versions of Verne’s works contain numerous changes from his original script, ultimately revealing the great extent to which the texts changed under the direction of Hetzel. This polemical finding therefore calls for a reconsideration of several Vernian narratives to which readers have become accustomed. 

Butcher treats Verne’s earliest novels and travel essays written between 1859 and 1879, those composed when his ties to Hetzel were the strongest. The two introductory chapters, combined with the concluding chapter, promote the central argument that the published versions of the Voyages extraordinaires differ considerably from the original formulations Verne had envisioned. These three chapters thus form a coherent entity and could be read independently from the rest of the book. Chapters three through nineteen examine the manuscript of a single work and can be read on an individual basis, as desired. Although connecting the manuscripts with Verne and Hetzel’s correspondence is not his primary objective, Butcher integrates pertinent aspects from their letters to track the succession of modifications in some texts. Moreover, he charts the author’s working process from preliminary notes, to outlines and synopses, to the writing itself. The detailed footnotes and appendices describing each manuscript will provide helpful insight for scholars unable to consult them in person. 

Critics have based their analyses of the Voyages extraordinaires almost exclusively on the published Hetzel editions. Butcher foregrounds the limitations of this nearly unavoidable practice since it fails to account for the changes proposed, and at times imposed, by the editor. In terms of methodology, Butcher focuses on the major points of contention between author and editor, highlighting the moments where Hetzel’s intrusion most plainly contrasts Verne’s original writing. He hones in on the passages where the editor intervenes most, be it by demanding revisions that transform the temperament of notable characters (Captain Nemo being a striking example) or by completely omitting entire portions of the proposed script. According to Butcher, Hetzel stifled Verne’s creative freedom. His goal is thus to recover the “unedited” Verne, the writer who appears to have attempted to preserve the earliest versions of some of his works, as if he had anticipated that a scholar would one day attempt to decode the textual clues he left behind.

The immense value of Jules Verne inédit readily emerges since Butcher remains the only critic to be granted access to certain manuscripts. Thanks to color images of notable folios, the reader can visualize the materiality, as well as the messiness, of the manuscripts studied. Indeed, as the book’s subtitle “les manuscrits déchiffrés” implies, Butcher performs the work of a literary detective poised with the task of making sense of a thorny compilation of documents. The resulting study, which Butcher admits is not exhaustive, remains unfailingly thorough at nearly five hundred pages in length. However, the sheer density of Jules Verne inédit constitutes at once its greatest strength as well as its most evident drawback. The scrupulous detail about each manuscript, with information ranging from its dimensions to the color of ink used, in addition to the generous footnotes throughout the book, could easily overwhelm a more casual reader. Nevertheless, Verne scholars—from graduate students to seasoned researchers—will find in such minutiae ample material to enrich their work.

Jules Verne inédit represents the scholarly tour de force that one would expect from an eminent critic of Butcher’s caliber. By questioning the accuracy of biography, he boldly redresses previous scholarship that overemphasized epistolary sources. Although his findings do not position Hetzel’s editorial practice in a generally positive light, Butcher avoids viewing his interventions as entirely negative. In fact, he claims that we may owe some of Verne’s most celebrated passages, such as the subterranean episodes from Voyage au centre de la Terre, to the editor’s imagination. Beyond its challenging of the editorial role, Butcher’s study ultimately raises the question of what constitutes an author. Can we view Verne’s texts as solely his own given the strong hand of Hetzel during the drafting process? Scholars may now tackle that question thanks to Jules Verne inédit, which constitutes a cherished resource for Vernian criticism.