Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Begum’s Fortune by Jules Verne

Odd tale of dueling Franco-Prussian utopias
Jules Verne was a very prolific author. His series of Voyages Extraordinaires includes 54 novels published during his lifetime (plus a few published after his death, with help from his son). Within such a large body of work, famous masterpiece like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea are far outnumbered by obscure oddities like The Begum’s Fortune, published in 1879. This book is a prefect example of how when one delves into some of the random titles in Verne’s catalog, you never know what you’re going to get, and the result is sometimes less satisfying than one would expect from an author with such an esteemed reputation.

The word “Begum” is an Indian title of nobility denoting the wife or female equivalent of a Raja. As Verne’s novel opens, one such begum, the widow of a French soldier, has passed away, leaving her immense fortune to her dead husband’s nephew, Dr. Sarrasin, a French physician. Sarrasin decides to dedicate his newfound 500 million francs to science by building an ideal city. Before he can collect his inheritance, however, a long-lost cousin comes out of the woodwork to claim half the fortune. This second heir, Dr. Schultze, is a German scientist who resents the fact that he has to share the fortune with a Frenchman. He therefore decides to build his own utopian city to outshine and crush that of his French rival.

Verne’s blatant objective here is to contrast the democratic and benevolent spirit of the French with that of the Germans, whom he sees as conceited, autocratic, megalomaniacal bigots bent on world domination. Some see this book as a prescient vision of Nazism, but it is really an expression of the animosity between France and Germany that escalated with the recent Franco-Prussian War and would continue through the two world wars of the twentieth century. Amid that political climate, Schultze can’t help but suggest Bismarck and Hitler. Schultze’s city, Stahlstadt, is an authoritarian military-industrial complex that manufactures weapons of mass destruction. Little is revealed about Sarrasin’s city, Frankville, other than an obsessive concern with sanitation and hygiene. By some weird whim of Verne’s, both ideal cities end up arising in Oregon, about 30 miles from each other. Somehow they operate as independent city-states within the boundaries of the United States; at least independent enough to declare war on one another.

Verne makes many bad choices in crafting this narrative. Whenever you think the story is showing some possibility of interesting or exciting developments, Verne makes a left turn in favor of the boring or ridiculous. At first you think the book is going to have something to do with India, but it doesn’t. Then it appears it’s going to focus on Sarrasin’s utopia, but Verne turns away from that idea. Just when you think a war is about to start, all action is negated by some dull, killjoy plot twists. Every time conflict seems to arise, Verne opts for a duller alternative. And while Verne’s odd choices are unexpected, somehow the book still ends up feeling like a predictable, formulaic Victorian romance.

In his attempt to depict the Germans as racists, Verne creates an unflattering ethnic stereotype of Germans that is in itself racist. It is also quite ironic that Frankville is built by Chinese laborers who aren’t allowed to live there because they are considered undesirable immigrants. Overall, Verne is usually one of the more egalitarian and politically correct authors of the late nineteenth century, but he really makes some missteps in this book. Even without the uncomfortable prejudices, however, The Begum’s Fortune fails merely by being a boring and poorly written story.
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