Tell someone you’re reading a Jules Verne novel, and they naturally assume you are reading a classic work Verne published a century ago. But with the The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz, they would be wrong.
Although Verne hoped for it to be published before his death, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is among roughly half a dozen novels and a short story collection published after he died. The problem is Verne’s son rewrote many of them, recasting plots and adding characters. The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz is emblematic of this. When first published, Verne’s son placed the story in the 18th century rather than the 19th and changed the ending. Now, though, Peter Schulman, a professor of French literature at Old Dominion University and a trustee of the North American Jules Verne Society, brings us the first English translation of Verne’s original manuscript.
The title character is the son of a famous German scientist, one many near his home regarded as possessing close to supernatural powers. The scientist’s rumored secrets bring people to his grave on the anniversary of his death, many expecting him to rise from it. Yet it seems his son has possession of those secrets, one of which is the key to this blend of science fiction and fantasy.
The story is told by Henry Vidal, who travels from Paris to a fictional city in Hungary, where his brother intends to marry Myra Roderich, the daughter of a highly respected family. Myra and her family spurned Storitz’s earlier marriage proposal. He invokes one of his father’s secrets to prevent the marriage and take his revenge on the Roderichs. In fact, one of his misdeeds might shock even the modern reader. Who can imagine the effect it would have had on an early 20th century audience?
Naturally, The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz carries the style and tropes of the time in which it was written (1895). Thus, women who suffer an emotional shock must take to their bed until they recover their constitution. Geopolitical emotions and biases into play. Hungarians are portrayed as being prone toward superstition, far more ready to accept supernatural explanations than scientific ones. It also is not coincidence that Storitz is German as Verne displays an anti-German sentiment that set in following the Franco-Prussian War. For example, when Henry Vidal unknowingly encounters Storitz en route to Hungary, someone comments that Storitz “might be German twice over, as he’s got to be a Prussian.” Vidal’s response? “And that’s already once too many!”
Verne’s style frequently incorporates references to contemporary scientific advances, artists and authors. Schulman does an excellent job footnoting names and terms that are of little or no significance today. These and more general footnotes also help explicate Verne’s literary style, occasionally referring to Verne’s life or other writings.
The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz shows its age to the modern reader. But there is never anything wrong with having something “new” from a classic author, particularly when earlier versions deviated from the author’s original work.