The Begum’s Fortune: Frankville vs. Stahlstadt

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The Begum’s Fortune by Jules VerneThe Begum’s Fortune by Jules VerneThe Begum’s Fortune by Jules Verne

I am by no means a student of world history, but as far as I can make out, the Franco-Prussian War, which began in July 1870 and ended some 10 months later, had some fairly significant and long-lasting aftereffects. As a result of its surrender, France had to cede over to Germany the bulk of the Alsace-Lorraine territory, while Germany emerged a unified empire, effectively altering the balance of European power. For Frenchman Jules Verne, the Germans would never be regarded in the same way again, and his sentiments toward the former enemy would be abundantly displayed in his novel The Begum’s Fortune. This was to be the 18th novel for the so-called “Father of Science Fiction,” out of an eventual 54 to be published during his lifetime; eight more would be released posthumously.

As were all of the previous 17 titles, The Begum’s Fortune was released by arrangement with the Parisian publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who had bought Verne’s first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863. Until his death in 1905, Verne would write a novel (or two) every year, in a series of books known as “Les Voyages Extraordinaires.” The Begum’s Fortune was initially released in 1879, when Verne was 51; his 19th novel, Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, an adventure tale, would also be published that same year! The Begum’s Fortune, though not as sci-fi oriented as some of his earliest works, yet features some interesting predictions that put it marginally in the science fiction realm. It is a short, fast-moving novel, and one ripe for reappraisal today. Sadly, it has been infrequently reprinted, and I was fortunate indeed to have acquired my 1968 Ace edition — aka the “Fitzroy edition” — with a cover price of 60 cents.

The Begum’s Fortune by Jules VerneIn the book, the reader encounters a Frenchman named Dr. Sarrasin, who, as Verne’s story begins, is attending a scientific convention in Brighton. While there, he is given some extraordinary news by a London solicitor: He, Sarrasin, has just inherited some 21 million pounds following the death of his great-uncle, who had been living in India with his magnificently wealthy begum wife of the book’s title. Sarrasin immediately decides to use his windfall in the furtherance of a pet scientific project: the building of a model city that will demonstrate to mankind the epitome of safe and hygienic living.

Troubles quickly arise, however, when the German professor Schultz, a chemistry teacher in Jena, makes a rival claim on the vast fortune. After a short legal battle, convincingly detailed by the author (like this reader’s favorite author, H. Rider Haggard, Verne had been a law student before dedicating himself full-time to writing), it is decided that the money will be split between the two. Sarrasin, after a period of five years, succeeds in constructing his model city, dubbed Frankville, on the coast of southern Oregon, while Schultz uses his 10 million pounds to build the world’s largest munitions factory, Stahlstadt (German for “Steeltown”), on the other side of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. But unfortunately for Dr. Sarrasin and the thousands of peaceful folks living in his little utopia, Schultz turns out to be quite the madman indeed, toiling ceaselessly to invent weapons of unprecedented deadliness, with which to wipe the model city off the map…

In The Begum’s Fortune, Verne not only foresees the German empire (as exemplified by Schultz) as a dangerously belligerent world power, but predicts the use of such wartime weapons as incendiary bombs and deadly gas. (Schultz does not use mustard gas, as would be seen in the WW1 trenches 35 years later, but rather liquid CO2 bombs that freeze their victims to death!) In this book the author also predicts man-made satellites being shot into outer space, as well as a primitive telephone and videoconferencing arrangement. His description of a telephone that “stereographs” information directly to newspapers, however, was a little harder for this reader to envisage. Care is taken by the author to contrast the totalitarian setup of the nightmarish and grimy Stahlstadt to the sparkling and airy Frankville, and one entire chapter is given over to detailing all the sanitary, architectural, social, dietary, educational and civic innovations that Verne felt were necessary for a healthful life. It’s some pretty fascinating stuff, really.

Schultz, I should add, is a wonderful “bad guy” — practically a prototype for the 007 villain — who grows more and more demented as the book proceeds; his ultimate fate is both haunting and memorable. In a speech that could almost be plopped down into an Ian Fleming thriller, Schultz at one point declares “…we act in just the opposite way from the founders of Frankville. We search for the secret of abridging the lives of men, whilst they seek to lengthen them…” You’ve gotta love it! The Begum’s Fortune features any number of wonderful sequences, perhaps the two finest being when Max Bruckmann (the Alsacian best friend of Dr. Sarrasin’s son, Otto) goes undercover to spy on the Stahlstadt operations (a bravura segment that comprises a full third of the book), and the scene in which Max returns to the munitions city with Otto and battles Schultz’s hulking bodyguards, Sigimer and Arminius, before encountering the evil professor one last time. It is an exciting book, capped with a shoehorned-in romantic ending (for the ladies?), and one that should surely please most readers.

All of which is not to say that the book does not come with some regrettable problems. Verne can justly be accused of racism in this novel (the Chinese coolies who had constructed Frankville are not permitted to live there, as they “would otherwise have infallibly lowered the tone and standard of the new city”) and of buying into any number of stereotypes (the German people are all sauerkraut and sausage lovers; the English have no ear for music; the French are “the most perfect dancers in the world”). The author also gets some basic facts wrong here. He tells us that one Stahlstadt mine shaft is 1,800 feet deep, or “14 times the height of the Great Pyramid.” But since the Great Pyramid is just under 500 feet tall, shouldn’t that be more like “four times the height”? He also tells us at one point that 10,000 yards (30,000 feet) is equal to nine miles. Wouldn’t nine miles be at least 45,000 feet? He also has a notification bell in Frankville ring, at 8:30, for a town meeting to convene. The crowd takes 45 minutes to assemble, and the meeting then commences at … 8:30?!?! Finally, Verne mentions that the capital of California is San Francisco, whereas it had been Sacramento in name for quite a while previous to 1879, and in actual fact starting in 1879.

But quibbles aside, The Begum’s Fortune, as I’ve said, is generally satisfying, and should especially appeal to fans of that old Western/espionage/sci-fi ‘60s TV show The Wild, Wild West. And finally, the book contains a wonderful statement by Dr. Sarrasin, which almost negates that coolie comment just alluded to; a statement that all members of the current Trump administration would do well to consider. Regarding Frankville, Sarrasin declares “…We will invite visitors from every nation; we will offer it as a home and refuge for honest families forced to emigrate from over-populated countries…” Bravo, Monsieur Verne!

Published in 1879. Jules Verne’s conceptions are as brilliant as ever. Dr. Sarrasin, a French savant, simple in taste and absorbed in science, delivers an address at the Brighton Scientific Association. The publication of it with his name in ‘ The Daily Telegraph’ discovers him to a London lawyer as the lost heir of the Begum, whom his uncle had married in India. He inherits a moderate property of twenty-one millions sterling, all ready for him in the Bank of England. Dr. Schultz, a German professor, also a connection by marriage, threatens to dispute it. They settle the dispute by dividing it. Dr. Sarrasin founds in the Rocky Mountains a city of health, modelled on Dr. Richardson’s lines. Dr. Schultz founds at thirty miles distance a stupendous cannon manufactory. One piece fires a shot with a velocity and force that give it perpetual motion. He resolves to destroy Dr. Sarrasin’s city. How he fails and perishes by his own science the story must tell ; but it is prodigious. The magnificence and the verisimilitude are perfect.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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