The Underground City, #16 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on January 23rd, 2014

#4 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Underground City, #16 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysThe Underground City by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #16
Published by Hetzel in 1877
Pages: 196
Location: Scotland
Read it on Gutenberg
Goodreads
four-stars
*** Also known as The Child of the Cavern or The Black Indies ***

The last piece of coal has been brought up from the mine of Aberfoyle and the miners who worked together all their lives are dispersed. All except Simon Ford and his family: refusing to give up hope, they set up their cottage inside the abandoned mine and spend their days wandering its tunnels, looking for new seams. One day, James Starr, onetime chief mining engineer at Aberfoyle receives a letter from Ford summoning him to an urgent meeting. He is sure the old miner has found coal at last, but just hours later, another, more mysterious letter calls the meeting off. Naturally, Starr won't rest till he discovers the truth...

Verdict: bewitching in a slightly disturbing kind of way.

I enjoyed The Underground City a lot, partly because I decided to make abstraction of all kinds of things that are potentially quite disturbing. Everything about it, its ambiguities and strangenesses are embodied in that hesitation between three possible titles in English. The original French book was called The Black Indies, but let’s start with Child of the Caverns, which is perhaps my favorite aspect of the book.

The world above the caverns - Loch Lomond from the West Highand Way by Michael GrantThe world above the caverns – Loch Lomond from the West Highland Way by Michael Grant

Child of the Caverns – someone should really rewrite this book as a fairy story, taking out all Verne’s didactic stuff and keeping the magic, because in this form, it would be beautiful. Verne introduced some Scottish ‘superstitions’ deliberately but when he gets to Nell, the child of the caverns, I think the connection may be accidental. A naturalistic explanation is given for Nell’s presence but there is something completely unreal about her. She evokes all those old stories of human children raised in underground kingdoms, and supernatural children adopted by humans. Child of the Caverns is partly a love story between Nell, who has never seen the light of day and Harry, who prefers life underground. After saving each others’ lives, Nell is taken in by Harry’s family. Their love is obvious but he wants her to experience the world above before they commit. It’s very 19th century, but still… it would make a great Disney animation.

 

FiremanIt was sometimes hard for me to tell which parts of the story were real and which were made up. There is a character in Underground City who is a ‘grag’ straight out of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Pratchett’s grags are fanatical religious leaders of the dwarfs. They really get out of hand in his recent book, Raising Steam which I just reviewed, but their origins lie in a dangerous but once vital mining role. Their human counterparts were the Firemen who set off controlled explosions of gases accumulating in tunnels. Generally, they didn’t live long and in some times and places, the job was given to condemned men. They dressed rather like Pratchett’s grags, in damp, hooded sacking and leather. I doubt they ever used Snowy Owls in their work, as Verne’s ‘grag’ does. Instead, miners kept canaries and no doubt they were fond of them, even though the bird’s job was to drop dead from poisonous gases before they did.

The Black Indies – if we British ever called our mining industry the Black Indies, as Verne says, we’ve largely forgotten it but it does seem to call up the right picture of exploitation by elites. Verne blithely admits the harsher side of mining, he even notes that miners were once slaves and later, as mere laborers, could be disbanded and evicted from their homes as an unquestioned necessity. He accepts the then common child labor without a murmur – his hero, Harry, was clearly at work in the mines from the age of ten or eleven, and none the worse for it, in Verne’s portrayal.

Children 'struggling heroically' during the Industrial RevolutionChildren ‘struggling heroically’ during the Industrial Revolution

Verne depicts the life of a miner almost as a knightly one of willing and heroic struggle with the elements.Miners are one big, happy family across the whole mine hierarchy, so obsessed with mining work that they look on the world above ground with active distaste and are particularly revolted by the sight of a ‘desolate’ landscape, lacking smoking chimneys and coal dust on the leaves. I could have got really annoyed with Verne here. Instead, I chose to go with his flow, then found this little site, which tells a rather different history of mining in Scotland.

The Underground City – Here we get to the ‘science fiction’ part of the book. At the beginning, we might regard miner Simon Ford’s insistence on living underground as a mere eccentricity, but before long a whole mining village grows up, on the shores of an underground lake. Lit by electricity in the day time, it is a kind of utopia for the community of workers and a tourist attraction for the locals. Verne doesn’t hesitate to suggest that the poorer classes of Britain might like to take to the caverns more often. It keeps you out of that dreadful weather, don’t you know!

It’s a fascinating idea and I suppose Verne didn’t know humans require sunlight (or supplements?) to live and that Nell, the child who never saw daylight, couldn’t have survived to sixteen in such conditions. I couldn’t imagine British miners really choosing to live underground in the coal dust, gas fumes and darkness and as far as I know none ever did. They lived in these instead:

 S_Miners_Rows. 5 coatcrop

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