Phileas Fogg is having trouble with the domestic staff at his house. It's not, as you might have imagined, in Medomsley Road, Consett, but in Savile Row, London. Mr. Fogg has just fired his valet for some comically minor infraction involving the temperature of his shaving water, and has just agreed to hire one Jean Passepartout, a Frenchman of adventurous and exotic past who's just looking for a nice quiet, safe, methodical job and has heard of Mr. Fogg's reputation as a man of constant and imperturbable routine. Little does he know Mr. Fogg is about to piss on his chips in a fairly major way.
Mr. Fogg is a member of the Reform Club, and a strong contender for Most Phlegmatic and Methodical Man Alive. This is a man who has his days and weeks mapped out meticulously in advance, so a typical week might look something like this:
- Monday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
- Tuesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
- Wednesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
- Thursday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
- Friday: slaking of filthy shameful lusts with a tuppenny-ha'penny Whitechapel prostitute
- Saturday: CLEANSE THE STREETS
- Sunday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
So much for Passepartout's wishes for a bit of a quiet life, then; Mr. Fogg returns from the club, rounds up Passepartout and with barely time to pack a few changes of socks and a giant bag of cash, they're off. Needless to say Mr. Fogg has an itinerary mapped out in advance, but it's one that has precious little slack in it. All goes well until they attempt to take a train across India from Bombay to Calcutta and discover that the middle fifty miles or so of the railway have yet to be built. Unfazed, Mr. Fogg negotiates the purchase of an elephant (plus someone to drive it) and the party sets off across country. Along the way they encounter a funeral party including a young widow who it becomes clear is to be tossed onto the funeral pyre. As phlegmatic as Mr. Fogg is this will not stand and a rescue is organised, culminating in the travelling party plus the widow, Mrs. Aouda, escaping atop a galloping elephant.
Some complications: the party are being followed by a Scotland Yard detective, Fix, who is convinced that Mr. Fogg is a fugitive criminal responsible for a bank robbery back in London at around the time of the original wager. Fix's machinations mean that Mr. Fogg and Passepartout have to jump bail in Hong Kong, and then ensure that Passepartout catches the steamer to Yokohama but that Mr. Fogg and Mrs. Aouda miss it, necessitating a bit of private chartering to catch up.
Once reunited, the party proceeds on the long journey by ship across the Pacific and then by rail across North America. Things do not go completely smoothly and at one point they have to take a trip on a wind-powered sledge to get to Omaha in time to catch a train to New York. Once again they miss the scheduled ship and have to resort to chartering one, again, which takes them to Ireland, from where they have to travel by train to Dublin and thence by ferry to Liverpool, where Fix (who has tailed them the whole way) promptly has them arrested on suspicion of the original robbery. It soon transpires that the real robber has been caught and Mr. Fogg is free to go, but by this time he has missed the train to London (this being the last day of his appointed eighty days). He makes his way there as quickly as possible but arrives after the agreed hour, thus losing the wager.
Mr. Fogg retires to his rooms in a state of despair, ruined by the result of the wager, and contemplating doing the decent thing with the old service revolver. Some consolation is provided by Mrs. Aouda declaring her love for him and proposing marriage. But what will they live on? Fortunately for all concerned, Passepartout, while out making some arrangements for the marriage, happens to glance - WAIT A MINUTE - at the calendar and see that the date is a day earlier than he or Mr. Fogg thought. Cue a final mad dash back to the house and thence to the Reform Club to claim victory and flipping great wodges of cash.
This is one of those books it's hard to offer an opinion on, since it's so firmly embedded in popular culture. It's an enjoyable adventure romp which scoots by at a breathless pace, since there's barely 200 pages to encompass eighty days' worth of travel - though of course lots of it (the 20-odd days of voyage across the Pacific, for instance) is pretty uneventful. I think it's fair to say there's a bit of sly satire of national stereotypes going on here as well - Phileas Fogg the hyper-organised, meticulous, emotionless, buttoned-up Englishman who appears to have no inner life at all (he is, for instance, entirely uninterested in taking in any of the sights during the journey, preferring to mechanically tick off milestones in his itinerary), and Passepartout the impulsive, passionate Frenchman.
The central plot point here, of course, is the main characters' obliviousness to having crossed the International Date Line during their crossing of the Pacific - well, in fact no such official construct existed at the time the novel was written, but nonetheless if you travelled completely around the world you would find yourself having to adjust your calendar on your return. The idea that a man as meticulous as Fogg wouldn't have been aware of this before setting off, or that he and his party would not have become instantly aware of it on landing in San Francisco (which operated on the same calendar as London) is clearly absurd. The central premise of Fogg impulsively making the bet in the first place seems utterly incongruous as well - having spent most of the first couple of chapters being told how utterly predictable Fogg is we are then required to believe that he would volunteer to drag himself literally around the world just on the basis of a discussion over the papers in a gentleman's club. None of that makes it anything less than highly enjoyable to read, of course.
You'll notice my Oxford World's Classics edition features Wallace & Gromit on the cover - I'm not entirely sure why, to be honest, except that it was part of the South West Great Reading Adventure which formed part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006.