Cornelis Helling

Here is a short biography of Cornelis Helling, one of the founders of the Société Jules Verne in Paris on 31 July 1935, together with Jean Guermonprez, vice-consul of France in Liège, and Edmondo Marcucci from Italy. This text is a slightly modified version of an article by Cees Moonen that was published in Verniaan 20.

Photo: Cornelis Helling
Cornelis Helling

Cornelis Helling was born on 9 September 1901, in Amsterdam. His friends and family called him Bob. His father was employed by the Dutch Mail. Cornelis had no siblings and was raised in a rather protective manner.
After his primary and secondary school he entered the office of notary. He spent the rest of his career as an administrator at a notary’s office in Amsterdam.
His father was a fanatic admirer of the works of Jules Verne, and has conveyed this passion in an even stronger form to his son: with all the consequences we are aware of. One of these consequences was that Cornelis was even more francophile than his father: he spoke the French language “better” than the French themselves, and he enjoyed posing as a Frenchman and going for example to a Dutch travel agency to ask questions in French. Furthermore, he would not permit the least bit of criticism about everything connected to France: he was more French than the French! Later, when he went to Paris for meetings of the Société, he had no interest whatsoever for the French cuisine: he was too busy breathing French culture in the broadest sense. He was certainly no sociable man. He did have a lot of contacts, a.o. with Marguerite Allotte de la Fuÿe; Helling had an extensive correspondence with her about Jules Verne.

As a 12-year-old child, he started writing stories à la Jules Verne, which he illustrated himself. A small book with these writings, carrying the title Het onbekende eiland (The unknown island), has been preserved.

Cornelis Helling was a real Mr. Particular. Not only with regard to himself during his many searches for Vernian material, but also to others around him, like his family. His fanaticism in his hobby, and the protective upbringing he had received, were in part responsible for his somewhat reclusive lifestyle — that is, apart from the many contacts he had concerning his hobby.
Because his income at the notary’s office was not particularly large, he saved on contributions by going to the library during lunch break, in order to tooth-comb all Dutch and foreign newspapers and magazines for news about his “hero”. If he found something, he scrupulously copied the text on a piece of paper that was as small as possible, and filed the paper in the relevant book. In the course of the years he scribbled and collected hundreds of these little notes. Doesn’t this remind us of Jules Verne with his large archive?
I would like to refer to an article about E.M.C.B. Franquinet. Here it is told that Helling visited Franquinet in 1941/2, when Franquinet was writing the first and, so far, only Dutch biography of Jules Verne. It is unclear why these two gentlemen didn’t cooperate to translate those stories by Verne that hadn’t been translated in Dutch. both were enthusiastic writers, both had Jules Verne as their big hobby, and both were fluent in French. I suspect that the gentlemen had opposite personalities, and in that case it’s difficult to perform such a task. Furthermore, Helling didn’t have a commercial mind. But above all, Jules Verne should be read in French!
Helling was proud of having lived in the same time as Jules Verne, albeit for only four years, and unconsciously. He was outraged if somebody claimed that Verne had only written children’s literature.

Besides his passion for Jules Verne, Cornelis Helling had some other hobbies. His big idols were Napoleon, Edgar Allan Poe and Wells. But ex aequo with Jules Verne was the creator of Sherlock Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930). Helling was the founder, in October 1952, of the “Dutch Sherlock Holmes Society”, The Crew of the S.S. Friesland; he wrote many articles about this hero, and translated a couple of stories. Helling liked smoking a pipe, and he kept his tobacco in a Persian mule, just like Sherlock Holmes. On special occasions, he would show up with the characteristic “deer stalker” of Sherlock Holmes.
Another particularity of Cornelis Helling was the following. He corrected and commented the proofs of the well-known ‘blue covers’ by Elsevier, and required to be given these editions. He also commented the proofs of the book Uit liefde voor de vlag (Face au Drapeau), translated by Houbaer in 1948.
Helling published countless articles in Dutch and foreign newspapers and magazines. Browse through the “Margot” to see it: 43 articles, the first of which was published in the Journal d’Amiens in March 1931, with the title Jules Verne vu par un hollandais. The last article appeared in 1982 about his two greatest heroes: Verne and Holmes. And in the archive of the Dutch Jules Verne Society, there are many more articles that aren’t listed in the “Margot”!

Cornelis Helling was a man of great merit in the “Jules Verne World”, and he was duly rewarded. We cannot omit the following honours, without trying to be exhaustive:

It is clear from the above how big the international reputation of this erudite man was.

As Cornelis Helling grew older, he become hard of hearing, and gradually lost his contact with the outside world. He was very troubled by his wife’s passing in 1992. He became more and more lonely and passed away in Emmeloord on 10 March 1995.
His heritage was auctioned by Van Gendt Book Auctions in Amsterdam, in March 1996.