Saturday, 15 May 2010

Introducing "Englishmen on Ice"

The following series of 20 posts are going to be on one aspect of the Murrays' central position as publishers of travel writing in the 19th Century and beyond.

Apart from from actual guidebooks for amateur travellers, and the fact that Childe Harold (a poem by Lord Byron) itself is, in some ways a travel book, John Murray of Albemarle Street had a particularly close relationship with the Admiralty, founded on John Murray II's friendship with Rear Admiral John Barrow (which in turn derived from the first Murray's naval career). Barrow was one of the most frequent and popular contributors to the Murrays' Quarterly Review, and also the director of operations for the enormous effort that went into mapping the world in that expansive time..especially the coastlines and rivers that might be open for trade...

(that was the chief purpose of the Voyage of the Beagle...Darwin being on board to discover evolution was a happy or unhappy accident, depending on how you look at it)

I'm focussing especially on the search for what was known as the Northwest Passage around the top of Canada, that Barrow was convinced for reasons of providence must exist...and especially on two publications that more or less bookend the epoch...both involving Sir John Franklin, who, before Scott of the Antarctic, was probably the best known of icebound Englishmen...mainly because, like Charlie Chaplin in the Gold Rush, he ate his own boots...(I bet that's where the idea came from)...while trapped in a hut in the Canadian wilds in 1819.

Franklin was an English hero in the best traditions of heroic failure. Twenty five years after his boot eating activities and the hugely successful publication of his expedition memoir, in 1845 he was the leader of the single best equipped and funded expedition to find the North West Passage to date...

Franklin was in command of two ships, converted to steam and icebreaking...the Erebus and Terror (which gave their names to the volcanos at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica years later). This expedition vanished completely, and a good part of the entries to come are about the attempts to find out what had happened, and the reaction of Charles Dickens, among others, when an Orcadian explorer called Dr Rae came back with testimony from the native Inuits that Franklin's lost men had been reduced to eating something altogether more disturbing than their boots. It's an amazing story of which I have now scratched the surface (like many others before me) and to which I am anxious, with a playwrighting hat on, to return.

1 comment:

  1. It may be my incompetence, or just a peculiarity of blogger...but my posts seem to appear on the blog in order of composition, rather than of publication...I'll try to sort this...but in the meantime, to read the Englishmen on Ice sequence in the intended order may require some deft mouse-work....My Apologies.