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.

Making Connections

In the John Murray Archive, everything connects to everything else. That office in Albemarle Street was like a nerve ganglion where every 19th century sensation met.

Byron has an affair with Caroline Lamb, whose husband William, under the title of Lord Melbourne, will go on to be Victoria's first Prime Minister, who had an alleged affair with Caroline Norton, who published poems on the Factory Acts for Murray, and later, having lost her children as a consequence of the alleged affair, became a leading campaigner for the property rights of married women, excoriated in Murray's Quarterly Review.

Byron's Child Harold, Murray's first great success, also inaugurated a genre of personal travel narratives, which met up with the exploration narratives of Africa and the Arctic by figures such as John Franklin and David Livingstone. One of these mapping expeditions to Latin America was undertaken in 1835 by HMS Beagle, whose Captain brought on board as gentleman companion one Charles Darwin, whose narrative of the Voyage was published by Murray, which led Murray, 15 years later, to become the publisher of the Origin of Species, which rivals the Bible and Newton's Principia as the most important work ever to see print.

At the same time, in the very same month, John Murray III published an extraordinary Dictionary of the Bible, which is almost as long as the original, in which every tree, shrub and event of the scriptures is re-presented in taxonomic, scientific form...and an account of the discovery of what had happened to Franklin's disappeared expedition of 1845...The Voyage of the Fox, a copy of which he sent to Charles Darwin, having earlier published Austen Layard's archaeological researches which founded their success on their apparent confirmation of the biblical narrative.

So it goes on and on...if you start with Byron you can also trace the romantic heritage of the exploring British Hero through Alexander Burnes of Montrose, Central Asian superspy murdered in Kabul in 1841 through to Isabella Bird, one of the great travelling Englishwomen (like Lady Franklin), and her adventures in China before the Boxer Rebellion...on and on, leading off in tangent after tangent...

Unified only by the London location of the publisher, and the intuition that somehow, this mass of material all leads back to Byron lunging with his stick at Murray's bookshelves after fencing practice...And now this network of correspondences and correspondances is in Edinburgh. And I get the vertiginous pleasure of exploring it and reporting back, perhaps even coherantly sometimes, on my personal responses to what I find.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Last thoughts on Caroline Lamb

Caroline Lamb's commonplace books are an extraordinarily interesting glimpse not just of one, let's be honest, troubled mind, but of an entire social construction of selfhood...many women kept these scrapbooks...mostly just with stuff in them that happened to interest them...newspaper cuttings and so on. What Caroline Lamb did with her second commonplace book (there are two in the archive) is to create a kind of fragmented space of open nakedness, as it were...and turn a private document into a public statement of who she was...her public being both Byron and, oddly, please forgive there being ten entries here...but the whole thing made me feel a bit fragmented myself, and I felt this was the appropriate response.