"To-day we set to work, and got a catalogue made of all our books, and find we have amongst us, a most splendid collection."
-- Commander James Fitzjames, on board the Erebus, June 18th 1845
Among the many singular points of interest which distinguish Franklin's last expedition, the enormous number of books brought along is one of never-failing fascination. Estimates of the actual number of books vary widely, and while the official libraries of each vessel certainly amounted to many hundreds of volumes, many other sorts of books would have been in the possession of the men. Every sailor had been issued a prayer-book by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and individual officers, and even sailors, brought their own collections. Fitzjames's occupation of making a catalogue of all the books aboard HMS Erebus was therefore a significant undertaking, albeit taken on principally for his own interest. If only this document had survived!
And yet our knowledge of this library is more extensive than might be imagined, given the loss of both vessels. Some descriptions of its contents survive in the letters, such as Fitzjames's, posted home from Greenland, and in documents from the period of time when the ships were being outfitted. We know that copies of all the previous narratives of polar exploration were included as a matter of course. Phrase-books of the "Esquimaux" language, Inuktitut, were provided, although the dialect used in these volumes would have been somewhat different from that common in the area the ships were headed. Play-books were brought along in expectation that this voyage, like all since Parry's in 1819, would resort to shipboard theatricals to keep the men busy and amused during the long winter months. It's also known that a few volumes of Punch -- the well-known reservoir of humor which had just been founded in 1841 -- were also included.
But the most dramatic evidence of what books were brought along, and what value Franklin's men placed in them, is to be found in the few tattered, mouldering volumes recovered by searchers. Displayed in a case (shown above) in Greenwich alongside other Franklin relics in 1859, these books are still preserved in the vaults of the National Maritime Museum and other collections. And, thanks to the internet, especially Google books, it's possible to peer over the shoulders of the original readers of these volumes, and see the words they found so valuable that, even when the weight of supplies was of the essence, their owners hauled them along -- quite literally -- to their deaths.
Images of the books may be seen at the National Maritime Museum's website, but it takes a bit of additional research to find which editions and books they are. Famously, there is a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; from the frontispiece this appears to be the 1842 edition published in London by VanVoorst, with illustrations by William Mulready. A book of "Christian Melodies" depicting "Home and its Scenes" (London: Thomas Ward, 1836) is inscribed to G.G. -- presumably Graham Gore. Neither of these editions, unfortunately, is readily available online.
Better results are to be had with Charles Blomfield's Manual of Private Devotion, another publication of the SPCK. The edition found in the Arctic was that of 1837, but it is largely identical to his Manual of Family Prayers (1824), which can be read here via Google Books. Another book, of which only two leaves were found, was the Reverend John Todd's The Student's Manual. One leaf was found folded so as to highlight the following passage:
"Are you not afraid to die?"No""No! Why does the uncertainty of another state give you no concern?""Because God has said to me -- Fear not: when thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."
This gave rise to much comment in the press; although the words were printed, they seemed to arrive almost as if uttered by the dying seaman who'd last clutched the paper to his breast. And, while this edition is not online, a very similar 1871 reprint may be perused via Google Books here.
Many other books survived in damaged or fragmentary form, including several copies of The Book of Common Prayer, two Bibles, and a New Testament in French. When Inuit found these books, they did not understand their use; as one Inuk acknowledged to a disappointed Charles Francis Hall, they gave the books and papers to the children to play with. And yet it remains entirely possible that further books may be found, especially if they remained aboard an intact ship. As those who have seen the items recovered from RMS Titanic know, paper items -- including business cards, currency, menus, and such -- fare reasonably well in the water, the more so in the Arctic where colder temperatures and the absence of wood-borers make their preservation even more likely. The same applies to handwritten materials, and although everyone likes to imagine a ship's log or officer's journal, I myself have always hoped that the sheets containing Fitzjames's catalogue may survive. For by their books, one may know the men.