Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book

Appearing, as fate would have it, just a few weeks before McClintock's news of the fate of Franklin reached England, "The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book" captured the elegiac public sentiment about the lost explorers, picking up on passages from letters home from one of Franklin's officers. Their author, of course, was James Fitzjames, Franklin's second aboard HMS "Erebus," and easily one of the most capitvating figures on the expedition -- young, full of energy and passion, and (at one point) expressing his hope to spend 'at least one winter in the ice.' The letters had been reprinted before, in a nautical journal (without Fitzjames's name), though it was fairly clear then that the author must have been one of Franklin's officers on Franklin's vessel. Many years later, these letters formed the inspiration, as well as the opening passages, of John Wilson's novel, North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames.

This version, published in Charles Dickens's journal All the Year Round, opens with a lyrical elegy to the letters' author, framed in terms of the common fate of death that awaits us all, and the ways in which small relics of the departed still testify to their presence:

At every point of the dread pilgrimage from this world to the next, some domestic trace remains that appeals tenderly to the memory, and that leads us on, from the day when the last illness began, to the day that left us parted on a sudden from our brother or sister-spirit by the immeasurable gulf between Life and Eternity. The sofa on which we laid the loved figure so tenderly when the first warning weakness declared itself; the bed, never slept in since, which was the next inevitable stage in the sad journey; all the little sick-room contrivances for comfort that passed from our living hands to the one beloved hand which shall press ours in gratitude no more; the last book read to beguile the wakeful night, with the last place marked where the weary eyes closed for ever over the page; the little favourite trinkets laid aside never to be picked up again; the glass, still standing by the bedside, from which we moistened the parched lips for the last time; the handkerchief which dried the deathly moisture from the dear face and touched the wasted cheeks almost at the same moment when our lips pressed them at parting—these mute relics find a language of their own, when the first interval of grief allows us to see them again.
It's quite an astonishing passage, and for many years, its author was unknown. Unlike Dickens's previous journal, Household Words, the contrubutors' book for ATYR was lost, and until quite recently no one had any means of verifying who had written a given piece (there were no by-lines). But recently, with the discovery of a set of ATYR annotated by Dickens himself, these hundreds of little mysteries have been at an instant solved -- and, though I'd long guessed that Dickens himself was the writer, it turns out that it was Wilkie Collins, whose play, The Frozen Deep, had served as a more public, dramatic elegy for Franklin some three years previous.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Russell, having not yet read "North with Franklin" I have always been curious as to Fitzjames' writings. It is remarkable how his prose truly brings insight into the character of the officers on the Erebus, and of the officer's view of the men. I can't help but think that the author was indeed correct that for those men who were able to see their families one last time, it made all the difference in those bleak and tragic times.

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