Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Curtain calls ....

You're about to embark on one of the greatest adventures in the history of exploration -- the search for the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin. Your room aboard ship, small as it is, is crammed with your books, clothing, and instruments; everything is in order. Your new shipmates are a goodly lot; you feel certain that, with them as your comrades, the long and isolated voyage will be the more bearable. And yet, a few weeks remain before you sail, and near at hand you have London, with all its attractions. What do you do?

Well, if your name is Harry Goodsir, you take yourself -- though money is tight -- and manage one of the cheap seats at Drury Lane. There, as you've read in the papers, the great singer Gilbert Duprez is to appear in the role of Arnold in Rossini's masterpiece Guillaume Tell. Duprez, famed in his time for being the first to sing a "high C" from his chest, was -- apparently in part from the exertion required for this feat -- perhaps a little past his prime, but nevertheless his singing, as the Illustrated London News declared, remained "transcendant." Their review went on to lament, "when will English singers, possessed as they are of fine voices, emulate the foreigners in passion, feeling, and true perception of character?"

It's a small detail, one I stumbled upon in one of Harry's missives that I'm currently working on for a forthcoming volume of all the letters of Franklin's officers and sailors, but a telling one. Goodsir only just had enough money to cover the cost of the required undress uniform; for the required silver table setting, he had to write home to his family. Having secured an appointment as Assistant-Surgeon and naturalist, he was eager to expand human knowledge, and make his name cataloging the sea-fauna, fish, and mollusks of the Arctic regions; he seemed -- both to himself and others -- at the beginning of a brilliant career. And yet, even at that moment, when resources were scarce, he did not neglect the Arts in the name of Science.

Such small but significant details abound in his letters, and those of all the others who would sail with Franklin; I can't wait to share them with the world. But time -- and editorial labors -- oblige us to wait; watch this space, as over the next months I hope to share a few more of the insights they contain. And, when the volume of them is ready for the press, you'll read about it first here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all this fascinating and quotidian insights into the Goodsir family. It really humanizes this shadowy Franklin figures.