Sunday, August 15, 2010

the story / stops, everything

In her essay My Odd Shelf, Anne Fadiman writes about the collection of books she owns on the subject of polar exploration: "sixty-four books ... so charged with sentiment that they might as well be smudged with seal blubber and soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea." Her favourite explorers are the ones who failed. "Not coincidentally, they were also all British." In 1854, the Scotsman John Rae, who had been in the Arctic, searching for evidence that would reveal the fate of Captain John Franklin's efforts to uncover a passageway through the ice (the Captain's ships set off in 1845 and from that frozen whale-road never returned), sent a report back to Britain, saying that he had held conversations with the local people, who told him that the dying members of the expedition had resorted to cannibalism.

Charles Dickens was so livid at the news that he wrote an article about it for the journal that he was then editing, Household Words. In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd calls this "one of his stranger essays of the period ... It is so strange an article, in fact, that it throws more light upon his own excitable and anxious state of mind than upon the ostensible subject of his concern." First Dickens says that Rae's Inuit were lying ("the wild tales of a herd of savages"), then he says that they probably killed the explorers themselves, then he insists that it is impossible, utterly impossible, that handpicked British gentlemen would eat one another, even in extremity.

Also, and as the citadel of the position, that the better educated the man, the better disciplined the habits, more reflective and religious the tone of thought, the more gigantically improbable the "last resource" becomes.

To prove his point, he describes real life accounts of shipwrecked men who resisted cannibalism, he discusses the hero of Byron's Don Juan, who refused even to eat a dead spaniel, and he draws the reader's attention to Sinbad the Sailor of the Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights stories had been favourites of his since childhood.

Even for SINBAD the Sailor, buried alive, the story-teller found it easier to provide some natural sustenance, in the shape of so many loaves of bread and so much water, let down into the pit with each of the other people buried alive after him (whom he killed with a bone, for he was not nice), than to invent this dismal expedient.

It was not in his childhood reading, it went against his childhood reading, it went against goodness, it was unthinkable, he could not, and would not, think it.

Because they ARE dead. therefore we care about this ... Because no Franklin can come back, to write the honest story of their woes and resignation ... Because they lie scattered on those wastes of snow, and are as defenceless against the remembrance of coming generations, as against the elements into which they are resolving, and the winter winds that alone can waft them home, now, impalpable air; therefore cherish them gently, even in the breasts of children.

Throughout the length of the biography Ackroyd draws attention to the automatic sympathy Dickens felt for lost children and forlorn people. His fiction is full of orphaned or unprotected figures, Little Nell, Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey, David Copperfield, Pip. He left a trail of them like breadcrumbs (and a trail of breadcrumbs leads, but where?). He showed sympathy, says Ackroyd, for people who had failed at that Victorian thing, "the Battle of Life." The failure and lostness of the explorers was very large, and it does not seem surprising that he should want to protect them once he perceives that they are "defenceless." They are as dead as Nell. Dead explorers answer something in Fadiman too, a yearning for spectacles of noble failure. And they answer something in the poet Elizabeth Bradfield, who wrote a book of poems about polar explorations, called Approaching Ice. "Who else," she asks one of the explorers rhetorically, "has breathed air this clear, crystals of it / hardening briefly in your lungs?" "[I]f only the unsullied / could be discovered," she adds in a different poem. Here there is a longing for purity, or magic nullity, and for an extreme, and for a kind of collaboration with that extreme.

... if only, once found,
it could speak its own nobility and let us

The writers wanted the polar landscape so profoundly that it seems reasonable to assume that it was, in fact, their creation, and that the explorers who thought they were walking or sailing into an iced-over part of the world were instead walking into the brains of writers. Of course Dickens was conspiring with Fadiman and Bradfield without knowing it, and all three of them were conspiring with other writers who have summoned up the same idea. Jules Verne, for example, wrote a book about an explorer who went to the North Pole and discovered a volcano, and a book about another explorer who went to the South Pole and discovered a sphinx. The Canadian poet David Solway published a book called Franklin's Passage which contains the lines, "when the story / stops, everything / stops." Wilkie Collins, the author of The Woman in White, collaborated with Dickens on a play called The Frozen Deep. Dickens appeared in the play himself, filling the role of Richard Wardour, an explorer who is rescued just in time to perish in the arms of his sweetheart, Clara Burnham. By the end of the run Clara was being played by a woman named Ellen Ternan, with whom Dickens fell in love. She was the passion of his later life, a dramatic catalyst, who, much younger than he, never ruined herself for him by aging as the other women he had loved had aged. He never treated her as he treated unhappy Maria Beadnell in Little Dorrit. "Here was the young and pretty actress who somehow provoked in Dickens all the longings he had once attached to to others like Christina Weller," wrote Peter Ackroyd. So the ice gave him the virgin he had pursued in his fiction. Their long affair was likely unconsummated, Ackroyd suggests. "[I]f only the unsullied / could be discovered." Ternan's real tears dripped into the beard of the dying Richard Wardour, transmitting ideas to Dickens: " ... new ideas for a story have come into my head as I lay on the ground, with surprising force and brilliancy." "And he has died," finished Collins when he turned the play into a novel, "in the moment of victory. Not one of us here but may live to envy his glorious death."

For the Dickens family it was a disaster, and his wife Catherine, scattered on interior wastes of snow, wept as if soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea.

Dickens' article was called The Lost Arctic Voyagers and you can read most of it at The Victorian Web. Don Juan is here. Look to the Second Canto for the shipwreck. Actually he eats half of one of the spaniel's forepaws, but he eats it reluctantly. The point is that he doesn't eat a human.

'T was not to be expected that he should,
Even in extremity of their disaster,
Dine with them on his pastor and his master.

Elizabeth Bradfield? Here. Jules Verne's volcano book was called Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras, and his sphinx book, Le Sphinx des glaces. Then there was a third book about a group of Americans who wanted to buy the North Pole so that they could mine it for coal. That book was called Sans dessus dessous. The text of Wilkie Collins' novel is available at Project Gutenberg.

Crayford's voice was heard in the silence.

"The loss is ours," he said. "The gain is his. He has won the greatest of all conquests—the conquest of himself. And he has died in the moment of victory. Not one of us here but may live to envy his glorious death."

The distant report of a gun came from the ship in the offing, and signaled the return to England and to home.

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