I deeply regret that I don’t have a PhD in Victorian literature and so am unable to fully appreciate the myriad cultural influences that form the DNA of Clements Markham’s magnum opus. The full name of said opus is as follows: James Fitzjames: the story of the friendships, devoted zeal for the service, high souled courage, self denial, and heroic deaths of 129 British naval officers and seamen. A romance based on information and on facts so authentic and so numerous that it must be very near the truth.
But I have taken to calling it Markham’s Fitzjames fanfic, because that’s essentially what it is.
It is filled with quotations from Shakespeare and Scott, and its plot and characters are adjacent to what I understand was a fast-growing literary trend in the 1890s, which critic Michael Saler describes as follows:
In the illustrated pages of the New Romance, readers found the wonders and marvels that realist literature and scientific naturalism disavowed. Yet the New Romance did not disdain modern science and rationality, in contrast to Aestheticism, which was the New Romance’s contemporary rival in the creation of autonomous worlds of the imagination. Instead, works of the New Romance frequently adopted the rhetorical modes of fact-based science, by including footnotes, maps, photographs, glossaries, and appendices. These were “spectacular texts,” combining the tropes of fantasy with those of objectivity.Saler, As If (2012) p.15
Saler cites Treasure Island as an early example of the New Romance, and notes how the genre “was distinguished by its appropriation of realist techniques for its expressions of the fantastic.” Now, Markham did not conceive of his work as “fantastic”—far from it, as I’ll show in the excerpts below. But it certainly is fantastic, or at least reads that way to us, in its elevation of the grimy, brutal reality of polar exploration into something frequently no less than saccharine and simpering. Yet he does this in tandem with a utilization of objective facts, figures, maps, lists, and histories that would impress Dan Simmons himself.
The man Markham
Sir Clements Markham was what you might call a “character.” He was best known for his decades-long association with the Royal Geographic Society. You can read more about him on his extensive wiki page because I’m not gonna bother to summarize it all here.
Anyway, it is easy enough to play-psychoanalyze him at a distance of centuries — was he on the autism spectrum? Was he merely an eccentric? Was his blatant obsession with young boys ever physically acted upon? — but the fact remains that he had an outsized impact on the Heroic Age of polar exploration, stemming directly from his youthful experiences.
Q: What do the death of Robert Falcon Scott and a 350-page self-insert polar exploration fanfic have in common?
A: They are both enormous monuments to Markham’s lifetime fixation on the Franklin Expedition.
To be honest I haven’t even read it all yet! It’s…. a lot. Comparisons to Henry Darger’s In The Realms of the Unreal and Mark Z. Danielewski’s contemporary palimpsest-novel House Of Leaves were at the forefront of my mind as I skimmed through it. The graphomaniacal elements bring to mind the hypertext frenzy of amateur Web 1.0 pages: red underlines and excessive footnotes simply beg to be clicked on and followed madly through a web of connections. I am hoping to put up regular posts working my way through it, because I cannot do this alone.
Reception of the story
The digital scan from the RGS is preceded by two letters preserved in the same collection, from Francis L. McClintock and his wife:
28th October 99
My dear Markham
My wife has read over to me every word of your “story of the Franklin Expedition,” she is more free than I am to express her views, + she probably will do so to Lady Markham—
I am most strongly impressed by it — so vigorous & yet so [pathetic?]
but I will only venture to say that, your relatives + most intimate friends whom you may allow to read it, must treasure + regard it, as the expression of your own strong personal + private convictions, upon one of the most marvellous episodes ever in English History.
I feel that it is proof of extraordinary industry, most powerful imagination, intense enthusiasm, + great power of expression in observing by simple language, and what a harrowing tale it is! I cannot find words to express the feelings it has called up —
I must not say one word upon the opinions — private opinions of course — with reference to the several actors, which you have expressed, seeing that I am one of them + I am regarded by you with so very much favor; — very pleasant at any time, but most particularly so after one intimacy carried on from the early spring of 1850 — I must heartily thank you + I am most sincerely your
F. L. McClintock
I return herewith the story of the Franklin Expedition with very many thanks
McClintock is being very polite here because he is a gentleman but the “please keep this to yourself and do not try to publish it dear lord” undertones here are, imho, unmistakable.
9th Nov 99
My dear Lady Markham
I have been very busy or else would not have delayed to say which I have been longing to tell you, & through [?] your Husband. Which is how deeply I feel, and how warmly I appreciate the affection & advisation for my dear Husband, I am often ex[??] by him in his “Fitzjames” Romance which is so admirably conceived & written, [and to the] almost too much — I [know] I had a job to read it aloud —
When I think of the noble heroism shown by our Fathers, our Husbands, & now our Sons, I feel proud of my Race — and long to be worthy of the men I belong to —
I am sure we all feel this now as regards South Africa — & as I look on all which our [strangers here?] are doing I feel inclined to exclaim in Rudyard Kipling’s words “Truly ye come of the blood” — our eldest son is there — our youngest on the [??] or more correctly (since I am writing to [??] address) on the Benué, while the middle our true sailor hopes to be a full [blown?] gunnery officer before this year is out —
My warmest remembrances to Sir Clements, with all my thanks for letting us see his tribute to my Husband —
Always yrs most sincerely
Annette D McClintock
Annette is up on all of the latest jingoistic pop culture here and references Kipling’s poem “England’s Answer.” It is an apropos opening volley to the ensuing fervid paean to romantic imperialism that follows.
The manuscript opens up with a short autobiography, explaining how he came to write the novel. More importantly, eventually he talks about his sources for the characters that appear. This part is by far the most interesting to me because—well, IMAGINE!
Of course one wishes that he actually talks more about what he was told about each men, instead of subsuming it all into a morass of smarmy romance from which it is exceedingly hard to pick out the kernels of truth, but we can’t all get what we want.
Here are the relevant excerpts:
I was indeed intensely interested, and when we saw the appointment, I longed to be among them. I eagerly asked about the officers from such of my shipmates as knew them. I knew all about Sir John Franklin’s early adventures, and had read about Crozier in Parry’s voyages.
My old messmate, Sherard Osborn, was equally interested in the glorious enterprise. He knew Fitzjames, Fairholme, Hodgson, and Des Voeux, and told me a great deal about them. Jack Houmer (?) also told me much about Des Voeux, an old messmate of his on board the “Endymion” in the East Indies.
My shipmate Lieut R. R. Quin also told me about Hodgson, who was with him in the “North Star”, and Dr. Macdonald who was his shipmate in the “Belvidere.”
I wanted to know about them all. Two of our midshipmen (who had been in the “Formidable”) knew Hornby and Couch. Another, named Hodgkinson, described Sargent to me. Roderick Dew and Rowley Lambert told me about young Thomas, that he was a very noisy youngster, incessantly playing at cup and ball, and that he had the nickname of “the Baby” in the Mediterranean. I took special interest in Thomas* afterwards, when I joined the “Assistance”, because he was what we called in the navy my opposite number. He was a junior executive officer in the second ship of the Franklin Expedition, and I was the junior executive officer in the second ship of the Franklin Search Expedition.
Afterwards I became intimate with young Darcy Wynyard, a midshipman in the “Pandora” surveying schooner, who was with Fitzjames and Le Vesconte in the “Clio.” He worshipped Fitzjames, and gave me a good deal of insight into his almost perfect character.
*Rowley Lambert told me that Thomas was the inventor of the “Tutrum” language, then used among midshipmen.
Alright, so first of all I have to warn you that Thomas is gonna come back. He is Markham’s blatant self-insert in the context of the story and yes… everyone calls him Baby. Not even joking.
Second of all, it is highly telling that Markham’s primary source for character info on Fitzjames was a literal teenager who seemingly had a giant crush on him. A crush that was then passed, contagion-like, directly to Markham, despite Markham having never met the man himself.
[…] I was appointed to the “Assistance.” While fitting out at Woolwich, I saw much of old Dr. McCormick, who told me a good deal about Captain Crozier; and of Mr. Biggs, who was purser of the “Clio” with Fitzjames. Just before leaving Greenhithe Sir Edward Parry came on board, and I saw him for the last time.
[…] I was intimate with Lady Franklin, Sir George Back, and Mr. John Barrow during more than a quarter of a century. The two latter told me much about Fitzjames and Graham Gore. The charming letters of Captain Fitzjames to his sister, were printed by his brother-in-law, Mr. Coningham, in 1859, and John Barrow gave me a volume of letters from Fitzjames. All these sources of information enabled me to get a clear insight into the character and disposition of Fitzjames and of many of his brother officers. I have received accounts of nearly all of them from friends or old shipmates. My experience of ice navigation and of Arctic winter enable me to realize the environment of our lost heroes, and my knowledge of themselves, derived from such sources, tells me how they felt and acted.
[…] Only one could venture upon such a narrative who has intense and long enduring sympathy, who has special knowledge of the actors in the events he undertakes to relate, and personal knowledge of the environment, and whose lips have felt the freshness of the “fount of poesy.” For it is like the re-construction of an animal from half a dozen bones; or the rebuilding of the mausoleum of Halicarnassus with the aid of a few carved stones. Such feats may be performed by those alone who have special knowledge combined with peculiar mental gifts. To lift the veil which conceals acts and events and thoughts in the past calls for analogous but different qualifications: a knowledge of the main springs of motive and action, and the exercise of imaginative and poetic faculties. Reflection during many years could alone justify, even one competent in other respects, in an attempt to lift such a veil.
Okay, wow. Lots going on here. Firstly it is “Sir Edward Parry,” clearly, I think modern scholarship needs to suck it up and concede that he did not go by William at any point during his adult life. Second of all the fact that Parry was the one who told Markham a lot about Crozier and then (spoilers) Markham treats Crozier like actual trash in the course of the narrative makes me wonder what the hell Parry even had against Crozier!
Next: I have no idea why Markham was under the impression that Elizabeth Coningham was Fitzjames’s sister. You would think this misconception would have been corrected by Barrow Jr, but maybe Barrow Jr didn’t even know? This error appeared also in published works by Markham and was perpetuated throughout the 20th century until being finally corrected by Battersby.
Lastly: that last paragraph. Hoo boy. I want to laugh at the egotistical Victorian purpleness of it all but also the bit about the animal bones kind of resonates? Just a teensy bit…
The “fount of poesy” he puts in quotes because that whole bit actually comes from a poem that pops up later as an epigraph, coming right after the table of contents:
He died! but how he died man never knew.-Frank Doyle
The wondrous lamp of life, quenched by despair
Faded into the dim oblivious air
Which silently drank up the eternal flame
Nor knew how cold a noble heart became
His fate alas! can never now be known
To mortal man — except to those alone
Whose lips have felt, whilst the warm heart throbbed high,
The freshness of the fount of poesy:
They only, as absorb’d they wonder by
With ‘wildered step, and brightly trembling eye,
Feel thrilling them with sweet and solemn fear
Unearthly voices melt upon the ear;
Whose tones, endured with silent power, unfold
Wild mysteries to others never told.
There is, in vision clear or midnight dream
The power to make the past the present seem
To bear me back, in the wide air sublime
To scenes long past, against the stream of time
Now, who on earth is this Frank Doyle fellow? It seems likely that he was Francis Hastings Doyle, a poetry professor at Oxford. Doyle died in 1888, a decade before Markham wrote his novel. I can’t find any record of this specific Fitzjames poem anywhere on the internet, but it seems that little of Doyle’s poetry was ever digitized. I wonder if this poem only appeared in newspapers and was never collected. It also could have been written specifically for Markham before Doyle died, on commission or as a gift.
Before the narrative actually kicks off, there’s a full chapter biography of Fitzjames. Nothing mindblowing in here other than a long, dry explanation of the new kind of steam-propulsion that Fitzjames invented with a friend when he was bored in Syria (“…the motion may be compared to that of a duck whose webbed feet are alternately employed in kicking the water astern, and thus forcing the bird ahead”) as well as this bit:
He had been very happy aboard the “Cornwallis” with a delightful set of messmates, his greatest friend being Hodgson, one of the mates.
And also the source of the cheetah story:
There was a hunting leopard or cheetah on board, and Fitzjames used to allow him to go loose, and to rush up the lower rigging in play, after some of the men. He was in the act of doing so one day, and had jumped on the hammock netting, when Fitzjames, seeing that the lad he was chasing was seriously alarmed, laid hold of the beast by the tail. The cheetah turned upon him savagely, fixed its paws into his shoulders, and would not let go until it was beaten off with an iron bar. Luckily a cheetah has dog’s paws, and not the claws of a cat. Young Addington (now Lord Sidmouth) and Dr. Donnet helped to beat it off.
Battersby did not include the bit about the cheetah attack being motivated by an act of Classic Fitzjamesian Heroism! That seems very important.
Near the end there’s a bit gets EXTREMELY catty about the selection process for command of the Arctic expedition:
But when the project came before the Board, all chance of commanders in the prime of life disappeared. Old age, and consequent incapacity to take the lead, was considered essential. First the command was offered to Sir James Ross, with a surveyor, Captain Stokes as his second. But Ross was young enough to know that he was too old. He refused. Then Sir John Franklin’s urgent entreaties prevailed, being 15 years older than Ross. There was some hope that FItzjames would have the second ship, but his youth (33) and efficiency were against him. Poor old Crozier was preferred.
If Fitzjames and Charlewood had been selected, there would have been no disaster, and the expedition would have returned with a rich harvest of scientific results. At the time Fitzjames was the most distinguished officer in the navy, of his standing.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME (DATE UNCERTAIN) for the next installment in my ongoing series, Adventures With Crazy Clem. We haven’t even gotten to the actual novel yet!!!!!!!