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what can i tell you of the world

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Dear Father and Uncle Francis,

You’ll be pleased to know that I Completely Scandalized everyone on board the HMS Challenger, by putting trousers on two days after we set sail.


“I’m surprised she waited a full two days,” Francis said, setting his tea cup down on the kitchen table.

Across from him, James chuckled. “This is what we get for letting her run around in boys clothes to play explorer.”

“It wasn’t practical to have her running through the garden and tearing her skirt every time she decided to climb a tree,” Francis said.

They’d moved out of London to the countryside when Louisa had been about six and she had immediately declared their garden, and then later, when she was older, the rest of their property, her exploration territory. It had been easier and more financially practical to get her boys clothes to run around in so that James wasn’t constantly having to buy her new dresses every time she ruined one because she had been hiding under the rosebushes from the cat a vicious tiger or climbing a tree to return a baby bird to its nest.

“And it’s still not practical to require a woman to wear a dress while she’s doing scientific work on a ship,” James said. “I couldn’t fathom trying to do any sort of work on a ship in a dress, much of it would be downright impossible. It’s one thing if you’re a passenger, but can you imagine Dr. Goodsir trying to net his specimens in a dress?”

Francis laughed. “I’ll have to ask his thoughts in my next letter.”


Furthermore, it is to my great displeasure to inform you that several men have decided that their romantic advances would be welcome. One of the ABs in particular, a Mr. Fuchs, seems most intent on flirting with me. Most of the others are officers, which is almost worse The officers have been more or less polite and mostly focused on getting in my good graces. I believe they entertain some notion that because I am the daughter of one of the Captains of the Franklin Expedition of whom Sir Francis Crozier is a Close Friend, that courting me would give them some advantage with the Admiralty for a promotion. I’m torn between telling them that you’d be more likely to talk them out of a career in the Navy all together or letting them carry on with their fantasies.


“Lord I hope she went with the first one,” Francis said, laughing.

“Truly,” James said, wiping at the tears of laughter forming in his eyes. “Although that’s not to laugh at a man’s desire to be promoted, but we really are the worst people to look to if you want to play to the Admiralty’s favor.”

“It’s all those damn stories,” Francis muttered.

Part of the reason Francis and James had made the decision to move to the county had been to get away from some frankly ridiculous stories that had started to circulate about the Franklin expedition. It  really had been the fault of the expedition announced back in 1853. On the surface it was another attempt at the passage, but it was also supposed to make an attempt at locating Terror and Erebus if it could. They had learned from Ross, who showed up at their house with a letter the following day, that they had wanted Francis to command the expedition with Edward Little as his second. Francis had laughed at the suggestion and then written the Admiralty a shockingly polite reply saying absolutely not. Citing being both in poor health from the last expedition and much too old at this point, he had ended the letter with the rather biting line, “I am not as confident in my health as Sir John was.”

The Admiralty had accepted this, but the result of the whole plan was that public again considered Francis and, to a lesser extent, James, fascinating people to discuss and any hope of fading into obscurity was lost.

“Keep reading,” James prompted.


Aside from that things have been going pleasantly. We’ve found so many exceptional critters that we’ve never seen before. I’ve enclosed a few sketches of some of the more amusing looking ones. We did find some that glow quite brightly, just like you saw when you went North, though I cannot imagine these are the same creatures. With any luck, I’ll be able to keep at least a few of the specimens we bring back for personal study.

Please relay the attached letter to Lizzie, as I was instructed not to mail directly to her while she’s with her parents and I have no real way of knowing when my letter will reach England.

Much love,

Louisa Fitzjames




Dear Father and uncle Francis,

I have somehow managed to wind up involved with the magnetic observations of this expedition, as the man who knew the most about working the instruments had to be invalided home! I had expressed passing knowledge of the instruments, thanks to your instruction, but I certainly hadn’t expected to actually be Asked to give aid as many of the other scientists are still quite displeased there’s a women in their midst, one that wears trousers no less. It has not stopped being a Complete Scandal, but the men are quieter about it now, and will usually stop their grumbling once they realize I’ve overheard.


James couldn’t help the swell of pride he felt when Francis read that out loud. Louisa had accomplished so much already in her young life.

It had really been her fascination with penguins that had started it all. They’d be able to encourage her to branch out to other birds, but nothing had held her fascination like penguins. When the London Zoo had acquired a penguin when Louisa was fifteen, they had gone to see it the day it was revealed to public.

From there, she had been determined to become a naturalist and James had not scrimped on getting her a good education. She had received the same education James had and then more. James honestly hadn’t thought about it at first, hiring a tutors for her to teach her history, sciences, mathematics. It wasn’t until the tutor had arrived and asked to meet James’ son that it had occurred to him that this was the standard education for young boys, not girls. In the end it hadn’t mattered, but he had gotten a lady tutor for a time as well.

Then of course she’d read on her own time, reading all the scientific texts she could. James and Francis had sought out the notable scientific books of the time from both accepted thinkers and more eccentric ones. She was particularly fond of Goodsir’s book on the animals of the Arctic, which James had himself had a hand in as an artist, but her favorite by far was the book from the Ross expedition.

When she graduated from Bedford College in 1870, Francis had gifted Louisa with her own copy of “The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Erebus & HMS Terror” that he’d been able to get signed by both John Richardson and John Gray.

Her instruction in magnetism had not been as extensive as her education on ocean animals, but Francis had made sure she’d had one all the same. He’d made sure she’d been up to date on all the latest advancements before the Challenger had set sail, even though it wasn’t her scientific speciality.

Truly, James didn’t think he could be anymore proud of his remarkably talented daughter.


Father, I know I’ve teased you in the past for waxing horribly poetic about icebergs, but I must say, seeing them in person is far different from just seeing drawings and they really are quite stunning. I want to assure you that we are still on course and there has been no change in plans to head toward Antarctica, we won’t even be getting close enough to see the mainland.

I’ve enclosed some sketches of our critters and the ice bergs. There is one envelop for you and one for Lizzie, her’s is the one with more iceberg drawings. I figured you would prefer getting more drawings of sea creatures  as you and Uncle Francis have both seen icebergs in person and had several less than pleasant encounters with them. There is also another letter for Lizzie, if you would forward it again.


“Well, she’s not wrong about the icebergs,” James said as he spread the drawings out on the table.

Louisa had included two iceberg drawings for them, and James had immediately tucked one into  his journal, leaving the other for Francis.

Francis nodded. “Ice can lose its allure after a time, but when you’re gone from it, there’s always a nagging desire to see it again.”

“Maybe for you,” James said. “Or maybe Antarctic ice is just nicer.”

Francis laughed. “Well, perhaps that’s the reason Louisa and I share a favorite expedition.”

That got a laugh from James as well.


“Have you sent out the letter to Lizzie?” James asked, after a moment.

“Not yet, it’s on the mantel,” Francis said. “I’ll post it tomorrow if the weather holds.”


Lizzie, formally Elizabeth Doyle, was an old classmate of Louisa’s and, more importantly, Louisa’s lady friend. Hence the rigamarole of sending her letters through James and Francis, who were, of course, more than willing to act as go betweens for their daughter and her lover.

Lizzie’s parents were less willing to let their daughter do whatever she pleased than James and Francis had been with Louisa, so Lizzie  had returned home once she’d completed her schooling instead of seeking employment. The whole point of the letter pass around was so that Lizzie’s parents didn’t find out just where Louisa was working. James and Francis would receive the letters, place them in a fresh envelope and send them again postmarked from London instead of halfway around the globe.

It was simply a matter of careful discretion, one which Lizzie had insisted on and James and Francis both understood intimately. They had burned no small number of letters they’d sent to each other over the years. Something could be said for sentimentality, but it could also be a dangerous thing.


I’ve rumor that our Captain will be leaving us when we stop in China, but it’s only a rumor at this point. He’s not ill, and no one can point to who the information originated from. I’ve kept to your advice of, if it can’t be traced back to one of the stewards or an officer it’s probably not true.

But to end on a happy note, I bested one of the Lieutenants in a fencing match (done with sticks as we did not have real swords) and now quite a few men owe me money. Though I’ve told some of them (the ones I like) that I will settle for them owing me favors. I’d frankly rather have the help hauling specimen nets.

As always, your loving daughter,

Louisa Fitzjames




Dear Father and Uncle,

We have had a Captain change over after all. Captain Nares has left to head another expedition to the Arctic, along with Lieutenant Aldrich. I was asked to go along, if I was interested,


James breath caught in his throat and he found he couldn’t catch his breath for the sheer panic welling in his chest. He wasn’t aware of how hard he was gripping the arm of his chair until Francis prying his hand up jarred his attention back to reality.

“Breath, James,” Francis said slowly. “We have nothing to fear. Louisa is not going to the Arctic.”

James remained tense, breathing heavily as he tried to calm himself.

“Shall I continue reading?” 

James nodded.

“I was asked to go along, if I was interested…”


I was asked to go along, if I was interested, most likely due to Captain Nares knowing who I’m the child of. But I declined, I made you both a promise I would never go North and I will not break that. Besides, the scientific discoveries we’ve made on this expedition are just remarkable. We’re making history here, and I think I know well enough from your stories what I’d find in the Arctic.


By the time Francis had finished reading James had almost completely relaxed.

“I don’t know why I reacted like that,” James said. “I shouldn’t have doubted her like that.” 

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong, I don’t think we considered the prospect of her being asked such a thing on this expedition,” Francis said. “Having an expedition south interrupted to send the Captain all the way north seems ill planned to begin with. I’d known there was talk of sending another expedition north, but I don’t think either of us could have expected it to impact Louisa in any way.”

James sighed. “You’re right. Still I’d thought I’d put that all behind me.”

“In my experience it never really goes away,”  Francis said. “I had a dream the other night, more a nightmare I suppose, about Terror. Not from when we went north, but from when we struck an iceberg down south and nearly crushed Erebus. For all I’ve joked about it, it was a terrifying experience and frankly a miracle that we didn’t lose anyone.”

“That’s when your hair went white wasn’t it,” James said, “Or well, not fully white, more blond, though I must say it’s properly white now.”

He leaned forward to brush back Francis’ hair from his face.

Francis smiled, catching James’ hand before it could retreat to press a kiss to his palm.

“Your hair is getting quite white as well,” Francis pointed out.

“My hair is turning grey, thank you,” James said, with a false haughtiness that made Francis laugh.

“Now keep reading the letter, I want to know what else our daughter’s got up to.” 


More importantly, I have some incredibly exciting scientific news. As you know, we’ve been doing depth sounding, to see how deep down the bottom of the ocean is and we’ve hit on our deepest point yet. It’s well over 4,000 fathoms and we’re all terribly excited about it. We’ll be doing another sounding presently to make sure it wasn’t an error in the instruments.

Update, because it’s later now and we’ve done the second sounding. It wasn’t in error we have a new record depth. 4, 475 fathoms. I trust you’ll keep that number to yourselves for now, I feel my colleagues would be quite displeased should that information get out before they announce it themselves.


“It looks like Louisa is well set to make a name for herself in the scientific community,” Francis said, smiling broadly.

“Yes.” James found himself absolutely tearful with happiness for Louisa. “God, I don’t think I could be more proud of her.”

“She has done incredibly well for herself,” Francis said. “She could make quite the name for herself in the scientific community for her work on this expedition alone.”


I’m including yet more sketches (this time featuring some exciting plant life) and I hope I’ll be able to send this letter to you once we reach Japan. I find myself very excited to find how Japanese food differs from Chinese food, which I had the opportunity to try a great deal of during the weeks we spent in Hong Kong.

I did get one of your letters, (if you’ve been sending them with any regularity I’m afraid most of them have not reached me) and I’m glad things are well at home. This was the letter in which you informed me that Uncle Francis had purchased live hen to be prepared for Christmas dinner and then it got loose in the house. I’m glad you’re keeping the house lively while I’m gone. I miss you both greatly, but if all goes to plan I should be home before the end of next year (1876).

Much love, as always,

Louisa Fitzjames




Louisa drummed her fingers on the rail of the ship. She was in a dress once more, and was a little bit irritated about it. In truth it was nice to be in something genuinely clean, but she’d grown so used to moving about the ship in trousers over the past three years that she felt downright ungainly in a dress. She pressed her hand against the pocket of her skirt, feeling the weight of the parcel of letters and drawings that she’d written to her fathers and then not sent. She could have sent them when they’d stoped in Spain, but there would have been little point since they were on their way home anyway. In fact, they had been given mail to bring to England.

There was a small crowd of people waiting at the docks, family and friends, and Louisa leaned over the rail a bit to see if she could make out either of her fathers. She couldn’t, not from this distance, so she pulled herself back and retreated below deck to make sure all her belongings were properly packed.

Just as when she had boarded, Louisa insisted on carrying her own things off the ship, though several of the AB’s and a lieutenant did offer. Even if she hadn’t wanted to carry her own things out of principle, she wasn’t sure she’d have trusted anyone else to carry her small trunk, which was now mostly filled with specimens. If any of those jars broke, she would be devastated.

She wove her way through the throng of people disembarking and reuniting until at the very back edge of the crowd, she finally spotted a familiar face.

“Uncle Francis!”

Francis beamed when he spotted her, and as soon as Louisa reached him she threw her arms around him (after gingerly setting down her trunk, of course).

“How are you, my dear?” Francis asked once they’d broken from the embrace.

“Glad to be back, but also very much wanting to go again,” Louisa said, laughing.

Francis laughed as well. “Well, I think that just proves that you are your father’s daughter.”

“Did he not come?” Louisa asked. She had hoped that they both would be there.

“He wasn’t feeling well,” Francis said.

“His back?”

Francis nodded. “He did very much want to be here.”

It was really the only reason that he wouldn’t have been there, Louisa knew.

“Shall we hurry back then?” Louisa said, bending down to pick up her trunk once again.

“I already have a cab waiting.” 


James was dozing in an armchair when he heard the tell-tale sounds of a horse and wheels coming up the drive. He was awake in an instant, though he couldn’t get up quite that fast. He’d needed his wheelchair almost every day over the past week, and maybe it was the last vestiges of his vanity talking, but he very much wanted to be on his feet, when he greeted Louisa.

Hauling himself carefully to his feet, he stood still for several moments to make sure he had his bearings before picking up his cane to make his way slowly to the front door.

The pain was more or less bearable, it was certainly better than it had been for the past few days, but he would be glad to be sitting down again once everyone was inside.

He smiled when he opened the door to see Francis and Louisa bickering good naturedly about what seemed to be who was to carry in Louisa’s trunk.

“If Francis is going to insist on carrying your trunk, I would let him. He’s more the reliable one when it comes to not dropping things,” James called, leaning against the doorframe to take even more weight off his leg.

Louisa immediately whipped around to look at James. “Papa!”

She was running toward him a moment later.

James grinned broadly and pulled himself a bit more upright so that when Louisa reached him and threw her arms around around him he was able to respond in kind.

“First, I want to say that I am so incredibly proud of you,” James said, still holding Louisa tightly, “But I am also incredibly happy to see you home safe”

Louisa tucked her face into James’ shoulder, “I’m glad to be home.”

When they finally pulled apart, James’ eyes were watering and Louisa was crying a bit herself.

“If I might suggest taking this moment inside,” Francis said, joining James and Louisa on the front stoop. “This trunk is deceptively heavy.”

“That’s because many of my specimens are in glass jars,” Louisa said, laughing and wiping at her eyes. “But yes, let’s go inside, I want to show you both everything.