The Collector of Lost Things
Jeremy Page discusses
The Collector of Lost Things is an extraordinarily compelling historical novel of obsession, passion and ghosts, set in the mysterious frozen Arctic, and filled with characters who are not what they seem. Critically acclaimed author Jeremy Page gives an insight into the ideas and themes behind his unique tale as well as the lengths he went to for his research.
The Collector of Lost Things is both a departure from and a continuation of the novels I’ve written before. It’s my first historical novel, but is also a story about frontiers, about nature, and about being haunted by the ghosts of your own past – themes I have often written about before. In the novel, Eliot Saxby, a naturalist and collector, is hired to travel on a trading ship to the Arctic in 1845. He is searching for a great auk, a year after the bird has become extinct.
In all the research I read, from expeditions, surveying, passenger transits and whaling, the sense of the Arctic’s otherworldliness was palpable. To the 19th century mind, the Arctic must have been like space is to us. I read about awe, mystery and spiritualism, where distances were deceptive, the animals monstrous and impossible, and where the demands of temperature and existence put such a strain on men and women that visions and hallucinations were common. Coinciding with the Victorian interest in Spiritualism, séances and automatic writing, the Arctic seemed the perfect place for the setting of a ghost story or, at least, a story that has its own ghosts. Eliot Saxby travels to the Arctic, but he cannot escape himself. And he is haunted by events from his own past. He journeys to a place where the submerged can emerge. Repressed thoughts, suppressed memories – the top of the world removes realities and certainties one by one, leaving behind a sterile ice sheet that’s also a perfect Petri dish for delusions.
I have always been fascinated about frontiers. In my previous novels, Salt was about living on the edge of land, and The Wake was about crossing over that edge, into the sea. The Collector of Lost Things is about a similar frontier, in this case, the Arctic. I write about journeys with the assumption that they are both a physical and a mental event. In a landscape of such vastness, being cooped up in the wooden confines of a trading ship was especially tempting. In a series of cabins, Eliot Saxby is joined by a joking-sociopathic embroidery loving captain, an unknowable and distant first mate, a frostbitten ex-whaler for second officer, and a dandy-dressed gentleman hunter travelling with his enigmatic female cousin. Again, it’s basically an outer space story. They’re in a claustrophobic spaceship, with a limitless void outside.
My starting point was the belief that a man one hundred and fifty years ago was essentially no different to me. Eliot Saxby would have similar passions, similar relationships to others and to the natural world as I do. But it soon became apparent that there was one distinct difference: in that age there was virtually no voice to save the environment or, more specifically, to save a species that might become extinct.
In the mid part of the 19th century, nature was being attacked on an industrial scale. Nearly 100 million bison had been slaughtered on America’s great plains, whale and seal catches were collapsing, wolves, bears and eagles had been almost entirely shot out of Europe, yet no one seemed prepared to stand up for the environment. Those we hold up as naturalists now were, in that time, also compromised hunters: Audubon nailed rare birds to boards in order to paint them. Charles Darwin was also a passionate hunter, with a taste for turtle soup.
Of all the species in peril, the demise of the great auk was the most startling. Unable to fly, without fear of man – in fact, with a real curiosity towards man – oily rich edible flesh and fine feathers perfect for pillows, this bird’s attributes were the perfect storm for extinction. There are anecdotal stories of sailors mooring alongside the vast colonies of great auks on Funk Island in Newfoundland, putting a gangplank to the rocks, and then clubbing the birds one by one as they wandered onto the ship and stood by the cargo hatch. They became extinct in Scandinavia, then Canada, then Greenland. The last British great auk was killed on St Kilda, when it was found wandering on the beach and assumed to be a sea witch. By the beginning of the 1840s, there were a few dozen birds left, living on rocks off Iceland.
A curious and shameful endgame emerged: gradually at first, but then in a panic, museums and collectors wanted to have a specimen, before the inevitable extinction. The price upon their heads and upon their eggs became astronomical. The last two great auks were strangled on 3rd July 1844, by three Icelandic fishermen. The egg between them was needlessly crushed.
That’s the story of what happened to the great auk. And the story in The Collector of Lost Things is what could persuade a man, in the 1840s, to awaken his sense of environmentalism. What kind of man, with what kind of past, could emerge with the modern sensibility of wanting to save something that was going to be lost, and pass it on with a sense of stewardship for future generations.
Writing a book is always a journey, and when you embark on a journey such as this one, you have to be prepared. I undertook a lot of research. I studied shipwright plans in the maritime library at Greenwich, whaling, hunting and trading journals written by captains, gentlemen hunters and medical officers, and surveys of unexplored coastlines and nameless reefs. I studied the history of clothes and fashions, diets, ships’ stores, gun designs, social etiquette, delusion disorders, shanty songs, mechanics of binnacles, capstans, sails and rigging. In the natural world I studied bird migration, breeding habits, Arctic flora and fauna, ice formation, temperature, visibility and climate phenomena. I crawled around historic sailing ships and travelled in Norway, where every thousand metres in height is equivalent to five hundred miles further north, in climate. At a certain point, you begin to feel confident that you might be able to write about the world of the novel with some degree of authority, and at that point you have to try and forget much of your research, otherwise you will write a Wiki-novel, boasting about facts and figures, and forgetting the real business – that you must concentrate on telling a story and breathing life into your characters. Because without that, there is nothing.
With the Arctic in such a current state of jeopardy and peril, with all these issues very much in our awareness, this historic novel might turn out to be the most modern novel I’ve written yet.