By Heather Davis-Fisch
NY: Palgrave Macmillan, $85
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
Books on various aspects of the Franklin expedition have been a staple here at the Arctic Book Review since our very first issue nearly fourteen years ago; we've reviewed biographies of Franklin, volumes of Inuit testimony, the lives of Franklin officers, those who searched for him, and of Lady Franklin, along with novels and poems inspired by these events. There's a great body of conventional historical and biographical material on the subject, enough to fill a lifetime's study -- but what has been wanting has been a book which fully examines the cultural impact and lasting significance of the narratives that have clustered around this history, its mythologies (in the full Barthean sense). Aside from Margaret Atwood's (still brilliant) lecture "Concerning Franklin and his Gallant Crew" (published in Strange Things), and a few scattered essays, such as those collected in John Moss's Echoing Silence, there have been very few such studies; even in my own book, Arctic Spectacles, the Franklin saga is just one part of a larger cultural history.
Which is why Heather Davis-Fisch's book is so very welcome; here, from the perspective of performance history and theory, is the first fully-realized cultural analysis of the reception and significance of the Franklin disaster, both on the public 'stages' of its time, and ours. In so doing, she considers not only theatrical instances -- whether shipboard or, as with The Frozen Deep, on a London stage -- but theatricality in the broader sense, as when Lady Jane Franklin put aside her mourning dress for bright colors in protest of the Admiralty's striking her husband's name from the active list.
For, in the nineteenth century, the dawn of a mass reading public, the illustrated press, photography and telegraphic dispatches meant indeed that all the world was a stage, visible to nearly anyone, and the Arctic drama was for a time its principal attraction. And within this larger stage there were many smaller ones, whether it be the Arctic shipboard theatricals that Davis-Fisch sees as invoking and enacting a sense of almost familial camaraderie, the figurations of Inuit such as Qalasirssuaq (who was depicted being transformed into a fox in a northern pantomime), or the mix of drum-dance and blackface minstrelsy witnessed by Charles Francis Hall aboard the whaler "George Henry."
Davis-Fisch analyzes these episodes acutely, and follows the thread of performance throughout these very different cultural enactments. Indeed, between Inuit and Euro-Americans, contact itself was almost inevitably a performance; whether in the exaggerated hand-shaking and calls of "Teyma" or "Mannik Toomee" that accompanied first meetings, or the "miming" of Aglooka of his ships having been crushed in the ice, theatre comes in where language cannot find out a way. Her analysis of these contact dramas then segues neatly into an astute analysis of the staging of The Frozen Deep, in which she shows how Dickens's peculiar non-theatricality, received as a kind of translucent naturalism, played a central role in the enormous public catharsis the play provided to its original audiences. It's also, by the by, a very good explanation of why the play, in its original form at least, never had that power again, although modified versions of it have managed to re-infuse the drama with a fresh sense of pathos.
Davis-Fisch's book is, for all these reasons, the most original and engaging work on the cultural impact of the mid-century Franklin fascination yet to appear -- and, it's to be hoped, a harbinger of further such studies of the larger dramas of exploration as such, in all the regions of the world that the "West" thought of as distant. We have plenty of books on hand which re-tell the main story, shed some light on one or another figure, or propose one or another solution, but there are very few books like the present volume.
For, as has been apparent for some time now, the Franklin mystery is never really going to be "solved," not in the usual sense of that word, at any rate. As Davis-Fisch aptly notes, "attempts to reconstruct what happened to the Franklin expedition break down because the material remains of the expedition produce, rather than alleviate, ambiguity." And, for those who appreciate it, this ambiguity, in fact, lies at the heart of the enduring fascination with the Franklin saga; without it, the amateur historian, like the amateur actor, would find no place upon which to stage his or her response.
NB -- The book is solidly and handsomely produced with eight halftone illustrations; it is to be hoped, however, that Palgrave Macmillan will at some point make it available at a more democratic price, whether as a paperback or an e-book (the Kindle edition, at $68, is still far too expensive).