Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage

The Gates of Hell: Sir John Franklin's Tragic Quest for the Northwest Passage
by Andrew Lambert
New Haven: Yale University Press, $32.50

I've already reviewed the UK edition of Professor Lambert's book brought out by Faber & Faber earlier this year, but thought the US edition deserves at least a brief notice on its own. The book's appearance is strikingly different; in place of a bald and puffy Sir John Franklin we have Richard Brydges Beechey's luminous "HMS Erebus passing through the Chain of Bergs" from 1842. Quibblers will note that, although these were indeed Franklin's (later) vessels, the setting is the Antarctic rather than the Arctic, and some may find their greenish darkness, framed by deep olive, a bit much -- but I think it's a very handsome design, and beautifully printed. A more significant difference lies in the subtitle, and here there is an odd dissonance; given that one of Lambert's main arguments is that the Franklin expedition was not principally dispatched to search for the Passage, it may give some readers the wrong first impression. Of course, I disagree with this claim, and so the title works for me! And, although the main title makes one think at first of Rodin's great sculpture, it's dramatic and certainly will pique readers' curiosity.

The other differences in the book are physical rather than textual. The binding case is tighter and more sturdy, and the quality of the paper is far better than Faber's fibrous leaves; were I purchasing for a library, I would certainly prefer this edition. Alas, the plates are only reproduced in black and white, unlike the lovely color of the UK edition, which suggests a sort of trade-off in production values. All in all, US readers who have managed to wait will be richly rewarded by this edition, which certainly deserves a spot on the shelf of anyone with an interest in Franklin and the history of Arctic exploration.