Sunday, February 17, 2019

John Rae, Arctic Explorer

John Rae, Arctic Explorer: The Unfinished Biography

Edited by William Barr

Edmonton: Polynya Press (an imprint of the University of Alberta Press)

USD $60, $CAD 54

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


On the occasion of the death of Dr. John Rae, the journal of the American Geographical and Statistical Society offered a heartfelt encomium: "He wrote with simplicity and force, but he was more concerned to do things worthy of record than to record them." Had they known of this, his extraordinarily detailed autobiography, they might have had to change that comparison; Dr. Rae indeed did many things worth recording -- and he recorded them. The exact reasons why this manuscript -- which ends, frustratingly, in the middle of a sentence just as Rae is about to describe his fateful meeting with In-nook-poo-zhee-jook and how he learned from him of Franklin's fate -- was never completed, or (if it was) was never proffered to a publisher, may forever be shrouded in uncertainty. The manuscript was clearly passed from hand to hand -- so much so that the first few leaves became worn and tattered, and were re-copied in later years by his wife Kate -- but it has not seen the light of publication until today.

Much has been written in recent years about Rae's career, the more so since Ken McGoogan's 2001 magisterial Fatal Passage, but one feels on reading these pages -- more than 600 of them -- that we have, until now, but scarcely known John Rae, the shy boy from Orkney who, surprising even himself, made his way into the roughest country of the North, and distinguished himself above any other man of similar background. The man who comes into view in these pages is, by turns, reclusive, gregarious, sly, a fine doctor, a capable administrator, a gifted explorer --  who only learned the essentials of navigation and surveying midway through his career -- and a deeply decent man whose life subsequent to his discovery of the fate of Franklin was straitened by the public scorning of the news he brought, despite the fact that those who truly knew him and his work never wavered in their admiration.

The opening chapters of Rae's book are by far its finest -- here, more than in those that follow, we hear the voice of a man reflecting on a life well-lived, with a strange admixture of poignancy and pride:
Brought up and educated at home under a tutor in the Orkney Islands (which have been, I think not inappropriately, called by an old friend a “paradise for boys”) and never having had until the age of sixteen what would have been to a boy so defectively constituted, the advantage of attending a public school, my chief and almost sole amusements during vacation or play hours were boating, shooting, fishing and riding (chiefly the three first) all of which my brothers and myself had ample opportunities of practising. 
There are reminiscences of steering through the strong tides of the Hoy Mouth, of engaging in boat-races with his youthful comrades, and of hunting small game, a sport he enjoyed from his earliest years to his last. And yet it was the sea, it seems, that most strongly formed him; though a great part of his best-known adventures were primarily managed on foot, the deep and foundational impression made by his education as a boatsman became a metaphor for his life, one in which the reader will detect some sense of the way in which he faced -- and managed to navigate -- his later difficulties:
Poetical ideas are not much in my way at any time but this one line, “She walks the waters like a thing of life,” has often occurred to me, when steering one or other of the lively boats I have at different times possessed, through a sea of troubled waters. The sympathy between the steersman and his boat is felt much as that between the rider and a well known and favourite horse. On a smooth sea in the one case, or on a level road or good bit of turf in the other, a slight strain on the rein or a steady touch on the helm is all that is wanted, both rider and steersman, if up to their work, keeping wide awake and a sharp lookout ahead or to windward. But put the man and horse in the hunting field with a rattling big fence or stone wall in front of them, and the hounds in full cry a short distance ahead on the other side, and we have a different state of things, requiring a change of tactics
Detail of Rae's memorial
The line is from Lord Byron's The Corsair, and reveals to us something of Rae's reading, which was surely broader than he implies; throughout his travels, he was known for taking a miniature library of books in duodecimo amongst his gear -- one of them lies by his side on the sculptural memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral. But the dominant images of his memoir are those of the active life, the resourceful man who only fully shows his mettle when facing his worst difficulties.

His autobiography continues in this tone, up through his account of his first challenges upon entering the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, during which he ended up stationed with an icebound ship and her crew, saving nearly all of them from scurvy by the discovery of a large patch of cranberries under the snow. But not long after this point, the narrative gradually shifts to a daily journal style, interrupted at times by asides that seem directed more to those of his own profession than to the general reader. The reasons behind his three major surveying expeditions, the latter two part of the search for Franklin and his men, receive only perfunctory remarks, and much of Rae's account consists of the daily details of each journey.

Barr, perhaps the most experienced scholar in the world when it comes to editing Arctic explorers' narratives, provides all manner of helpful context. The latter third of the autobiography is supplemented by a large number of letters, all of which add something, though at times they feel rather like interruptions. And yet there will be few consolations when, on reaching the end of the manuscript and arriving at Barr's pr├ęcis of the "second half" of Rae's life, one feels as though, having hiked the long incline of this rich and detailed narrative, the journey ends at a precipice.

Barr helpfully provides a brief summary of Rae's report on Franklin, as well as of his subsequent life and career. Within this, he even offers a poignant tidbit or two, as when he notes how upset Rae was by the death of his pet canary "Dickie," in June of 1888:
He maintained that [the bird] recognized his footsteps, which he "responded to as if he had been a Christian." [Rae] made a small coffin for it, and "as a solitary mourner," buried it in a secret location in his garden, later planting a flower over the grave.
There are also supplements, including articles by Rae on "Ice and its Formation" and "Building a snow-house." But what is most missed is any return of Rae's original narrative voice. This could have been provided (in the instance of Rae's 1854 discoveries) by including his full report; although it has been published elsewhere, it would have resonated quite differently here. Other letters could also have been chosen to give some sense of his later career. My understanding is that Barr had wished to extend and complete the narrative in this manner, but that his editors overruled him, probably in consideration of making a large book even larger. If that was their chief consideration, I certainly understand it, though I'd respectfully disagree.

Barr also makes it clear here that he feels that Rae's considerable accomplishments do not include, and need not be augmented by, modern claims that in surveying the strait that bears his name, he ought to have the credit for first discovering a navigable Northwest Passage. There will be many who will continue to challenge Barr's view, but it would be a terrible shame if, on the basis of that disagreement, they were to eschew this volume. The extraordinary value of getting Rae’s own personal measure of his life and career surely outweighs such disputes. In the end, though frustrated by its silences, we must all be grateful that we have before us an account of Rae's life from Rae's own hand.

The format of the book is extraordinarily handsome -- indeed, I have never seen anything like it among modern Arctic publications -- the paper is heavy and cream-colored, and the beautifully-designed jacket perfectly encompasses the well-crafted curvature of the massive spine. The main text is given with broad outer margins, which are sometimes used for very helpful side-notes; indeed, it would have been preferable if the end-notes had all been re-created as side-notes. There certainly seems to have been enough white space, and having to turn back and forth from the footnotes as one reads makes a long read feel longer. And yet, despite all these minor criticisms, this remains an extraordinary volume -- one that anyone who cares deeply about John Rae's life and work will want to acquire.

[NB There remains the possibility that, as some believe, the second half of the manuscript may still survive somewhere. Were it to be found, it would certainly be invaluable, and I would hope that it would soon rejoin the portion we now possess].

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Lady Franklin of Russell Square

Lady Franklin of Russell Square

by Erika Behrisch Elce

Stonehouse Publishing, $19.95

Reviewed by Regina Koellner



Jane Franklin has always been a controversial figure. Some see her as a calculating egomaniac, trying to rule a colonial empire through her weak husband and, after he vanished in the Arctic, bullying the Admiralty into sending out one unnecessary search expedition after another. Others perceive her as the devoted, loving wife ready to sacrifice everything she had to bring back the love of her life or at least find out what happened to him, conjured up in the powerful but most likely imagined image of her on the shore of Orkney, arms outstretched to the North, willing her hero to come back to her.

The truth, like always, lies somewhere in between. To find out where exactly is almost impossible although Jane Franklin kept an extensive diary throughout her whole life, recording even the smallest detail. Unfortunately after her death her personal papers and correspondence were heavily edited by her constant companion, friend, secretary and executrix of her will, her niece Sophia Cracroft.

Numerous books have been written about John Franklin, his last expedition and also about his wife. Erika Behrisch Elce, professor for Victorian Literature and Culture at the Royal Military College of Canada, has herself added to this scholarly library of Franklinite literature with a non-fiction book about the letters Lady Franklin wrote to politicians, friends, Royal Navy personnel and everybody else who she thought useful in the quest for her husband lost in the Arctic.

Now, almost ten years later, the author presents an epistolary novel about Lady Jane Franklin, following partly the lines of this extraordinary woman's life who, although she left school at 16, possessed an active and intelligent mind that made her a restless traveler, venturing into territories where not many of her contemporaries dared to go, especially if they were female.

As the author mentions in her book it has always been widely discussed how much John and Jane Franklin were in love with each other. Of course, it is possible that she just looked for a tolerable husband and he for a mother to his young daughter but on the other hand there is enough evidence in their letters that they had feelings for each other and formed a team of equal partners. Especially in Van Diemen's Land (today's Tasmania) Jane shared John's load, supporting him with advice, taking care of correspondence and being there when needed – if she was not away on one of her excursions.

How much she pushed her husband to become the governor of Van Diemen's Land, a post he was too good-natured to be suited for, or to take over command of his last expedition at the age of 59, is also a question that cannot be answered. Franklin himself, however, seemed to have been keen on both posts.

After Franklin and his expedition had not been heard of for more than two years, Jane Franklin rose to form, peppering with letters every human being or institution who she thought would be useful in sending out search expeditions. When she had the impression that letter writing was not enough, she invested a large part of her fortune (to the chagrin of John Franklin's daughter and her husband who feared Jane would waste Eleanor's inheritance on a fruitless task) and sent out her own expeditions. With every new ship that left for the direction of the Arctic she and other friends and relatives of the officers and crews sent letters to their loved ones in the hope they would reach them. No letter ever did and the ones that survived to this day are testament to desperate hope crushed by each "Returned to the Sender" stamp on the envelope when it came back. Jane Franklin's letters to her husband are no exception.

The novel starts with a fictional story about how Lady Franklin's letters were found in the attic of her father's house near Russell Square, neatly bound to a book in the form of a diary and – in contrast to the real letters – never sent out to her husband. They start in spring two years after the expedition left Greenhithe and the first unease starts to gnaw at her:
"I write also to apologize to you that we have been at least a little worried while you've been gone, but, really, this is to be expected. It is nothing out of the ordinary for a wife and daughter to worry for an absent husband and father – not lost but gone almost, almost too long." 
Still, up to that point it had been expected not to hear from the expedition and Jane Franklin, like almost everybody else, must have felt that the men would be back every day now as triumphant conquerors of the North West Passage, one of the last blank spaces on Earth waiting for the Royal Navy to map, name and take into possession for Queen and country.

Jane tried to keep the letters to her husband positive and omit anything bound to disturb or sadden the recipient and even advised the relatives of other expedition members to do the same. Perhaps that is the reason why Erika Behrisch Elce decided to write a novel instead of another scholarly book. She also does not attempt to have mixed any existing letters by Lady Franklin with fictitious parts. Instead she opted for a more modernized diction, although terms like "okay", "break me out of my funk" and "Christ on a stick" should not have appeared in letters meant to have been written by an early Victorian lady. The fictional letters in the book do not restrict themselves to positivity, allowing the author creative freedom to reveal more of Jane's inner feelings, frustrations, anger and finally the realization that all hope had been in vain:
"Are you surprised that I continue to write to you even now that I know that you are dead?"
The difference between the actual letters of Jane Franklin and those of the fictional counterpart can be illustrated by comparing the following examples written shortly after Eleanor Franklin's marriage to the Reverend John Phillip Gell:
Lady Franklin 
"Dear Eleanor was married yesterday 7th June… I left them after the ceremony, because in your absence I could not bear any festivities & employed the afternoon in going to Stanmore & visiting the old church in which we were married & and which I am sorry to say is going to be pulled down.. The bride and bridegroom went to Eastborn [sic] to the house of Mr. Davies Gilbert which is leant to them… "1
Lady Franklin of Russell Square: 
"I write to tell you that there are no more Eleanor Franklins in the world. Do not be downhearted about it – your young Eleanor continues living – but no longer under our collective wing. No: this month, she at long last married her Gell, and that's an end on it. Of course she was beautiful in her way, with her simple gown and homely looks…"
One feature of the book appealing not only to readers interested in fiction but the scholar as well are only very slightly edited Times newspaper articles and letters to the editor that give a fascinating insight into how the Franklin search was seen in the public eye but also how openly Lady Franklin and Sophy fought against critics from the public and their own family. They also provide context and background information to the fictitious letters.

As the title suggests, Russell Square in London plays a pivotal part. Jane grew up in adjacent Bedford Place in her father's house and often stayed there even after her marriage. When they came back from Tasmania, Jane and John Franklin again shared the house with Jane's ailing father and the family of her sister Mary, the Simpkinsons. It must have felt quite crowded in there and was not made better when, after Eleanor left to get married, Sophia Cracroft, who was no relative of the Simpkinsons, came to live with Lady Franklin permanently. In Lady Franklin of Russell Square, the reader gets a glimpse of how claustrophobic it must have felt for Jane and Sophy (and the Simpkinsons) until they finally decided to move out in 1854 and take up lodgings in Spring Gardens in close proximity to the Admiralty. In the novel Jane keeps going back to the solace of Russell Square and the statue of the Duke of Bedford as her confidant and collaborator since her childhood days, greeted even by the mature Jane with an elaborate ritual.

Jane Franklin's gentle friendship with the Russell Square gardener (who is tormented by his own dark past) is a captivating side story but unfortunately not drawn out to its full potential. The reader is left longing for a more substantial interaction between the two as the author decided to take the story a different direction. Thus a few dialogues and their mutual love for unassuming flowers have to suffice to show two lonely people longing for the happiness of the past. The novel ends with the departure of Leopold McClintock in the Fox without covering its return and the information it brought on the date of John Franklin's death.

Lady Franklin of Russell Square adds another stitch to the rich tapestry of the Franklin expedition saga and enables the reader to imagine Jane Franklin in a more private, softer light as a flawed but dedicated person dealing with hope, despair and in the end accepting her fate and moving on.

1 from Frances J. Woodward's Portrait of Jane

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Do You See Ice?

Do You See Ice? 
Inuit and Americans at Home and Away
By Karen Routledge
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, $50.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Karen Routledge has written an extraordinary book, and she’s managed it by making a seemingly slight adjustment to the cultural spectacles through which the Arctic and its peoples, and those from elsewhere who have sojourned there, have been seen in their worlds, both familiar and strange. All too often, even the most seemingly modern and culturally “aware” books find themselves snared in the old truisms about the Arctic – its harsh, unyielding climate, its almost-malevolent ice, its isolation and apparent emptiness when compared with more temperate regions. She accomplishes this feat, remarkably, by making a sense of displacement her main theme – the displacement of whalers, following the lure of rich shares into a world they scarcely knew (and thus feared), and following Inuit who spent time in the “southern” world through their own experience of estrangement and display. Quite a few of these are accounts we’ve heard in some form or another, but never quite in this way.

Routledge is fortunate in that Cumberland Sound, the epicenter of her study, has so many stories of both kinds. It was, as she notes, brought to the attention of westerners by Eenoolooapik, who guided the Scots whaler William Penny to its shores in 1840. The subsequent discovery that overwintering there brought enormous advantages in the whale harvest led to a long period of mutual contact and cooperation, through which the bonds – material, cultural, and familial – between the Inuit and the whalers grew in strength and complexity, even as both remained in a sense strangers in each other’s lands. The experiences of whaling men who at first feared an uncertain time in an unknown land can thus be contrasted very directly with the alienation experienced by Inuit such as Ebierbing and Tookoolito, who were brought from Cumberland Sound to England in the 1850’s, and then to America and Greenland in their more than decade-long association with the explorer Charles Francis Hall.

The book is organized into four symmetrical, or rather parallel chapters -- "Americans in Cumberland Sound," "Inuit in the United States," "Americans and Inuit in the High Arctic," and "Inuit in Cumberland Sound." In the first, Routledge sets some of the experiences of early whalers against the Inuit cycles of the five seasons, from Aujaq (summer) to Upingaaq (spring). The device of using the Inuit seasons as the setting for the whalers' tales perfectly frames the double sense of these men and their unfamiliarity with all that was so deeply familiar to the Inuit. In one case, a small group of whalers who went AWOL from their ship -- something that happened more often than I'd realized -- becomes a cautionary tale as, even with some assistance from Inuit, they manage to have a pretty rough time of it, and surely those of them who lived, lived to regret their choice.

In the next chapter, the key figures are Ebierbing and Tookoolito, known to the whalers (and to Hall) as "Joe" and "Hannah." This is the most detailed and accurate account yet published of their time with Hall, and Routledge lays out all the complexities of their often-uneasy alliance with Hall and the Budingtons. She quite rightly points to the issue of the Qallunaat authoritarianism -- and expectation of obedience -- and its unfortunate intersection with the Inuit cultural tradition of avoiding confrontation. She illustrates this chapter with the posed photographs of the family taken in Groton, as well as with some of Hannah's drawings from the Hall papers. And she's right about the uneasy effects of authority -- you can feel it almost viscerally in a letter by Joe also in those papers (but not quoted in the book) -- although his command of English was less fluent than Hannah's, the sense he had of being bullied by the white man's loud demands comes through clearly:
2 years I stay Houdsons Bay try go King William Land then I give it up, meet 3 men from their tell me give it up make me afraid. Mr. Hall tease me all time make me go their never give it up. Next time I go like a soldier every body go so every body carry gun. 
The third chapter, the only one to depart from the Cumberland Sound region, deals mainly with the Greely expedition, mixing accounts of the alienation felt by the Inuit who accompanied them with Greely's men's own sad decline into starvation and cannibalism. It's perhaps the least of the chapters, but still quite strong -- and it's good to see a full account of the qivittoq, the lone and ghostly soul whose frightful isolation provides the cautionary opposite to the overall spirit of community and sharing intrinsic to Inuit life. The final chapter, happily, returns to the shores of Cumberland sound, offering some striking accounts from the time of first contact to the present, and entirely from the Inuit point of view.

It's wonderful to see that the author is donating the proceeds of the book to the Elders' Room at the Angmarik Center in Pangnirtung. When I visited the center last summer as historian to a group of expedition ship passengers, one of them asked "What do the Elders do in the Elders' room?" Our guide laughed, answering that they just talked, told stories, or sometimes played cards. This book, woven of their stories, ought to help support these basic pleasures for some time to come.