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12/28/2005 Archived Entry: "Lady Franklin's Revenge -- book review"
The following is a book review I did of "Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession, and the Remaking of Arctic History" by Ken McGoogan. (Harper Collins), which was published in the Literary Review of Canada.
Lady Franklin's Revenge by award-winning Ken McGoogan is a brilliant and an infuriating book.
Brilliant: Revenge is a superbly written biography that achieves the status of a 'page-turner' through the skill of its author and the thrill of its background: Arctic history. The book's subject matter is equally fascinating. Although she was born before the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), Lady Jane Franklin grew to epitomize many aspects of upper class Victorian womanhood and, yet, she contradicted them as well. She was, perhaps, the best-traveled woman of an era when women abided at home. Ambitious without peer, she climbed very high on the ladder of success and status, all the while careful to half-hide in her husband's shadow. Lady Franklin may well have been the most intelligent person at any given dinner party or any random drawing room in mid-nineteenth century London. She was certainly one of the most powerful but always, of course, she acted behind-the-scenes. McGoogan exquisitely captures the complexity of Lady Franklin.
Infuriating: what McGoogan captures is a manipulative, elitist, callous, and contemptible woman toward whom he extends far more than the benefit of every doubt. Revenge reads like a eulogy to Lady Franklin whom he calls "A Jane Austin Heroine" (p.5), instead of the expose she merits. Due to the honesty and detail with which McGoogan presents facts, however, readers are able to judge the woman for themselves and, so, I stumbled repeatedly over McGoogan's sympathetic interpretation of what those facts revealed about the Lady's character.
Why is my reaction to Lady Franklin at such variance with that of McGoogan's? Perhaps he has poor taste in women? I believe the answer is far more interesting. I think McGoogan and I approach historical analysis in a different and incompatible manner, which leads us to dramatically different conclusions.
But the question of interpretation moves me too far ahead in this review. First, a context for Revenge is required.
Lady Franklin is best remembered as the supremely loyal wife of Sir John Franklin whom history credits with discovering the Northwest Passage -- a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Canadian Arctic. The description on Revenge's back cover reads, "When Sir John Franklin?disappeared into the Arctic in 1845, she orchestrated an unprecedented 12-year search, contributing more to the discovery of the North than any celebrated explorer." The entire expedition had perished, and Lady Franklin maneuvered for years to assure her husband's place as a British hero.
What Lady Franklin actually did was to commit a well-financed and self-conscious fraud on a panoramic scale. Her husband did not discover the Northwest Passage; she conned posterity into believing so in order to bask in his reflected glory. Sir Franklin was not a hero; he was the inappropriate and relatively inexperienced leader of an expedition that devolved into cannibalism. Lady Franklin was not a loving wife; she was a coldly ambitious woman who pushed her 59-year-old husband in ill health toward an icy death and, then, quashed the first attempt to launch a search mission for him.
Lady Franklin's role as a revisionist historian emerged in McGoogan's earlier contribution to Arctic history, Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin. Published in 2001, Fatal Passage received widespread and justified acclaim. The description on the back of this book explained that John Rae had "solved the two great Arctic mysteries: the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition and the location of the last navigable link in the Northwest Passage." It continued, "But Rae was to be denied the recognition he so richly deserved. On returning to London, he faced a campaign of denial and vilification led by two of the most powerful people in Victorian England: Lady Jane Franklin, the widow of the lost Sir John, and Charles Dickens, the most influential writer of the age." (Both Fatal Passage and Revenge reveal that Dickens' involvement was at the behest of Lady Franklin.)
Through Fatal Passage, McGoogan redeemed Rae's rightful place in history. The book's first mention of Lady Franklin refers to the "invisible puppeteering" of her husband(p.81) and chronicles her subsequent puppeteering of history. McGoogan quotes the English author Francis Spufford on Lady Franklin, "With Sophia Cracroft [a niece] at her side as a go-between, and when occasion required as a mouthpiece for her displeasure, she could blight or accelerate careers, bestow or withhold the sanction of her reputation. No other nineteenth-century woman raised the cash for three polar expeditions, or had her say over the appointment of captains and lieutenants."(p.239)
McGoogan uses an abbreviated version of the same Spufford quote in Revenge (p.347) but, there, it loses its ominous edge. Or, perhaps, at that point in the book the reader is simply inured to Lady Franklin's machinations. Indeed, Spufford's observation sounds like praise the second time around. Revenge, after all, is McGoogan's redemption of Lady Franklin's rightful place in history.
A tension seems to exist between the two books. Can McGoogan sympathetically redeem both Rae and the woman responsible for his dismissal from history? Has McGoogan changed his mind about the worth of Rae's contribution?
In the years between Fatal Passage and Revenge, McGoogan does not seem to have uncovered fresh evidence that contradicts his initial portrayal of Lady Franklin. He doesn't lose sight of the fact that his primary source material -- the meticulous journals kept by her -- were edited, censored and sometimes burned-in-total so that only the version of events she wished to exist has been passed on to him. Yet, again, McGoogan gives such editing and blacking out of words the best possible spin. When she tears out entries that depict how she arranged the firing of a friend, he claims that "soul searching" and remorse prompted the act.(p.168)
Sometimes the facts almost leap off the page to protest his interpretation. Consider the Franklin-Gell feud -- Gell being the married name of Sir Franklin's only child and daughter from a previous marriage. Lady Franklin had been consistently cold and domineering toward Eleanor; for example, she refused to post letters the child wrote to her father and other relatives because they were written in "so very bad a hand" (319). After Sir Franklin had been missing for years and would have been declared dead if not for Lady Franklin's insistent efforts, Eleanor wanted to grieve and move on.
McGoogan explains the basis of the ensuing feud. "As long as her husband lived [that is, was not legally declared dead], Jane retained control over all his assets, including those he had inherited from Eleanor Porden [his first wife]. If Franklin died, however, then according to a will drawn up by his first wife's architect-father, those assets -- a small fortune in income-generating property -- went to his daughter." (p.320) Lady Franklin knew this because she had contrived to prematurely and covertly break the seal on her husband's will -- an act of questionable legality.. When the Gells learned of this, they publicly railed against Lady Franklin's exorbitant expenditure of 'their' money, much of which had been spent on searching for Sir Franklin.
Finally, in 1854, the Admiralty declared him dead. Lady Franklin, who had been disinherited by her father, fought the additional loss of her husband's fortune by appealing to the public. McGoogan's interpretation of her various machinations is generous to the point of blindness. He writes of Lady Franklin, "If she fought this [inheritance of Eleanor's], she stood to lose in every court but that of public opinion. And, yet, knowing this, such was her tenacity, her loyalty to?the memory of Franklin, and above all her feelings of guilt and responsibility for having drive him into the Arctic that she vowed to fight on." (pp. 326-327) The reader almost wants to shout, 'what about her just wanting to keep the money!' This most common of all human motivations vis-à-vis wills doesn't seem to be considered.
Only one explanation makes sense of McGoogan's interpretation of Lady Franklin's character. It occurs in the first line of the book jacket's description. "Denied a role in Victorian England's male-dominated society, Jane Franklin (1791-1875) took her revenge by seizing control of that most masculine of pursuits, Arctic exploration, and shaping its history to her own end." In short, an oppressed woman stuck it to 'the Man' and, for this, she seems to receive a free pass on bad behavior.
The theme of women's oppression by patriarchy runs through Revenge. And it is this new political lens that allows McGoogan to view the same facts as in Fatal Passage and come to a sympathetic conclusion about Lady Franklin. Over and over again, McGoogan describes the plight of a woman limited by male culture who "began working to achieve her ends through others, applying strategic skills she had shown as a chess player?" (p.39-40)
McGoogan makes a valid point. In Victorian England and especially in the Upper classes, marriage was the only acceptable career for women. A woman of Lady Franklin's remarkable intelligence and appetite for life had little opportunity outside of her husband's career to realize her own ambitions. Moreover, the fact that most financial protections for women, such as the Married Woman's Property Act of 1887, came into effect after Lady Franklin's death may shine a more sympathetic light on how tightly she gripped control of her absent husband's money. She may have felt desperate and defenseless.
Nevertheless, I disagree with how McGoogan judges the personal responsibility that Lady Franklin bears for her own behavior. My disagreement hinges on several points.
First, everyone lives and makes moral choices in the presence of limitations so the mere presence of limitations is no excuse for reprehensible behaviour. Otherwise stated, everyone has the personal responsibility to be decent within his or her means. When a person's limitations are severe and not of his or her making -- for example, political oppression due to gender or race -- then a more sympathetic interpretation of that person's choices becomes appropriate. Even then, however, a sympathetic approach does not mean exoneration.
Second, Lady Franklin did not face the severe limitations of the average woman in the Victorian Era. She lived in wealth with a father who indulged her and a husband of her choosing over whom she ruled. She sated a love of luxury and extensive travel at every turn. McGoogan describes some of her journeys in later years. In the Sandwich Island, she received a "royal welcome?She rode in a queen's carriage, attended by liveried footmen?"(p.401) In Mysore, "[t]he raja?provided?an elephant at Lady Franklin's disposal, having dressed that splendid creature in silver chains and bangles and crimson velvet trimmed in gold."(p.405) This was a woman of privilege and power, a woman who evidently enjoyed manipulating the power structure that allowed her to rise so high.
Third, Lady Franklin actively worked to preserve the power structure that allegedly oppressed her and against political change that would have lightened the burden of other women and working people. It was not that she was unaware of the figures and movements of her day which pushed toward more universal freedom. She was familiar with the classical liberals William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft of whom she wrote dismissively as "subversive". In 1848, she battled "to defeat Chartism, a working-class movement bent on changing the parliamentary system" to be more inclusive. She viewed the Chartists as "unwashed hordes." (281)
McGoogan makes much of Lady Franklin's supposed drive to achieve prison reform for incarcerated women. But this passion arose only when Sir Franklin was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) which was largely populated by deported convicts; it disappeared after they departed. By becoming a high-profile prison reformer, she could play the role of philanthropist Grand Lady and garner some of the respect that the prison reformer and Quaker Elizabeth Fry received back home in England. Fry occupied the unusual position of being a woman whom men of power consulted for her 'professional opinion' on prison reform.
Lady Franklin sought personal advice from the renowned Quaker but she was no Elizabeth Fry. McGoogan tells us that she blamed the female convicts themselves and not 'the system' for their own plight. While Fry worked one-on-one with inmates, teaching and reading to them, Lady Franklin expressed revulsion toward the individual prisoners. Unlike Fry, she championed harsher penalties such as the practice of cutting off women's hair as punishment and separating mothers from their illegitimate children. McGoogan admits, "Jane was probably wrong in championing harsher punishments. The female prisoners of Van Diemen's Land were better off without her reforms." (p.220) Moreover, as he mentions, she arranged to sack the only man who believed in and could have accomplished truly humane penal reform: Alexander Maconochie. Nevertheless, McGoogan places the blame for her negative impact on prison reform on male power. He writes, "With regard to women convicts, Jane Franklin meant well. But she ran into a stone wall of prejudice against female initiatives?" (p.220) Odd that Fry succeeded in that context.
Fourth, in her personal life, Lady Franklin was cruel and callous toward those who were vulnerable; she saved her charm for those with power. An aboriginal girl whom Lady Franklin adopted while in Tasmania is a perfect example. After rescuing and educating Mathinna, she abruptly abandoned her when it was time to go home. We are told that Franklin took the rare step of over-riding her own desires and decided not to take the girl to London due to a doctor's advice. We are not told why she made no provision for the girl but merely left her in an Orphan School. McGoogan reprints a heartbreaking newspaper account of Mathinna's tragic and question-raising death at the age of twenty-one. He makes no comment other than to say that the report issued from a newspaper that had been "never friendly to Jane Franklin." (p.213)
Given McGoogan's constant sympathy and praise for the dubious Lady Franklin, an irresistible question arises. Is he merely the last in a long chain of men whom Lady Franklin bamboozled into promoting her legacy?
If so, if Lady Franklin is looking down from on-high to guard her reputation, then she will not be altogether pleased. McGoogan is too honest a researcher and too good a writer for the facts not to speak more loudly than his interpretation.
Whether it is approached as a brilliant historical biography or as revisionist Arctic history, Lady Franklin's Revenge is a page-turner that will preserve McGoogan's reputation as one of Canada's finest authors. He is a meticulous writer with crystal-clear sentences, a superb grasp of his material, and an ability to both delight and infuriate his readers.
I haven't had as much fun hissing and booing a villain since Little Nell was strapped onto that railroad track.