How Lady Franklin led Charles Dickens to disgrace himself

In Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I devote 130 pages
to showing not only how Lady Franklin orchestrated  the search for Sir John Franklin, but how she
manipulated public opinion after explorer John Rae returned with the first news
of the fate of her husband’s expedition. In this excerpt, we find her getting
Charles Dickens involved. . .

Late in 1854 . . . Lady Franklin launched an undeclared war on John Rae.
His allegations of cannibalism threatened her husband’s reputation, and so her
own. They could not be allowed to stand. Rae’s relics had convinced Jane that
Franklin had died, but never would she accept the narrative

that came with

When the explorer paid her the obligatory courtesy call, still wearing
his full Arctic beard, Jane told him to his face that he never should have accepted
the word of “Esquimaux savages,” none of whom claimed to have seen
the dead bodies, all of whom were merely relaying the accounts of others. Rae
refused to recant. He insisted that he knew the truth when he heard it, and
that he had written his report not for publication, but for the Admiralty. Jane
replied that he should never have committed such allegations to paper. And the
explorer withdrew.

Eventually, John Rae would be vindicated. Down through the decades,
researchers would contribute nuance and clarification. But none would repudiate
the thrust of his initial report. Starting in Victoria Strait, a large party of
final survivors had trekked south in a desperate attempt to reach the
continental mainland. Many of them perished along the way, and the final
survivors were driven to cannibalism. Such was the fate of the Franklin

In 1854, however, Jane Franklin refused to accept this reality. And she
had no shortage of natural allies. These included the friends and relatives of
men who had sailed with Franklin, and an array of eminent officers concerned
with the reputation of the Royal Navy—men like James Clark Ross, John
Richardson, and Francis Beaufort. But all of these, Jane realized, would be
open to charges of special pleading.

The resourceful Lady Franklin wondered about Charles Dickens. Hadn’t his
father had some connection with the Royal Navy? Surely he could be induced to
strike the right attitude? The forty-two-year-old author had already published
such classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield
and Bleak House. More
importantly, he edited a twice-monthly newspaper called Household Words—potentially the perfect vehicle. Through her friend
Carolina Boyle—formerly a maid of honour to Queen Adelaide, consort of King
William IV—Jane communicated her wish that Dickens should visit her as soon as

The desperately busy author dropped everything and, on November 19,
1854, turned up at her front door. No eyewitness account of their meeting has
survived. But Jane Franklin wanted John Rae repudiated—especially his
allegations of cannibalism—and the greatest literary champion of the age
undertook to accomplish that task.

The next morning, Dickens scrawled a note to one W.H. Willis, a sometime
assistant. While until now he had paid scant attention to the issue, Dickens
observed, “I am rather strong on Voyages and Cannibalism, and might do an
interesting little paper for the next No. of Household Words: on that part of
Dr. Rae’s report, taking the arguments against its probabilities. Can you get
me a newspaper cutting containing his report? If not, will you have it copied
for me and sent up to Tavistock House straight away?”

Taking his cue from Jane Franklin, Dickens proceeded to write a
devastating two-part analysis entitled “The Lost Arctic Voyagers.” He
published Part 1 as the lead article on December 2, and Part 2 the following
week. Acknowledging that Rae had a duty to report what he had heard, and so
demonstrating his even-handedness, Dickens castigated the Admiralty for
publishing his account without considering its effects. While exonerating Rae
personally, he attacked that explorer’s conclusions, contending that there was
no reason whatsoever to believe “that our wretched countrymen had been
driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging

Given that he could present no new evidence, Dickens argued by analogy
and according to probabilities. He suggested that the remnants of
“Franklin’s gallant band” might well have been murdered by the Inuit:
“It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of
savages, from their deferential behaviour to the white man while he is strong.
. . We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and
cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man—lost, houseless,
shipless, apparently forgotten by his race; plainly famine-stricken, weak,
frozen, helpless, and dying—has of the gentleness of the Esquimaux

Dickens offered much more along these lines. He criticized Rae for
having taken “the word of a savage,” and, confusing the Inuit with
the Victorian stereotype of the African, argued, “Even the sight of cooked
and dissevered human bodies among this or that tatoo’d tribe, is not proof.
Such appropriate offerings to their barbarous, wide-mouthed, goggle-eyed gods,
savages have been often seen and known to make.”

With all the literary skill at his command, Dickens presented an
argument that, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, can only be
judged profoundly racist. In this instance, at least, the author failed to
transcend the imperialism of his age. Time has proven his two-part essay to be
a tour-de-force of obfuscation, self-deception, and wilful blindness. But late
in 1854, it engulfed Rae like an avalanche. The explorer responded as best he
could, but he had only truth on his side, and few writers in any time or place
could have contended with Charles Dickens in full rhetorical flight. When the
author was done, in the only realm that mattered—that of reputation—John Rae
was deader than Jane Franklin’s late husband.

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