Lady Franklin’s Revenge Letter

Ken Responds to a Review
with a letter to the Editor
(Literary Review of Canada, December 2005)

In her perceptive and engaged but opinionated review (“Heroine or Hellcat?”, December 2005), Wendy McElroy hails my latest book, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, as brilliant and superbly written. She also declares the work “infuriating,” charging that I show far too much generosity to the deplorable Jane Franklin.

McElroy wonders whether I have changed my mind about the contribution to Arctic exploration of the peerless John Rae, the subject of my book Fatal Passage. The answer is emphatically no. But my understanding of Lady Franklin, and particularly of her situation as a Victorian woman, deepened as I scoured archives and visited relevant sites, and that’s why this biography, in McElroy’s words, “exquisitely captures the complexity of Jane Franklin.”

When Rae revealed that Sir John Franklin’s expedition had degenerated into cannibalism, he inadvertently threatened Jane’s existence, psychologically and spiritually. Driven by guilt and remorse, she had long since demonstrated that she would let nothing stand in the way of her quest to redeem the Franklin name — not her dwindling resources, not her precarious health, and not even her relationship with the father she adored, a man who, because she steadfastly refused to cease questing, finally disinherited her.

McElroy and I differ about Jane Franklin not because we approach historical analysis differently, as she suggests, but because she analyzes and judges where I narrate and evoke, sometimes using point-of-view techniques to suggest inner perspectives and bring figures more vividly to life. I lean to showing, not telling, and invite readers to judge for themselves. I see Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge as belonging to an Arctic Discovery Quartet, and the tension between them as akin to that between certain books in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Such tension, the hallmark of postmodern consciousness, is anathema to the tunnel vision of any ideology.

Your reviewer asserts that I have given Lady Franklin “a free pass on bad behaviour.” Not so: Jane behaved atrociously at times and, as McElroy elsewhere admits, I have taken pains not only to unearth but to elaborate every incidence. As a self-proclaimed “individualist feminist,” however, McElroy fails to register or recognize – probably because of ideological blinders — the many occasions when Jane behaved in exemplary fashion. . . .

As a biographer, I did not fall in love with Jane Franklin the way I did with my previous subjects, John Rae and Samuel Hearne. And yet, I did come to a grudging admiration. Jane was brilliant and resourceful, dauntless and persevering – and the greatest woman traveler of her times. While deploring her shortcomings, I acknowledge her achievements, and I continue to marvel at her strength of character. Does this make me “the last in a long chain of men bamboozled into promoting her legacy?” The suggestion is sexist and absurd. It would have been easy to write a hatchet job. I chose to wrestle honestly with human truth, and I think the resulting complexity provides readers with a richer experience.

Coming October 7, 2023


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