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Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession, and the Remaking of Arctic History

by Ken McGoogan

Some memorable historical figures worked hard at achieving greatness, others were born to it. Then there’s Sir John Franklin, who had the good fortune to die dramatically and leave behind a remarkable spouse dedicated to mythologizing his memory.

In Lady Franklin’s Revenge, Ken McGoogan forsakes John Rae’s frozen Arctic tent for the drawing rooms of Victorian England. Best known for Fatal Passage, his award-winning biography of Rae, and Ancient Mariner, the story of explorer Samuel Hearne, McGoogan here concentrates on one of the most singular women of her generation, presenting at the same time a refreshingly new portrait of John Franklin, the man whose fate has spawned an entire subgenre of Arctic literature.

By any standards, Jane Franklin was exceptional. Despite being a product of a society that regarded women as either drudges or ornaments, she travelled more than most men of her age, was the first woman to trek overland from Melbourne to Sydney, and almost single-handedly orchestrated the greatest splurge of Arctic exploration in history. It could be argued that the mapping of the Canadian Arctic in the 19th century owes more to Jane Franklin than to Ross, Parry, or her own husband.

Jane Franklin was powerful and strong-willed and moved in the highest circles of society. She also knew how to manipulate from behind the scenes, moulding her more passive husband’s career and even going to the lengths of burning official documents that she felt he shouldn’t see. After she was widowed, Jane stopped at nothing, even wrecking Rae’s reputation, to ensure John’s lasting fame.

McGoogan draws extensively on the incredible archive of Jane Franklin’s journals at the Scott Polar Research Institute in England. Running to dozens of volumes and millions of words, the journals cover her entire life and present a portrait of a woman who railed against the restrictions of her gender, class, and time, but who was also very much a product of all three.

Unfortunately for her biographers, Jane was also not above editing. Journals from key periods were destroyed and sections that expressed too much emotion, or a controversial view, were deleted. Despite this, McGoogan does a splendid job of showing both sides of Jane’s complex character – “Curious, brave, observant, articulate, and loyal” and “selfish, insensitive, and interfering.”

Lady Franklin’s Revenge is not only a vivid recreation of an extraordinary life, it presents a novel perspective (at least compared with recent books) on John Franklin’s years as governor of the convict colony of Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) and on the search for the lost expedition of 1845. Few other works cover the family financial squabbling that paralleled the search for her husband and may explain part of her obsession with promoting his achievements.

McGoogan has a tendency, particularly evident in Ancient Mariner, to stretch the limits of non-fiction into speculation. The huge archival resources make this unnecessary, although scholars might bemoan the lack of a more detailed bibliography or more extensive chapter notes. It would be interesting, among other things, to follow up the source of the idea that Jane’s father “almost admired … Jane’s adroit machinations when he saw them.”

As always, McGoogan’s text is highly readable and enriched by the well-chosen illustrations. Lady Franklin’s Revenge is a fascinating and entertaining contribution to the literature of both the Arctic and early Victorian society. It will appeal equally to general readers and history aficionados.