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Lady Franklin's Revenge, by Ken McGoogan: Testy traveller

Testy traveller

Lady Franklin's Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession, and the Remaking of Arctic History, by Ken McGoogan (HarperCollins), 468 pp

Historian Ken McGoogan portrays the bittersweet character of Lady Jane Franklin

Considering she lived in a time when a woman’s only career option was to get married, Ken McGoogan believes Lady Jane Franklin was a "closet subversive." In his latest book, Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession, and the Remaking of Arctic History, she emerges as someone who never questioned her social role, but whose life nonetheless challenged the oppressive patriarchy of Victorian England.

Although few Canadians will recognize her name, Lady Franklin created one of the most enduring myths in our country’s history. She was the wife of John Franklin, the supposed discoverer of the Northwest Passage. After her husband’s Arctic disappearance in 1845, she refashioned his uncertain fate into a tale of heroic success, a version of the past that persisted for more than a century.

In a recent interview with Hour, McGoogan said that he hoped his book would clarify Lady Franklin’s role in the history of Arctic exploration and shed new light on this fascinating figure. "It wasn’t the work that John Franklin did," he suggests, "but the search for John Franklin that opened up the Arctic. And she drove that search."

According to the author, while Victorian England valued "conformity, reliability and predictability," Lady Franklin stood out as a "force of nature" whose insatiable wanderlust made her the "greatest woman traveller of the age." Amongst other adventures, she famously rode a donkey into Nazareth and became the first European woman to cross the Australian outback. However, paying homage to her courage does not mean McGoogan shies away from the selfish, abrasive and melodramatic elements of her personality.

The strength of this book lies not only in his enlightening portrait of Lady Franklin, but also his meticulous exploration of how her life reflected the era in which she lived. Victorian England represented the height of the British Empire, a time of colonialism and rampant materialism. Fortunately, McGoogan resists any urge to turn his subject into some sort of progressive heroine. Instead, she remains staunchly a product of this imperialist culture, literally perched on a wooden chair while being carried by servants through sweltering Tasmanian heat. Such prejudice was one of the reasons he never "fell in love" with Lady Franklin as he did with the subjects of his previous books. But, he admits, "I developed a grudging admiration for her that grew in spite of myself."

In the end, Lady Franklin’s Revenge works tirelessly to infuse this period with a fresh and balanced perspective, clearing a path through the copious documentation and intricacies of Victorian social mores in search of a better understanding of the past.

"Every generation has to create its own history," he concludes. "As time carries us forward, it takes you to a different position in relation to where it all began or what you’re focusing on at a particular time. So you have to deal with it again. And if you don’t deal with it, it’s like a rake in the garden. It’s going to come up and – bang! – hit you in the face."

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  • by David Ariss - January 29, 2006, 4:03 pm

    I must confess I find the kind of spirit attributed to Lady Franklin to be irresistible. There is something about the British that such a character just seems to encaspulate. Brett Hooton`s review makes me want to pick up this book.
    It is often overlooked but Britain, Newfoundland and other island places are much more of a matriachal society than we think. In light of this it is really no surprise to learn about Lady F`s role in perpetuating her husband`s myth and her own unique role in the north.
    Personally I enjoy reading these kind of `histories` and am glad that The Hour would review such a book.

  • by Bryan Murray - January 30, 2006, 1:17 pm

    I found this book a fine read , but one has to wonder if it is a True Story . I hope the fact checkers and proof readers at Harper Collins have done their job’s . I think this is one book that is better off borrowed from a library or friend that purchased at a bookstore.

  • by Mark St Pierre - January 31, 2006, 7:15 pm

    Well, let’s give Lady Franklin credit – though she lived in an incredibly oppressive time for women, she was amazingly opportunistic. After all, she utilised her reconstituted take on her husband’s story to garner quite a bit of publicity and reknown for herself and, in so doing, was able to travel far and wide, a remarkable achievement, in and of itself, considering the societal constraints placed upon women of that bygone era.

  • by Bobby-z Lambert - July 4, 2009, 4:34 am

    I thought Lady Franklin was told she had to sit in that chair if she wanted to go on that exspedition? Tassie is not knowen for it’s heat… rather it’s cold… if anyone wants to see the chair in question you can it’s on display at The Tasmanian and Art Gallery… one of the staff told me today that Lady Franklins maid fell ill during the exspedition and it was her maid who spent most the trip in the chair.

    Still who knows what really happened?

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