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."