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The imagined letters of Lady Jane Franklin

A new novel by Erika Behrisch Elce brings Lady Franklin — widow of doomed polar explorer Sir John Franklin — to life in new and creative ways

  • Nov 06, 2018
  • 2,482 words
  • 10 minutes
Lady Franklin, Sir John Franklin, London, Arctic, explorer, Erebus, Terror Expand Image

It’s too easy to reduce Lady Jane Franklin to a few easy-to-digest dimensions: the steadfast wife pining for her Arctic explorer husband, Sir John Franklin; the fierce noblewoman moving heaven, Earth and the Admiralty to send expeditions out to rescue Sir John from the grips of polar sea ice and probable disaster. 

Media of the time painted her as the Penelope of England. And with a handful of notable exceptions, historians and dramatizations have placed her on the distant periphery of the greatest exploration mystery of the last few centuries.

Erika Behrisch Elce, an associate professor of English at the Royal Military College of Canada, has set out to change that with her new novel Lady Franklin of Russell Square, which imaginatively fills in the gaps through a collection of “discovered” letters from Lady Franklin to her husband, penned between 1847 and 1857.

“So much gets said about the men and the heroes,” Behrisch Elce explains. “I thought it was time for the quieter side of history to speak up.”

To some extent, our incomplete picture of Lady Franklin is of her own design. She was notorious for redacting lines in her writing, ripping out pages and burning her diaries and letters, and was on record saying that she never wanted to be “just another one of those women writers.”

“The control of her public persona was very important to her,” says Behrisch Elce, “but that left great gaps in her own biography. And just as Sir John Franklin was missing, so is a picture of their relationship. I wanted to know them more as people: I like both Lady Jane and Sir John, which I think is uncommon — biographers tend to like one or the other.”

By drawing out of her title character a wry sense of humour and playfulness, and not shying from the mental exhaustion that would certainly accompany constant branding in the press and strategic encounters with the Admiralty, Behrisch Elce has created a layered interior world as real as Russell Square and the streets of England. Lady Franklin eventually escaped that Victorian hamster wheel and carried on with her own world travels and did many other fascinating things, “But those years in London,” says Behrisch Elce, “were simply gold for someone who wanted to imagine a world around them.”

Read on for excerpts from the new Lady Franklin of Russell Square.

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From Lady Franklin of Russell Square

1 August 1847


Here I am supposed to say thank you for your latest letter, but instead I offer a gentle reminder that I am still waiting. Are you thinking of me? Daily we expect news of you from the west, Esquimalt or Victoria — why is there none? There is nothing in the papers, nor any news from Whitehall. I imagine you are ready for those weeks of recuperation: juleps, fresh cotton, fine linens for the table, new books. Your own library aboard the Erebus must be thumbed half to death — perhaps you’ve even been forced into opening The Vicar of Wakefield! How I laughed when I saw that awful novel was still part of the ship’s collection. You should have put it right next to the Bible — haha! I imagine you’ve found some way of getting rid of it by now. I tease, but these are gentle returns to common humanity after all that heroism, no? Are you tired of the legend you are making?

Each afternoon, I sit at tea in Bedford Place and can almost feel you with me; I miss those moments of easy silence between us before the world intruded once more and we went “zigzagging” (as they say in France) off like dragonflies to our various destinations. Lately I have been pulling out our old map of London — do you remember the one? We drew the lines of our travels between your postings, after the happy Rainbow and before those forgettable years in Van Diemens Land, the routes in and out of the City almost soaked through with ink, the Admiralty offices a ruined hole in the fabric, as much as Russell Square, but with those dainty tendrils trailing elegantly off into the countryside, too … I did the same with the map of America Eleanor and I shared, but she wasn’t so interested in seeing where she’d been; her fascination was with what was right in front of her. I can appreciate this — she is young and relies on the present — but there is nothing quite so wonderful as to watch your trail unfold like a dark stream across the page, the space literally covered with your passage over it. Actually, there are perhaps two things just as wonderful: to give those places names, and to look forward to where you have yet to go. And you are doing all three, my love! How proud you must be. How proud I already am of you! I cannot wait to see the map you have drawn, to trace your movements through those blank spaces with my finger, all the way around the Horn and straight back to me.

I have started a new map of London — this time it is my own, to accompany these letters. So far I have attended a musical concert in Piccadilly and one conversazione in Hampstead, and of course gone several times to Russell Square, the space of which is already weakening under the weight of ink I’ve applied to it. No matter: I know that lovely shape by heart, and in the crystallized incursions of blue and black ink that expand beyond its borders on the map, I can still make out my little buds of campion, fighting valiantly against obliteration. I think they are waiting for you, too, as their blooms are lasting longer than usual this season. I think they’ve even had two blooming sessions, a London miracle.

Yesterday, a sunny day, there were three pigeons on the Duke: one on each shoulder and the largest on his head. I don’t need to tell you directly what was happening up there, but the Duke looked ashamed of those impromptu epaulettes and that rather imperfect peer’s wig. You should have seen his expression: his mature resignation, his dignified acceptance of his avian burden! He gazed haplessly, stoically above my head, wondering how it had all come to this. “Well,” I consoled him, “it’s a lesson for the ages.” I attempted to shoo them away, but short of throwing a pebble at them, which would have brought a Bobby, they were immovable, so I left them to their triumph, knowing the good Duke would eventually clean himself off, and in a war of attrition, he would emerge triumphant. I gave him what I hope he accepted as a sympathetic wave.

We had some peaches delivered this week, from the Keables, our wonderful old friends from Mortimer — they arrived in a crate loaded with clean straw and ice, ice, ice! They were perfectly firm, and not a bruise on one of them — better than any strawberry — and so cold! You would think peaches were a polar fruit! Eleanor and I, and even Mary, somehow between engagements, each grabbed one and herded ourselves out into the patchy little back garden in Bedford Place that was never cared for by us when we were growing up, where we sat ourselves against the wall, crouching in that one triangle of sun that pushes its way between the buildings in the middle of the afternoon. It was hot and breezeless, a perfectly still moment, and the scent of the peaches pushed the odour of coal and horses, shoeblacking and slops out of our heads for a few precious moments. And without a thought to the work ahead of us on our cuffs or collars, we set to on those peaches, bursting them with our teeth, ripping the skins like carnivores, letting the juice run down our chins. Oh! That tart sweetness was as painful as a first kiss. I watched Eleanor; she had her eyes closed. Mary and I made faces at each other, the peach juice dribbling out the corners of our mouths. We were working ourselves up to a froth of silent hilarity when Eleanor let escape the most profound sigh, her eyes still closed, and murmured, 

“How I wish Papa were here!” 

Not that you have ever, my love, been a check on my behaviour (and for that I adore you), but Mary and I quickly collected ourselves and attempted to eat the rest of our peaches in dignified silence. “We wish he were here, too, Eleanor,” I consoled her. Mary snorted — “yes,” she said, “for he would have known how to eat this peach!” At that, everything devolved back to its original merriment, and even melancholy Eleanor joined in, and you were right there among us, peach juice on your own chin, and your face the funniest and stickiest of all. We couldn’t save one for you, but we ate the peach that should have been yours with gusto, taking turns telling lovely stories about you as we shared it between us, bite for bite.

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I think if we hear nothing of you and yours by October of this year, I will trace a line on my map from Bedford Place to the Admiralty offices, where I have not been since your grand departure or our return from our own New World adventures. I am loath to go there, suggestive as that visit will be of worry or doubt, of which I am doing my best to feel none. I just want to make sure they are keeping nothing from me — you know those secretive gentlemen in their shored up offices — ever willing to extend a hand in public, but not so eager to offer help behind closed doors. I apologize, my love — they are your employers, and for them I am grateful — they’ve given us a life we have loved and done well by, but as this is my letter, you are forced to sit and read it, and there it is, that’s how I feel. Humbug! They have until the end of October next, and then I make my first foray into their territory. Heaven help them if they get in my way, haha! Until then, though, I play.

Your rather sticky Jane

3 November 1847


Well, the deadline I have given you — indeed, the one you gave yourself — has come and gone, and still no word from you: none of those silly little tin tubes, and nothing more definite, either. I will tell you then what I have done: I have seen Captain Hamilton at Whitehall. I know you will shake your head at my silly woman’s worry, but I could not help myself — if I let your silence slide into nothingness, what will I be? Only a wife without a husband, and there are enough of those in the Navy already, thank you very much. If you are not here with me, then someone should know where you are.

The day I went was overcast, the clouds a perfect accompaniment to the grey of my stuff dress I chose for the visit. I projected a sombre earnestness, if I may say so, but I think was not completely successful in hiding my growing anxiety for you. Captain Hamilton was, as always, such a youngster — hurriedly shuffling papers on his desk as I was ushered in, glancing wildly around as if I were his own mother catching him looking at French postcards. We are not so different in age, he and I, but a conversation with me always pushes him to his limit. We’ve only ever had one or two chance encounters, but you remember that it’s ever thus: yes madam, no madam, three bags full madam! And now I have extra gravitas by association: I’ve called it the “Franklin Factor”! Well, it was the same this morning: shuffling pages, sitting up straighter, eyes casting about for an escape route. I blocked the door, and was glad I’d chosen my grey dress, which is understated but accommodates my largest petticoat. Ha!

I won’t bore you with the details, but we mutually suffered through a dignified and not very useful conversation before I asked for news. He said he had none! Instead, taking me to the map table over by the window in the anteroom, he showed me your intended route through the Eastern pack — a story I have heard and traced myself countless times before (though infinitely more lovingly). I almost felt he had overstepped personal decorum when his finger traced the same line mine has so many times. I asked about news from the Northwest or Hudson’s Bay Company and received a shrug and a point to Norway House. Esquimalt — point. Victoria — point. Montreal — point. Kamtschatka — point. Valparaiso — point. I suggested to him that I had come to his office for reasons other than a geography lesson, at which he held his palms to the ceiling in a gesture of surrender. “Yes, madam.”

“Captain Hamilton!” I raised my eyebrows at him and hovered my own hand over the map as his own retreated, “are you telling me that not one person in your limitless and noble institution has heard one official word concerning the whereabouts of my husband?”

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The truant schoolboy: “yes, madam.”

“May I ask what you propose to do about it?” I couldn’t help it; I felt my hand twitch, a grasping motion over the blank polar space.

This was the question of the moment, and the good Captain actually rose to the challenge — it turns out those nervously shuffled papers were not French postcards, but letters from your old comrades: Sir James Ross, Sir John Richardson, Sir Edward Parry; and from some of your others: Sir George Back, Sir John Ross — all the ones you left behind in 1845, some of whom make up the table at Bedford Place. All had been asked for their opinion as to your whereabouts, though Richardson and Parry never mentioned it to me. It wasn’t exactly news, but it was a good indication that more than Eleanor, Richardson and I were thinking of you: men who can do something about it are on your trail, too. Though we don’t yet have you actually with us, knowing that the Admiralty has started to stoke its vast administrative engine on your behalf is a balm on my nerves, for now I know there will be news. They send men up the Niger, up the Chaddu, down the Amazon, and to the Great Barrier Reef. A few hundred miles of blank space, with two ships, will hardly be a challenge. I can almost smell you, you are so close.

Your Jane


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