Lady Franklin's Revenge

by Ken McGoogan

Published by HarperCollins

468 pages, 2005





Revenge Reheated

Reviewed by India Wilson


I spent the quiet moments in the last few years of my girlhood deep in the thrall of historical novels. In that world, women had a strong, if sometimes dubious, place. They had adventures and misadventures. They calculated and sometimes miscalculated and the severity of their ends were often directly related to the results of these miscalculations. The best of these heroines lived whole, complete lives, most often in defiance of the social rules of the times in which they lived. And when they died, as they often did at the end of the novels I favored, their deaths -- and their lives -- were remarked upon.

I read a great many novels like that. Huge, towering stacks of them, I suspect. But few of the fictional women I visited with in those years had lives that would compare to Lady Jane Franklin's.

In Lady Franklin's Revenge, award-winning historical biographer Ken McGoogan gives us the full portrait of a character who danced across the pages of Fatal Passage, the book that uncovered the true fate of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Sir John had been -- erroneously it turns out -- credited with discovering that holy grail of exploration, the Northwest Passage. In the process, the explorer who should have been given credit, John Rae, was vilified upon his return to England with news of the final Franklin expedition's ignominious end. In Fatal Passage, McGoogan painted Lady Franklin as the villain of the piece: the woman who rewrote history in order to preserve her husband's memory and his reputation.

In Lady Franklin's Revenge, McGoogan doesn't exactly backpedal on his previous low opinion of the formidable Lady Franklin. He does, however, on more detailed study on her, cut her a bit of historical slack. On reading McGoogan's lovingly researched and executed book one realizes it would have been impossible to not end up at least appreciating Franklin as an extraordinary product of her era. A British woman of Victorian times raised gently and aristocratically whose world was confused by a brilliant and mostly self-educated mind.

Jane Franklin clearly emerged from Fatal Passage as the villain. In that book, McGoogan left us with a portrait of a vindictive woman, shamed at the possibility that society will get wind of her husband's less than heroic end. In Lady Franklin's Revenge, none of that has changed. Not really. But with that episode seen as only one chapter -- or, actually several -- in an extraordinary life, the inexcusable behavior is, while still inexcusable, at least understandable. More: Franklin herself emerges as extraordinary, someone due much more than the sound bites history has accorded her in the past.

She was born Jane Griffin in 1791. McGoogan compares her young womanhood to that of a Jane Austen heroine. The young woman's mother died in childbirth while Franklin herself was still a young girl, the middle of three sisters, McGoogan posits that, "Lacking a mother, however, she modeled herself more than she otherwise might have on her father, whose passions ran to science, travel, and exploration." McGoogan deduces this in part from her journals, "diaries that, taken together," McGoogan writes, "run into the millions of words." In young womanhood, the strongest images come directly from her journals. Here we see her heart: her desires, her failed love affairs and the beginnings of the workings of the manipulation that will leave her greatest mark on the world. An accomplished chess player, McGoogan sees Franklin's characteristic manipulations as an extension of her skill at that game:

Jane chose the only option available. She began working to achieve her ends through others, applying the strategic skills she had shown as a chess player to the subtle manipulation of her fellow human beings. Her natural talents in this realm, fully developed, would one day enable her to control a small armada of sailing ships, and even to alter the course of history.

Though some of her actions were reprehensible, Lady Jane Franklin emerges as a fascinating character, one well worth the study McGoogan has given her here. Historically significant moments aside -- and there are more than a few of them in Lady Franklin's Revenge -- her life was full and interesting if, no doubt, not always happy. | October 2005


India Wilson is a contributing editor to January Magazine.