Review by Kathryn Stutz
Nearly three years ago, Snap Book Reviews published a review of the novel “The Terror,” by Dan Simmons. Lovely and scathing, this review pointed out that Simmons’s massive brick of a book, which covers the events of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845 in exhaustive detail, served as the source material for a far-superior 2018 television adaptation that manages to depict the same historical events with both greater accuracy and also far less racism and misogyny baked into the narrative.
The story of the ill-fated Captain Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic with two ships and over one hundred unfortunate British sailors, inevitably raises these questions of racism (against Inuit groups who were blamed in the British press for Franklin’s demise) and misogyny (against the numerous women impacted by the disaster, both bereaved female relations in England and Inuit women who were questioned by explorers searching for Franklin). Representing these Victorian bigotries in fiction has proven a difficult task—and Simmons failed to live up to this challenge.
In 2018, however, two new Franklin fictions offered audiences a different view of this historical disaster: the excellent television show mentioned above (AMC’s “The Terror,” produced by Soo Hugh and David Kajganich) and Erika Behrisch Elce’s epistolatory novel “Lady Franklin of Russell Square,” written in the form of letters to the absent Sir John Franklin from his wife, Jane.
In the very first line of the Afterword to her novel, Elce (herself a scholar of the Franklin expedition and editor of the historical Lady Franklin’s letters) lays out a guiding thematic principle for her literary offering: “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John,” Elce writes, “I disagree.”
Those who have read other historical fictions about the Franklin Expedition, from Sten Nadolny’s idiosyncratic and introspective German novel “The Discovery of Slowness,” to Dominique Fortier’s (only loosely historical) found-footage French-Canadian collage “On the Proper Use of Stars,” may already have noticed that few fiction authors see Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John as soulmates. More often Lady Franklin seems, at best, indifferent to her husband (or, at worst, actively malevolent), and Sir John’s eyes stray from his lady wife to other women.
“Lady Franklin of Russell Square” begs to differ.
As written by Elce, Lady Franklin is misanthropic, judgmental, clever, passionate, and angry. She often seems to rage against the world, but she always, always loves her missing husband. The novel’s central themes, about Lady Franklin’s legacy, make it painfully clear that this protagonist knows she is being misunderstood: “Too often they forget love,” Lady Franklin writes. “I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.” It’s a compelling idea, and an innovative one.
Another mark of Elce’s great talent for showing historical research in her fiction is that the factual errors are often relatively minor. In contrast to other Franklin novels like “On the Proper Use of Stars,” where important names are misspelled or even invented whole-cloth, “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” pays very close attention to historical figures and the timelines of their lives, using real historical newspaper clippings to anchor the narrative.
Regrettably, one of the few mistakes calculated to disturb me in particular comes at the very beginning of the story, where an off-hand remark implies that Lady Franklin didn’t speak Latin or Greek, when in reality the classical world and its languages were a key part of her self-education, from when she began learning Latin at nineteen, to her travels through Greece as a newlywed in the 1830s.
Lady Franklin’s interest in the classical world is important to know, in this context, because of how several of the novel’s subplots twine together to form an intricate picture of Lady Franklin’s life in the 1840s and 1850s. One of my favorite narrative threads in “Russell Square” depicts Lady Franklin’s interaction with her nephew-by-marriage, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who offers Lady Franklin a copy of his 1842 poem “Ulysses.”
Tennyson would go on to compose a famous four-line epitaph for Sir John Franklin:
“Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou
Heroic sailor soul,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now
Toward no earthly pole.”
Tennyson’s earlier work, “Ulysses,” draws upon classical literature from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante to speak in the voice of the Greek mythic hero Odysseus, a captain who, like Sir John, spent many years lost at sea, after sailing to Troy to help recover Helen of Troy, the “face who launched a thousand ships.”
Over the course of numerous fictive letters spread out over many years, Elce’s Lady Franklin engages richly with the myths of Odysseus, casting herself first as the hero’s ever-faithful wife Penelope, and then she begins to chafe at the notion of being “called ‘pious’ and ‘devoted,’” and recasts herself instead in other ancient roles—the vengeful Lord Agamemnon, hell-bent upon finding Helen, his brother’s wife; or even as Odysseus (Ulysses) himself. For a classicist like me, this is a wonderfully complex tapestry of meta-narrative and metaphor.
Despite one or two initial errors—and some rather antagonistic depiction of individuals whom Lady Franklin once considered her close friends, like the explorer Sir James Clark Ross (shown here as vainglorious and lacking in compassion) and Lady Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft (shown here as a devotee of pulp novels, which can’t help but seem like an overreaction against the radical Austenite Sophia of “On the Proper Use of Stars”)—Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” ultimately won me over. Unique among current Franklin fictions as a novel that truly considers the lived experience of a loving widow, it’s well worth a read.
Many thanks to Thomas for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts and impressions! If you’re interested in hearing me speak more about historical fiction and Lady Franklin, do come to the panel “Who Tells Your Story?: (Mis)representing the Past in Works of Historical Fiction” at the r/AskHistorians Digital Conference: [Deleted] & Missing History, from October 19th through October 21st.