Sir John Franklin's Penelope.
by Erika Behrisch Elce
(Stonehouse Publishing, 2018)
IN the acknowledgements of Lady Franklin of Russell Square, Erika Behrisch Elce thanks those without whom her first novel "would never even have been imagined." Foremost among these are "Professor Mel Wiebe and Dr Mary Millar of the Benjamin Disraeli Project (Queen's University), who first introduced me to Lady Franklin's writing and to the pleasure of reading lives lived in letters." For much of its four decades (1975-2015), the Disraeli Project, whose members researched and annotated the correspondence of Benjamin Disraeli, was headed by Dr Wiebe, with Dr Millar as his invaluable associate and co-editor. Their combined energies produced ten massive volumes of Benjamin Disraeli Letters (published by University of Toronto Press), the tenth, covering 1868, appearing in 2014; eight more volumes would have closed the series at Disraeli's death in 1881.
Erika Behrisch Elce teaches Victorian Literature and Culture at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, a logical professional terminus following her apprenticeship, as a graduate student working at the Disraeli Project, in deciphering handwriting, scrutinizing nineteenth-century newspapers, and enjoying the pleasure--and challenges--of reading lives lived in letters. Thus it comes as no surprise that Lady Franklin of Russell Square, an epistolary novel, has masterfully captured the voice and vocabulary, the tone and temper, of mid-nineteenth-century writing.
Take, for example, the protagonist's account of her early "romance" (as she calls it) with lexicographer Peter Mark Roget: "Being with him was like being tied to a wharf post with an incoming tide; there was no escape and the cold waves of his insecurities seeped ever closer, causing slow but inexorable suffocation." Or this caution to her long-absent husband:
"You will no longer fit into your favourite reading chair from the sheer volume of antimacassars that have been tatted on your behalf." As for the men at the Times, purveyors of misinformation or invariably bad news, they are "an anonymous band of libelous grubbers who hide behind their first-person plurals to deal out acid like candy."
Such evocative, imaginative writing abounds in the novel's 112 letters, written between May 1847 and July 1857 by Lady Franklin (nee Jane Griffin) to her husband, famed polar explorer Captain Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), whose ships the Erebus and Terror (and their 129 men) were lost while trying to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Franklin was 59 when he sailed from England in May 1845; Jane was 54 and would live until 1875. All told, the indomitable Lady Franklin sponsored seven naval expeditions to find her husband, the last one setting sail only weeks before her death. (The wreck of the Erebus was discovered in 2014, that of the Terror in 2016.)
THE ingenious narrative conceit of Lady Franklin of Russell Square is a collection of letters found in 1919 in the attic of Lady Franklin's residence, 21 Bedford Place, walking distance from Russell Square, and opened only in 2014. "Likely, none of these letters was ever sent," the anonymous editor informs us: they were "glued or written directly into a scrapbook" along with some fifty clippings from the Times. This intertwining of fiction and fact yields a vivid portrait of a wife's hopes and heartaches in the midst of the myriad speculations and uncertainties surrounding her husband's fate, which was debated year after year in the press and in Parliament. "Though I know you won't receive [my letters] until you are with me again, I have started using them as a record of my life in anticipation of your triumphant return," Jane writes in her third letter, which she ends with "P.S. I absolutely trust I will see you soon, my love." This poignant note of resolute hope is sustained almost to the very end of her decade-long diary.
Most letters are simply addressed to "My dearest love," and most close with "Your Jane" However, Lady Franklin is also Your bride, Yours for better or for worse, Your maiden in distress, Your first mate. Depending on her mood, she is Jane the ever restless, embattled, determined, despondent--even ecstatic, when the Times on October 5, 1849, reports that her husband is "safe and well." But ecstasy turns to "absolute and complete horror" a few weeks later, when Captain Sir James Ross returns from the polar regions "empty-handed ... with no accounts of you whatsoever ... He found nothing! No notes, no evidence of an encampment ... where can you be, my love, and why can we not find you?" Hope alternates with disappointment throughout the novel. When the Times on April 3, 1854, announces that Franklin, now missing for nine years, will retain his place on the official Navy List, Jane signs herself Your wife, not your widow; but in January 1857, resigned at last, she becomes, for the first time, Your widow, Jane. A few months later, in her last letter, she exclaims, "Yes, I am a widow, a widow, a widow. But I am still your wife.... I must tell you, my lovely husband, that I simply cannot do it anymore.... I'm just too tired."
This undercurrent of pathos often melds with a sense of futility. Although the Times noted on May 29, 1847, that Franklin's expedition "was fully provisioned to last till the autumn of 1848," two weeks later it urged prompt government action to save Franklin and "his gallant companions" from starvation --or "the necessity of feeding upon each other." While dismissing this "slanderous" idea, Jane will nonetheless ask, a few years later, "But what if everything ran out years before? Perhaps we have always been looking for ghosts." Many in political power thought so, hence Lady Franklin's fraught relationship with the British government. "Waiting on the Admiralty is like willing a rock to give birth, like expecting a poem from a dog," she tells her husband. When in 1848 the Admiralty offers a "miserly 100 guineas" to any ship bringing information about Franklin, Jane offers 2,000 [pounds sterling], and the following year 3,000 [pounds sterling]. When the Times in late 1849 reported that "the opinion in naval circles ... is decidedly against any further waste of money and sacrifice of life and comfort in such an adventure," she continued her eloquent pleas; the novel includes one of her letters (published in the Times) to the Chairman of the Arctic Select Committee. Eventually, however, the gadfly became a nuisance: "I am persona non grata at Whitehall these days."
Indeed, there is much in this novel about a woman's helplessness in the face of male authority. In one of her last letters, Jane asks: "What could one woman do? ... In this modern time, I did simply what I had to: put myself in the path of the oncoming train, only to be pushed unceremoniously aside by the cowcatcher of progress and forced to watch from the gravel side as decisions about your life, death, and memory are made in the dining car, by people who neither know or understand you."
Defiance is but one of the many moods and dispositions of this bereft wife attempting to suppress her grief and curb her fears. She is often playful ("I have lost out to an iceberg, that you would rather sidle up to her cold, sharp sides than my own, I hope more welcoming, arms") and passionate ("what I most long for are my cold feet against your warm thighs"); reassuring ("Don't worry, my dear, I am still just as loyal to you as ever --I am your Penelope!") and hopeful ("We will find our way back to each other"); impatient ("I now feel the stirrings of connubial insubordination") and exasperated: "Jesus Christ on a stick, John, where are you?" At times, understandably, she succumbs to melancholy ("How you used to make me laugh.... Nothing is funny anymore"), even dejection ("My black dress made me invisible in the crowds--another widow on the move down one of London's busy streets, ignored by omnibuses and children, men and horses alike").
Ever-present in the letters is her "beloved" Russell Square, with its majestic statue of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, "who sees all." She pays tribute to her place of refuge and solace in one of her rare forays into verse: "Small Russell Square is always there / When in my woman's heart I'm low; / Beneath my Duke I take a chair / And let the breezes blow." The keeper of this Edenic haven is Benjamin Rowe, the new and "strikingly handsome" gardener of the Russell Square Horticultural Interest, to whom Jane is drawn. Nothing untoward occurs between them, however, save perhaps a brief episode when they suck sugar lumps through rose petals. After recounting the suggestive, even mildly erotic, incident to her husband at length, she signs herself, reassuringly, Still, your Jane. This is as close as she comes to having a Homeric suitor; however, although "they call me the 'Penelope of England' ... I am no Penelope: I'm far too scattered in both my heart and mind to be the symbol of fidelity the public takes me for." She remained ever-faithful nonetheless.
Erika Behrisch Elce has created an affecting account of the psychology of longing (to coin a phrase). Aware of the figure she cuts as "the mad woman who talks to the Duke of Bedford's statue," Lady Franklin remains at all times self-possessed. Lesser authors might have turned her into the Madwoman of Bedford Place--and indeed her mental state, constantly reeling between anguish and elation, would have driven weaker beings to despair. But not this Jane. "Here I am, writing you letters that never get sent," she tells her husband in early 1850, "willing you to receive them through some means other than the penny post, willing somehow that the feelings and thoughts I send your way will cross the abyss of uncertainty between us and land safely on your heart." This articulate rationale--and a remarkable willpower--prevents her from collapsing altogether.
Lady Franklin of Russell Square is the third book to emerge from research carried out at the Disraeli Project. The first was Mary Millar's Disraeli's Disciple: The Scandalous Life of George Smythe (2006), the first-ever biography of this iconoclastic aristocrat and his controversial relationship with Benjamin Disraeli. The second was Behrisch Elce's As affecting the fate of my absent husband: Selected Letters of Lady Franklin Concerning the Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition, 1848-1860 (2009). The "helpful but misguided" Disraeli "has given us some time in Parliament, but no money has yet come of it. I keep on asking," writes the fictitious Lady Franklin. Readers curious to know what she owes to her historical forebear will want to delve into As affecting, where the real Lady Franklin, undaunted by delays and rejections, writes to the prime minister on nine occasions. Included also are four letters to the Admiralty, one of them 22 pages long (as printed in As affecting) and published as a pamphlet without her permission.
These and other fascinating documents will interest readers intrigued by Erika Behrisch Elce's moving portrait of a woman at once contumacious and compassionate, whose compelling struggles continue to elicit our astonishment and admiration.
MICHEL PHARAND holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Ottawa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Penn State, where he studied under Disraeli biographer Stanley Weintraub. He was director designate (2007-09) and director (2009-15) of the Disraeli Project at Queen's University. He is general editor of Benjamin Disraeli Letters, Volume IX: 1865-1867 (2013) and Volume X: 1868 (2014) and editor of Joseph Tasse's Lord Beaconsfield and Sir John A. Macdonald: A Political and Personal Parallel (2015).
Caption: STATUE OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN, TO BE ERECTED AT SPILSBY, LINCOLNSHIRE.
Caption: OPPOSITE: Lady Jane Franklin, drawn by Thomas Bock in 1838.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
|Previous Article:||A Historian's Quest to Recover a Shared Moment in History.|
|Next Article:||All Roads (Do Not) Lead to Rome: The Artist's Journey South in the Seventeenth Century.|