Franklin Expedition

October 6, 2009 at 12:23 pm (General Victoriana, Nineteenth-century novel)

I owe Monica (I think it was) an apology. In last week’s Novel class (on David Copperfield) I asked if anybody knew what was especially memorable about the year 1848. Several people offered suggestions, and Monica brought up the Franklin Expedition. I pooh-poohed, but I had my dates wrong: indeed, as you’ll see if you click the link, in that last sentence there, the Franklin Expedition (two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, jointly under the command of a naval veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, Sir John Franklin) set off in 1845 to sail round the north of Canada to the Pacific, and thereby establish a less circuitous and less dangerous route to the lucrative Pacific than going south round South America — which is to say, they were searching for the fabled ‘Northwest Passage’. They were hoping their journey would be like this:

In fact it was like this:


They all died.  By 1848 people were aware that the expedition was lost, but it was still hoped that it, or survivors from it, might still be located. By the mid 1850s, after various search-and-rescue expeditions, it became clear that there were none. Dickens was particularly interested in this expedition. In Autumn 1854 the Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor Dr. John Rae brought back Inuit reports of cannibalism among Franklin’s men; Dickens refused to believe that Englishmen would sink so low, and debated the matter with Rae in the pages of his weekly journal, Household Words. Two years later, he and his friend Wilkie Collins put on a performance of a play based on the expedition, The Frozen Deep.
Collins ‘wrote’ the play, although Dickens’ input was so pronounced (he rewrote stretches of it, adapted it, acted in it) that it is sometimes cited as co-authored by the two of them. At the centre of the play is an act of noble self-sacrifice, out on the arctic wastes, by a character called Wardour; a dry-run for the same device (in a very different environment) in Tale of Two Cities.

Here’s a facsimile of the Times from 1859, reporting the fate of the expedition. And here’s more newspaper coverage, this time from 2008, proof that for some the story is still news.


So, the Franklin Expedition was contemporaneous with 1848 (sorry Monica!) although it’s unlikely it fed into the cultural climate behind Copperfield. What I was actually angling for was the ‘year of revolutions’. [AR]



  1. Dr. Russell A. Potter said,

    Delighted to see a blog entry on Franklin — which, by the way, has in its Picture Gallery the most remarkable visual comment on the Franklin fiasco, in the form of Sir Edwin Landseer’s magisterial “Man Proposes, God Disposes.”

    Of course in 1848, Franklin’s departure was not necessarily headline news — Britain had sent so many similar expeditions that this one, though the best and biggest to date, was not yet a matter of great national interest. But by 1859, when the engraving you reproduce above of Sir Francis Leopold M’Clintock’s discovery of a whaleboat with two skeletons amidst a jumble of discarded débris (including carpet slippers, tea and chocolate, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield), it was instant worldwide news. Dickens and Collins wrote their play in 1857, not knowing the eventual fate of Franklin; 1859 saw a lovely elegy by Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as an item in the Cornhill Magazine penned (without byline) by George Eliot. M’Clintock’s narrative of his discovery of the fate of Franklin was the bestseller of its day, outpacing Eliot’s Mill on the Floss in figures kept by Mudie’s Library.

    If anyone would be interested, please drop by my blog, my Sir John Franklin pages (where you can read Swinburne’s poem in its entirety, and see many more images), or have a look at my book, Arctic Spectacles, which has the Landseer on its cover.

  2. Dr. Russell A. Potter said,

    p.s. that first sentence was meant to have the phrase “at Royal Holloway” inserted just before the “which” — such are the perils of blog-post pasting.

  3. rhulvictorian said,

    Thanks for dropping by, Dr Potter! Go check his blog and his book, people: he’s one of the world’s experts on the Franklin expedition.

  4. Adam Roberts said,

    From the arctic sublime to something a little lower (if not ridiculous) and slightly tangential: American author Dan Simmons last-but-one novel, The Terror, is based on the Franklin expedition, although with some magical-horror to liven things up. I reviewed it when it came out. Simmons latest novel is called Drood, and is all about Dickens and Collins: he’s clearly on a Victorian kick at the moment.

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