Magazine article The Spectator

The Search for Sir John

Magazine article The Spectator

The Search for Sir John

Article excerpt

The hunt for John Franklin was one of the great early Victorian obsessions, inflaming public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to a mound of books and articles and bringing a raft of supplementary tragedies in its wake. Sir John, who had fought at Trafalgar as a 17year-old, set out with his ships Erebus and Terror in search of the North-West passage in 1845. He never came back, and though the first rescue missions were sent out two years later, it was not until 1850 that news of the expedition's fate trickled back to civilisation. Later, as further attempts were made to track down the bodies and the air grew dense with controversy (in particular a debate over whether the last remnants of the crew had resorted to cannibalism) the Franklin saga became a staple of the newsstands. As late as 1860, for example, one of the selling points of the first number of the Comhill Magazine was an article by A. W. Young on `The Search for Sir John Franklin'.

Set in the years 1855-6, in a world enraptured by the exploits of Franklin fanatics such as John Rae (who had brought back the first Eskimo stories of human remains found in kettles) and Dr Kane, The Voyage of the Narwhal describes a fictitious excursion through the ice-floes of Baffin Bay and Smith Sound. Ominously, the personalities on whom the plot turns are linked by more than simple interest in Arctic exploration: Zeke, the flamboyant 26-year-old leader, seduced by the notion of fame and cartographic tribute ('I want my name on something, something big - is that so hard to understand?') is booked to marry the sister of the ship's naturalist on their return. From the outset this gives their relations a faint air of unease. Hunkering down over his specimens, making friends with the civilised medic Dr Boerhaave, Erasmus Wells - a disillusioned veteran of an earlier voyage -- regards his prospective brother-in-law with a mixture of admiration and wariness.

The wariness is well-founded. The original plan of Zeke and his 14-strong crew was to head home before the onset of the Arctic winter. On the way back, however, with the mission apparently accomplished (eyewitness accounts of corpses courtesy of the locals, a handful of Franklin artefacts) it all goes wrong when Zeke decides they should make a detour northwards in search of what would be the geographical find of the century: an unfrozen polar sea. …

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