AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, MARTYN BEARDSLEY
(Red = Russell Potter; Black = Martyn Beardsley)
I'm impressed by the amount of new historical documentation you've been able to bring to your biography of Sir John Franklin. I imagine that you've been through the work of earlier biographers fairly thoroughly; is it your impression that their views of Franklin were in part the result of not digging very deeply in primary-source materials?
I didn't actually think I had introduced very much new material! The last full biography was "The Fate of Franklin" by Roderic Owen in 1978, and before I started mine I was quite depressed when I saw what a thorough job he had done! I think much of what people know of Franklin comes not from full biographies but from general books and articles on exploration, the Northwest Passage etc., and it's not realistic to expect writers of works of that nature to trawl as thoroughly as a biographer through all of the available primary material.
What was the most surprising among the previously unnoted documents you found?
I would love to be able to say I unearthed a completely new discovery, but I'm afraid it's just not true! I don't believe I found anything that had not already been in print some time, somewhere. Maybe in my eagerness to present a fully human Franklin as opposed to "just" an explorer, I gave more weight to his personal correspondence than some writers.
According to the jacket copy, you first became interested in Franklin while working on a children's book; could you fill in the details on this?
I'm primarily a writer of children's fiction, and I was partly inspired by the wonderful James Taylor song "Frozen Man", which in turn appears to have been inspired by the Owen Beattie expedition to exhume bodies from the 1845 expedition, to write a children's "timeslip" story. It was about a ship's boy whose frozen body is brought back to life by an unscrupulous scientist specialising in cryonics! I felt I needed to research the original expedition story so that I could give the story a touch of realism, and that led me onto Franklin himself.
Any connection with your Sir Gadabout series? If so, I'm wondering what it must have been like to switch both audiences (children to adult) and tone (silly to serious, as John Cleese might put it).
It's not connected with "Sir Gadabout" - but you might have something there! I like the sound of "Sir Gadabout and the Northwest Passage Expedition."
At several points in the book, you note that previous writers, particularly Pierre Berton, seem to have taken a rather dim view of Franklin. Yet it could be said that these writers more often saw Franklin as simply one representative of a Royal Navy, and a British culture, which was slow to learn from its mistakes, and reluctant to adopt proven native techniques (e.g., sledges pulled by dogs). Do you think that such criticism is entirely anachronistic, or are there some valid points to be made along these lines?
I don't just think that this view of British culture is anachronistic, I think it's plain wrong! In Franklin's day and for several generations afterwards, Britain was probably the most innovative and technologically advanced country in the world. Of course this can lead to a type of cultural arrogance (it still happens today in both Britain and America), but it's also understandable that they thought they knew best and wrong to judge them too harshly with the benefit of hindsight. I repeat what I said in the book: Franklin had some extraordinarily bad luck on his first overland expedition, in particular the unusually harsh conditions, and he was very badly let down by others. Franklin learned from his mistakes, and his second expedition went so smoothly that almost no one bothers to talk about it! My grievance with Berton and those who seem to have taken a cue from him is that their character assassination of Franklin is largely without factual foundation and appears rather to be motivated by a jaundiced view of Britain and its navy of that period.
In Ken McGoogan's recent book on Rae (Fatal Passage), Rae is upheld as the man who did learn from the Inuit, as opposed to those stuffy Royal Navy blokes. If you've read his book, what do you think of his arguments?
It's certainly true that Rae had the right idea, and that Franklin and his superiors could have learned from him. But going back to what I've said above, Rae was ahead of his time, and the Royal Navy - with actually a pretty good track record in terms of exploration and charting unknown territories - could be forgiven for their complacency. I must admit that I didn't come across Ken McGoogan's book until Deadly Winter was virtually finished, but it would have made little difference to my thinking. His regurgitates the cartoon character representation of Franklin ("a plodding man, gloomy, bumbling, bovine") and perpetuates unquestioningly the myth created by his political enemies in Van Dieman's Land that Franklin was ruled by his wife. He declares that Rae knew Franklin was "badly overmatched to any contest in these northern wilds" on the very same page that he mentions the completely successful 1825-27 expedition! I could go on...
In recent years, Franklin seems to have had a wider following among the writers of fiction than the writers of history and biography. In just the past ten years, there have been no fewer than seven novels based in part on Franklin's exploits; have you read any of these, and why do you think Franklin has been so appealing to novelists? (Titles I'm thinking of include Wiebe's Discovery of Strangers, Vollmann's The Rifles, Edric's The Broken Lands, Wilson's North With Franklin, and McGregor's The Ice Child).
I haven't read any Franklin fiction, but this is mainly because I have very parochial tastes in fiction and read mostly non-fiction! I can certainly see how the drama, mystery and controversy would inspire fiction writers - and in fact I've long believed that there is a blockbuster film just waiting to be made...
I was particularly intrigued by your much more detailed account of the religious differences between Franklin and Eleanor Ann Porden, and your tracing of Franklin's enthusiasm to a group of Calvinists who were, in Porden's eyes, quite fanatical in their beliefs. Do you feel that Franklin perhaps gave more credence to these beliefs than he let on? Did any of the materials from later in his life suggest that he tempered his enthusiasm, or did it remain strong throughout his life?
I do suspect that, at least initially, Franklin was more influenced by the Calvinists than he let on. But in my view this was a very personal thing for him; although, as captain, he led divine service on board ship (and was apparently a very inspirational speaker) there is little evidence of his evangelising, and he simply wasn't that sort of person. I think he would have hated to be seen to be foisting his views onto others. I am quite certain that in general his faith remained as strong as ever to the end of his life, but from the point of view of specific matters of dogma, there are few clues.
Did his Arctic experiences, in your view, significantly strengthen Franklin's religious convictions?
I didn't come across anything which suggested his trials and tribulations affected his faith either negatively or positively. One of the things that I noticed during the research was the extent to which Christian belief was an unquestioned part of every day life in that period.
You seem to take the (nowadays contrarian) view that Inuit evidence must still be taken "cum grano sale," and that the testimony collected by Hall and others does not, despite the physical evidence collected by Keenleyside and others, resolve the question of cannibalism. Yet David Woodman and others (including Hall himself, in his first book) have shown that Inuit testimony was in general remarkably accurate, even at a distance of 300 years. What reasons do you have for discounting the Inuit evidence?
Firstly, I question your assessment of my stance on the Inuit testimony! What I have tried to say in the book is that although I'm sure you can find examples of information being passed down accurately through the generations by word of mouth, in general one should examine it critically. In fact, even if it were written information, and even if it were European testimony, one would have to be wary; one needs to ask of some of the "factual" versions of the Franklin story by Western writers: what were their prejudices? What were their motives? How selective and contextual are the "truths" which are presented?
From my limited knowledge of cultures where history is preserved mainly by word of mouth, invariably some embellishment takes place in the retelling of the story. Then you have to look at the "political" situation at the time. The Inuit might have been influenced on the one hand by how they might profit from a positive spin, and on the other on what retribution might take place from a negative one. This is not to belittle or patronise the Inuit - it's human nature and it's the kind of thing that can be seen all over the world. Let me make this clear: I believe - and stated in the book - that it is perfectly possible that the British sailors resorted to cannibalism. I certainly believe that cannibalism took place and I didn't discount the findings on cannibalism of people like Anne Keenlyside in the book. What I'm saying is that there is no physical evidence as to who perpetrated the act.
What effect, if any, did the work of Woodman have on your consideration of Franklin's last expedition?
I admired Woodman's thoroughness and sympathise with his views about Intuit testimony being ignored. But I think that most people researching the final Franklin mystery are keen enough to want to know the truth not to throw any vital evidence out just because of their prejudices, and in the end I think that the fact that the Inuit testimony has been treated with caution consistently and for so long is significant.
Franklin clearly was a very widely-admired man in his day; among those who were deeply affected by the mystery of his disappearance we can count Dickens, Swinburne, and even Joseph Conrad (who credited his desire to sail the seas to the reading of M'Clintock's "Voyage of the Fox"). Yet nowadays, even though explorers such as Shackleton loom newly large in the public imagination, Franklin seems to remain a footnote (at least outside of Canada). Why do you think this is so?
I've often wondered about that - it's certainly not fair! Franklin did far more to earn his place in history, in my opinion, than Shackleton or Scott, who are certainly better remembered in Britain. There is no doubt about two reasons for this. One is simply that the exploits of Scott and Shackleton are far more recent. The other, more important reason is that they were fortunate enough to live in the age of the camera - both still and moving - and its use in the exploitation of the media in order to obtain funding and so on.
Dr. Robert Ballard is now among those contemplating an underwater search for the remains of the "Erebus" and "Terror." Do you think such a search is worthwhile? If the Franklin mystery could be solved, would it lose its fascination?
I hope Dr Ballard does mount a search and it would be very exciting if someone found the ships. But if it were my money, the answer to the first question would be no! Personally, I think the last place we'll find any answers to the mystery is on board the ships. I can't imagine anyone leaving, for example, a written record on a vessel which is sinking or being crushed to pieces by the ice. I hope I'm proved wrong. As to whether the mystery being solved would cause it to lose it's fascination, I can only give the annoying answer of "yes and no"! Yes, because it would bring an end to the flow of books with new theories about what happened. Let's face it, whatever the merits of some of these books, they have done much to keep the interest alive. On the other hand, such a discovery would presumably make worldwide news and eventually cause the history books to be re-written, so in that sense it might help to cement Franklin's place in history.
If the location of the ships were to corroborate Inuit testimony, would this affect your view of the value of such testimony?
Quite possibly - but I repeat that I don't discount Inuit testimony, it's just a question of the balance of probability and I know I could be wrong about it. Besides, I don't know anything about the movement of Arctic ice, but I wonder: what would the chances be of the ships still being where they were over 150 years ago anyway? How much could we read into their modern location - would it only open up a whole new area of debate?!
I would like to make one final point about this rather depressing polarisation of views on Franklin. I'm aware that in certain quarters I will be put into the pigeonhole of "Franklin apologist". You'll just have to take my word for it that the following his true: at the outset, I had an impression of Franklin as a crusty old, dour Victorian who must have made some major cock-up and got himself and all his men lost in the Arctic. After my initial research, I even began to worry that the man I whose life I had chosen to write about could well be the Homer Simpson of Arctic exploration. This was all from published sources, mostly simply a statement of opinion, occasionally quoting briefly and selectively from primary material. If that had been the Franklin I found, and was expecting to find, in the primary material, that is who I would be written about. I had absolutely no affection for or high opinion of the man, and I certainly wasn't out to be patriotic and support the British side. But the Franklin I found really and truly did not fit the picture of the bumbling, humourless oaf I had read about. He was decisive. He had drive and an indomitable spirit in his own quiet, steady way. He was a hard man. He had a ready sense of humour - a subtle, twinkle-in-the-eye humour as opposed to a jovial, ebullient one. He didn't like flogging but he neither did he tremble in the face of indiscipline! He invariable presided over well-run ships and inspired loyalty and even affection. Much of the criticism of him did not, particularly in terms of the first overland expedition, survive close scrutiny - particularly that which benefited from the luxury of hindsight and a comfortable armchair.
He wasn't perfect, and he wasn't, as I've said in the book, a major figure in history of the calibre of Cook or Nelson. But few can say they have served their country as well and added as much to our knowledge of the world. And he achieved his position on sheer talent: a pretty rare thing then. His patronage, or "interest" as he said himself, was negligible if it existed at all, yet the contribution he made to scientific knowledge has stood the test of history. He was a man of honour and integrity and quiet determination. Not extrovert and maybe not dynamic - but not Homer Simpson. The strong, silent type. If the film's ever made and they consult me about casting, I'll say: don't think Arnold Schwartzeneger; think Robert Redford! (I doubt whether Hollywood would choose a British actor (don't get me going on that), but Anthony Hopkins is made for it!)