Monday, May 19, 2014

The Essential Franklin Bookshelf (repost)

Recent Facebook discussions, along with a goodly percentage of my daily e-mail, center around which books about Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition are the ones that an interested reader should begin with, and which are essential to further study. There are hundreds of possible candidates, and although little new has been learned about Franklin's fate over the past decade or so, that hasn't stopped new books from coming. And so I hope it will be useful for me to name the best of these books, in an informal manner -- I have no prizes or medals to hand out! -- in the hopes that those who are bitten, as I have been, by the Franklin "bug" will find what they need to steer themselves in the right direction.  And, having thought long and hard about the question, it seems to me that there are eight books -- just eight -- that I would wholeheartedly recommend.  Not all are easy to find, but every single one is worth the price of admission.  I give them here in the order in which I hope they might ideally be read, though knowing that the accidents of discovery may or may not correspond with such an ideal sequence.

First and foremost, anyone who cares at all about Franklin should get hold of the Arctic Press's facsimile edition of Richard Cyriax's study.  Was Cyriax an apologist for the Royal Navy? Are some of his conclusions mere 'conventional wisdom' that ought to be questioned?  Yes, surely, but his careful and meticulous study is filled with essential information, without which no meaningful speculation, and no sensible opposition to conventional wisdoms, can be made.

Secondly, I would recommend Roderic Owen's The Fate of Franklin.  Owen was a Franklin collateral descendant, and spent time with all kinds of sources which would be difficult, even in this Internet age, to pull together. The depth and breadth of his study make it worthwhile, despite a few minor errors and an annoying habit of not giving complete sources.

Third, I believe that David C. Woodman's Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony remains by far the most significant assessment of the Inuit accounts, which provide the best hope we will ever have of learning where to look, and what to look for.  Some of Woodman's ideas have evolved, and his second book Strangers Among Us would also be a worthy purchase, but without Unravelling there is little one could hope to do to truly understand the scope of Franklin searches, then or now.

Fourth, Dorothy Eber's Encounters on the Passage: The Inuit Meet the Explorers, is a very important supplement to Woodman's work.  It is remarkable to see how long the oral tradition endured, and Eber is an expert guide to a broader understanding of how such traditions work.

Fifth, I can't help but recommend Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage.  McGoogan has an axe to grind, and whether or not one agrees with his arguments about the nature of Rae's achievements, there is not better tonic for a person suffering from what I like to call "Franklinitis" than to have one's views cast suddenly and energetically into the kind of sharp argumentative relief provided by this landmark book.

Sixth, of course, would be Beattie and Geiger's Frozen in Time or its reprints.  Despite the limits of what their studies disclose -- after all, the three graves on Beechey are too early to tell us much about the last days of Franklin's men -- but theirs is, without question, the most dramatic and vivid investigation into the Franklin expedition ever made.  No one who has looked into the eyes of John Torrington will ever forget the experience.

Seventh, my late friend Chauncey Loomis's Weird and Tragic Shores gives us the most memorable portrait we are ever likely to have of the method and the madness of the greatest of Franklin searchers, Charles Francis Hall of Ohio.

Eighth, and last, I cannot recommend John Wilson's biography of Sir John Franklin too highly.  It was written as a YA (Young Adult) book, but it is by far more eloquent, more captivating, and more succinct than any of the several recent "adult" Franklin biographies to be issued.  It's an excellent final course in a Franklin meal, and one which aptly pulls together the whole picture of the man.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An Arctic Affair

With the release on BluRay and DVD of Ralph Fiennes' film The Invisible Woman, based on the affair between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan, my thoughts drift back to the amateur theatricals, staged by Dickens and his protégé Wilkie Collins, which led -- unintentionally -- to their meeting. The first, Collins's "The Lighthouse," was a modest success before private audiences, but it was to be the next Collins/Dickens project, "The Frozen Deep," a melodrama about ill-starred Arctic explorers loosely based on the Franklin expedition, that brought Ternan -- hired when the play moved on to  public benefit performances in Manchester -- and Dickens together. How I would love to see the backdrop that Stanfield painted for that play -- but it, alas has gone missing. You can, however, see a view of the original private production, which was engraved in the Illustrated London News.

Dickens, as I've written about at length in my book Arctic Spectacles, was fascinated with Arctic exploration, following every detail of the search for Sir John Franklin and his men, and endearing himself to his wife Lady Jane Franklin by defending her husband's reputation in the press. He was obsessed with some of the darker themes of Arctic endeavors -- isolation, madness, and even cannibalism (see Harry Stone's magisterial The Night Side of Dickens for more on those). He took an active hand in Collins's plans for "The Frozen Deep," revising many parts of the script and managing all the stage scenery (which was made not only by Stanfield, but also by William Telbin, famous for his panorama of the "Overland Mail to India"). And, perhaps more importantly, he cast himself in the central role of Wardour, a Heathcliffian figure (another reason Fiennes should be perfect for this role) who agonizingly finds himself paired on an Arctic voyage with his more polished, gentlemanly rival for the great love of his life.

The play was a tremendous hit; Queen Victoria asked for (and received) a command performance for her and her family, and the benefit performances in Manchester reduced not only the audiences, but the cast members and stage-hands, to tears. And yet, despite many attempts at revival, "The Frozen Deep"never regained its original fame, although Collins made a narrative version a central part of his lecture tours in later years.  Dickens, feeling his amateur actresses might not be able to project effectively at the Free Trade Hall where the Manchester performances were staged, hired professional actresses -- among them Ellen Ternan, with whom he fell deeply in love. He left his wife Catherine, and spent the last thirteen years of his life with Ternan, taking care to hide their relationship from the public (see Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, on which the film is based).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"Before Nanook" at the Velaslavasay Panorama

This coming Saturday, May 10th, I'll be joining my old Arctic friend and fellow-researcher Kenn Harper to give a talk on films of Arctic subjects made before 1922, the year that Nanook of the North, for better or worse, re-wrote people's ideas of why the "Frozen North" looked like. We'll be giving our talk at the fabulous Velaslavasay Panorama, home to the first and only genuine Arctic panorama of the twenty-first century, "Effulgence of the North," here in Los Angeles, California.

One might think that there weren't any significant Arctic films in the early silent era -- but then, one would be wrong. In my own research, I've documented over 100 of them, an astonishing figure even when one considers that, in the earliest days of the silents, 50 feet was the standard length of a film. By 1910, a typical feature took up an entire reel of film, about 1,000 feet or so (12-15 minutes, depending on the speed of the projection), and it was in this period that some of the most unusual Arctic features were made. Many people, for instance, hold the mistaken belief that Zach Kunuk's Atanarjuat (2001) was the Inuit-cast, Inuit-written film -- but in fact that honor belongs to "The Way of the Eskimo," produced by the Selig Polyscope Company 90 years earlier, starring and written by Nancy Columbia, whom Kenn has aptly dubbed "The Most Famous Inuk in the World" of her time.

Our presentation at the Velaslavasay will include stills and production shots from this film, as well as actual footage from several other films in which Nancy Columbia appeared -- ironically, though "The Way of the Eskimo" is not known to survive, most of her other roles were as "Indians," not Inuit. She and her family appeared in at least nineteen films between 1901 and 1920, and our talk will cover what we know about most of them, along with a look at the dramatic genre, the "Northern" -- which, had things gone a little differently, might have outlasted the "Western" in popularity.

The event on the 10th is at 8:00 p.m. -- tickets are $13, and can be ordered online at the Brown Paper Tickets website. If you're in the LA area, I hope to see you there!