Skip to main content
book review

The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest passage. Original Publication: Illustrated London News on May 24, 1845.Illustrated London News/Getty Images

  • Title: May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition
  • Author: Edited by Russell A. Potter, Regina Koellner, Peter Carney, and Mary Williamson
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press
  • Pages: 481

From out of England and the mid-19th century, place names come whirling at you: Greenhithe, Bedford Place, Spilsby, Hedingham Castle. More names arrive from Orkney and the High Arctic: Stromness, Kirkwall, Disco Bay, Lancaster Sound, Beechey Island. From Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), personal names turn up carrying emotional freight: Alexander Maconochie, failed reformer; John Montagu, cold-blooded villain; the Coverdale Case, an explosive ending to Sir John Franklin’s career as a colonial governor.

Sir John Franklin, the Arctic Explorer, c. 1845.Library and Archives Canada

Anyone who has engaged with the story of Sir John and Lady Franklin will experience this book as a kaleidoscopic remembrance. For me, it brings back the headlong rush of researching and writing Lady Franklin’s Revenge. The more background you bring to this collection of letters, the more deeply you will feel it. And yet, because it is so present-tense, and brings both places and people so immediately to life, the book should also serve the those coming to the Franklin narrative for the first time.

A succinct introduction by scholar Russell A. Potter sets the stage for both aficionados and newbies. What happened to the Franklin expedition of 1845? Here, in eighteen pages, Potter presents the distilled essence of his decades-long obsession without getting bogged down in tedious detail. He outlines the “initial phase of intensive searches” from 1849 to 1859; notes the expeditionary highlights of the 1860s and ‘70s; moves us briskly through the first half of the 20th century; nods to the emergence in the 1980s of the lead-poisoning theory (Frozen in Time); and notes that recent studies show “lead poisoning can no longer be seen as the sole or primary cause of the expedition’s downfall,” so clearing the theoretical decks.

Potter ushers us through the significant Inuit contributions and the recent discoveries of Erebus and Terror and observes that public interest in the Franklin saga “has never been so pronounced.” And so we come to the 195 letters themselves, all written between 1844 and 1853, most of them never before published. They include those written by the voyagers themselves as they sailed from England to Greenland, full of excitement and hope, and those written to them before and after they disappeared into what is now the Canadian Arctic.

Portraits of Arctic explorer John Franklin and his crew, circa 1845. The entire expedition was lost on a voyage to the Northwest Passage. They are, left to right, from top: Lieutenant Couch (mate), Lieutenant Fairholme, C. H. Osmer (purser), Lieutenant des Voeux (mate), Captain Crozier of the 'Terror', Captain Sir John Franklin, Commander Fitzjames of the 'Erebus', Lieutenant Graham Gore (Commander), S. Stanley (surgeon), Lieutenant H. T. D. le Vesconte, Lieutenant B. O. Sargent (mate), James Read (ice-master), H. D. S. Goodsir (assistant surgeon) and Collins (second master). Original Publication: Illustrated London News on Sept. 13, 1851.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The book, roughly chronological, is organized into seven longish chapters: Anticipation, Preparation, Sailing, London to Stromness, Stromness to Greenland, Last Partings, and Letters to the Lost. Each chapter opens with a short, point-form chronology of related events. Inevitably, the offerings are wildly uneven, ranging from the eloquent to the rough and ready.

Sir John Franklin emerges as popular and admired; deeply concerned, if not obsessed, with the pamphlet he has written in rebuttal to his ignominious recall from Van Diemen’s Land; and evangelically Christian, given to fervent prayer and hoping always that the expedition will “promote the cause of true religion.”

The most expressive writer on the voyage is James Fitzjames, second-in-command on the Erebus. His letters, originally published in the 1840s, feature vivid word-portraits of fellow voyagers. He describes ice master James Reid, “the most original character of all, [as] rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad North Country accent, but not vulgar – good humoured, and honest hearted … “Ah! Now, Mister Gems, we’ll be having the weather fine Sir! Fine! – No ice at arl about it Sir, unless it be the bergs.”

Parks Canada displays the bell found from Sir John Franklin's HMS Erebus expedition, in Ottawa, 2014.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Henry Foster Collins, the second master, “is the very essence of good nature,” Fitzjames writes, “and I may say good humour – but he is mad, I am sure – for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking (or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be.”

Reading this book or dipping into it, you never know when you might chance upon a poignant moment. In his long final letter to his wife, for example – 5,700 words from July 1845 – John Franklin writes: “I entirely coincide with your wishes as to having some little land in England on which we could reside. Our means would necessarily cause the purchase to be small, and I feel with you that we should in no case keep any part beyond the garden & the lawn if there be one, in our own possession.” Hopes and dreams soon to be dashed. In 1849, by which time Franklin is dead, Jane Franklin writes how, “after four years nearly, I have strived to come out in this store ship which carries my letter, but they would not let me.”

What? No quibbles? Well, I did yearn to see those letters from Jane Franklin to James Clark Ross and others in which she engineered Franklin’s appointment to the leadership of the ill-starred expedition. Never mind. This book is a significant addition to the Franklin canon. Hats off to all concerned.

Ken McGoogan’s books include five about Arctic exploration.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.