Michael Palin on the death of Arctic explorer John Franklin. From Erebus: The Story of a Ship
For the energetic Lady Franklin, the confirmation of her husband’s death [John Franklin, naval officer and arctic explorer who died during the ill-fated 1845 North-West Passage expedition] consolidated her status as never before. She was now an international celebrity, universally admired for her persistence, loyalty and dedication. Despite the money she’d spent on the search, she was able to lease a grand house in Kensington Gore, the same road in London on which the Royal Geographical Society was later to set up its headquarters. Here she lived in some style, networking vigorously, giving dinner parties, keeping an eye on the wording of tributes and memorials and on the factual accuracy of the succession of books about the expedition. In his death, as in his life, she continued to manage her husband.
On 18 July 1875, at the age of eighty-three, Jane Franklin, in many ways the central figure in this otherwise all-male drama, finally ran out of steam. She died refusing to the last to take the medicine in which she never had much faith. The obituaries were sententious: “our regrets will be softened by the reflection that death may reveal to her what remains of that Arctic mystery which was the problem and purpose of her life,” read one. But nothing would have delighted her more than to know that Francis McClintock, Richard Collinson and Erasmus Ommanney had been amongst those who carried her coffin at the funeral, and that Joseph Hooker and William Hobson had been there to pay tribute.
A fortnight after her death the final unequivocal triumph of her campaign for the glorification of her husband came with the unveiling of his bust in Westminster Abbey. It stands just inside the west door, in an alabaster niche. McClintock has a memorial plaque below. Dr John Rae, the bearer of bad tidings, has a stone on the floor. The memorial bears an inscription written by the man who married Franklin’s niece, Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Not here: the white north has thy bones; and thou,
Art passing on thine happier voyage now,
Toward no earthly pole.
These few lines epitomise the mixed-up emotions that made Franklin such an exemplar of the Victorian spirit. The affirmation of a sacrifice that could never be judged on earth, but only in heaven. A sacrifice that rose above failure to touch the sublime. Something that united a nation in grief, but in that grief was glory.
Extract from Erebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin (Cornerstone). Buy a copy here.
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