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Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin…

Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin (2002)

by Martyn Beardsley

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The first full biography written in twenty years about the British adventurer who disappeared with his men in the Arctic in 1845.



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The last words of this book are, "A good man." In our heads, we perhaps add one more clause, "but not a great one."

That will do as a summary of Sir John Franklin, and it perhaps reveals the problem one has in describing this book. When I learned of it, I went to LibraryThing to read reviews and found two, one a savage attack on its treatment of cannibalism and the other a defense by the author of his own work. Not exactly the greatest recommendations, either one.

The truth -- like the truth of Franklin's life -- lies somewhere in between. This is a well-written book, and it is, in fact, a life of John Franklin. That, in a way, is a limitation -- because what we all want to know about is roughly his last two years, when he made his final attempt to find the Northwest Passage. That gets relatively little attention in this book. After all, it was only 3% of Franklin's life, and it is the 3% about which we know the least. So the book is more about his early life, his naval career, his first two voyages of exploration, his marriages, his time as governor of Van Dieman's Land. Exciting times? Not really. But I have no reason to question the accuracy of the descriptions. There are some parts of Beardsley's reconstruction which I don't feel entirely confident about (such as Franklin's relationship with his wives), but the interpretations are reasonable; it's just that there are other possibilities. If you want "The Truth," you should read other sources as well, and form your own conclusions -- but that is always true when you want "The Truth."

Would I have wanted to know John Franklin? I'm not sure. That he was honest and hardworking and gentle is clear; that his devotion to his religion was rather obnoxious is also clear. On the other hand, he persuaded two opinionated, brilliant women (Eleanor Anne Porden and Jane Griffin) to marry him. That's certainly a positive.

So I think this book a helpful insight into the man.

I still wish there were more about the final expedition. I know, I know (I know better than most, because I've studied this in depth), we don't have enough information. And the book of course was written before the wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found, which proved that none of the earlier reconstructions of what happened were entirely right. I think author Beardsley is a little too hesitant to admit the high likelihood of cannibalism on the part of Franklin's men, but I also concede that the question isn't really relevant to a life of Franklin -- he was dead before any cannibalism took place. I wish there were more -- but I understand that that's not what this book is about. And I commend Beardsley for pointing out that most of the briefly popular explanations -- lead poisoning, botulism -- don't hold up.

So, unlike the savage reviewer, I think this a good book to have. Perfect? No. But like John Franklin himself, while not perfect, it is good. ( )
1 vote waltzmn | Jun 4, 2017 |
The previous reviewer, Ted Bett's, description of this (my!) book is so inaccurate that I wonder if he's actually read it or just flipped through looking for the bits he feels he can attack because it dares to show Franklin in a favourable light.

Nowhere in the book do I 'confidently assert' that the English would never have resorted to cannibalism. Since there are recorded instances of this happening, and since any human might be driven to that extreme, it would have been a silly thing to say - and I didn't! Neither did I indulge in the 'old circular reasoning that sailors in the British Navy could never have eaten each other because...they were sailors in the British Navy' and I challenge him to respond to this with a quote from the book to back up his claim.

My summary of the cannibalism issue comes on p235 (my copy) of the book: that Eskimo 'may have' resorted to cannibalising the bodies of Franklin's crew, but that 'it is well within the bounds of possibility' that it was surving crewmen themselves who did so (p235).

Martyn Beardsley
  martynrb | Aug 3, 2012 |
This is not a book about "the life" of Sir John Franklin despite the title. This is a few hundred pages of a respondent's factum and statement of defence in some perceived case of Historical Impression vs Sir John Franklin. There are worthwhile segments in the book, but far too many cringeworthy positions in trying to set the Franklin record straight, the way Beardsley thinks it should be written, including very poorly argued and weakly supported claim, among other less kind descriptions I could make (more on this below).

Too many times in the book, it feels a lot like being in a room where someone is in a tense, impatient, at times heated argument with someone on the telephone, occasionally looking over at you and dismissively rolling his eyes. You are only getting one side of the argument here and Beardsley is so trivializing of opposing views that it is hard to even figure out what the other argument may be unless you are well versed in Franklin historiography. For example, despite accepted history supported by an abundance, even overwhelming, evidence from science and Inuit witness testimony, Beardsley confidently asserts that the English would never have "been driven to the last dread alternative", as Rae put it, but that it is more likely that they were attacked by Inuit (as the knife cuts in the bone reported by Beattie were more likely knife wounds from Inuit slaughter!) and that stories of cannibalism are more likely stories of cannibalism by Inuit - the “eaters of raw flesh”. I don't have a problem with authors challenging "accepted" history. In fact, that is what keeps the past vital and alive. Just look at Woodman's work with Inuit testimony. But if the weight of authority is against you, it is incumbent on you to thoroughly examine the details of the challenged argument and to present a comprehensive defense of your own.

Beardsley's argument is wanting, essentially offering up the old circular reasoning that sailors in the British Navy could never have eaten each other because... they were sailors in the British Navy. Well doesn't that just settle it all then! Compare again to Woodman who challenges pretty much the entire timeline and much of the inherited history by exploring in quite minute detail accepted wisdom with an exhaustive chronicling of native testimony, but also the history of the history, what was repeated and what was original. Agree with his conclusions or not, that is how you research and write history.

I think a Franklin scholar probably ought to read this book, but that is the best I can say about it.
  TedBetts | Mar 3, 2011 |
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Alas! no more shall he behold,
Nor friends nor sacred home. On every nerve
The deadly winter seizes; shuts up sense;
And o'er his inmost vitals creeping cold,
Lays lim along the snow a stiffened corpse --
Stretched out, and bleaching in the northern blast.
From an unattributed poem in William Jerdan's
Men I have Known.
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~ Introduction ~
When I was a small boy my grandfather had a collection of plastic model sailing ships in a display cabinet which he was unwise enough to let me play with whenever I visited.
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