Originally from Glasgow, Pamela Beasant is a poet, playwright and author now living in Stromness, Orkney. She was the first George Mackay Brown fellow in 2007, and is currently director of the annual Orkney Writers’ Course for the St Magnus Festival. Four plays have been commissioned by and performed at the Festival. In 2016, A Fitful Sea, commemorating the sinking of HMS Hampshire, was premiered in Orkney. Pamela was involved in Edinburgh University’s Writing the North project; she has read at the University of Manitoba, and is performing at the Poetry on the Move festival in Canberra in 2016.
Operating in a world dominated by alpha male, Empire-building heroics, it’s interesting how many nineteenth century women shine through clearly as movers and shakers. One of those was undoubtedly Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875), second wife of Sir John Franklin who was lost along with all his crew in the ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845.
Lady Jane Franklin had a remarkable personality, a large sphere of influence, and an indefatigable determination. When Sir John was sent to Tasmania as Governor in the 1830s and 40s, she travelled widely, improved the wretched conditions that female prisoners endured, encouraged the building of schools for boys and girls, commissioned a temple, and founded a museum. Rocks, bays and mountains in USA, Canada and Australia bear her name, as do a residential college and an art gallery in Tasmania, which developed from the museum she founded.
When Sir John Franklin went missing in the Arctic, Lady Jane had to wait several years to hear news of his death, during which time she worked tirelessly to ensure that he was kept in the public eye, and that the difficult, dangerous searches for him would continue. She funded many rescue voyages from her own pocket. In the end, the news was brought by an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Dr John Rae, who had heard it in the Arctic from the Inuit people. Dr Rae reported that the crews of Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and Terror, had been found, and artefacts had been taken, which he was able to barter for and bring back to London. Further, there was evidence of cannibalism among the few remaining souls, as they struggled to survive in conditions they were neither trained nor equipped to deal with. Dr Rae sent his report to the Admiralty, who quickly published it in The Times, in its entirety, which was never his intention. The part which caused the trouble read: ‘From the mutilated state of many of the corpses, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource, cannibalism, as a means of prolonging existence.’
It’s hard to imagine now the consternation Dr Rae’s report caused. Victorian society could not stomach it, and would not believe it. That men from the British Navy could behave in this way was dismissed outright, and from that day forward, Lady Jane and her supporters, including Charles Dickens, in his periodical Household Words, set out to not only discredit Dr Rae’s report, but effectively to remove him from history. Lady Jane Franklin’s claim that her husband found the much-sought-after North-West passage, which would open up trade between West and East, is still carved into Franklin’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, and is still untrue.
Lady Jane Franklin wanted her husband to be remembered as a hero. In fact, when he set out on his final expedition he was 59 years old, overweight and unfit, and had been sidelined several times by the authorities, who didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Relying on the latest technology, including the recently invented method of canning food (involving the use of lead), the Naval crews, who were undoubtedly excellent in ships, did not know how to survive over land in the Arctic, and their leaders were too arrogant to communicate with the indigenous people, who could have saved their lives.
By that time, Dr John Rae had been in the Arctic for years, and had mapped and surveyed well over a thousand miles of previously unexplored land. There was absolutely no one better over land, and his physical stamina and endurance were legendary at the time. More significantly, he realised from the outset that the best way of learning how to survive in that unforgiving landscape was to learn from the people who had been doing it for centuries. This seems obvious now, but back then it was considered very strange, and the casual racism that permeated all levels of polite society was astonishing. (Charles Dickens described the ‘native’ people in the Arctic as by nature ‘covetous, treacherous and cruel’, which was vehemently refuted by John Rae, who actually knew the people.)
The forces of that society were ranged against John Rae when he met and married Kate, who was only twenty-one to his forty-six. Born Catharine Thompson, she had grown up in Hamilton, Ontario, of Irish extraction, and she was an exuberant, intelligent character, who loved to travel, and made friends wherever she went. Despite their age difference, the marriage between John and Kate was loving and equal, and he was lucky to find her after his years of trekking in the Arctic. There was a child-like quality about the explorer, and apparently, John and Kate fell asleep every night holding hands.
Kate’s father, an army major, vehemently disapproved of the match at first. The Hudson’s Bay men had a bad reputation for taking ‘country wives’ and fathering many illegitimate children, and Rae had had plenty of time and opportunity to do both. Kate was defiant and determined, however, and when her father made enquiries about Rae, he discovered the respect in which the explorer was held amongst his peers, and backed down. Rae and Kate, however, did not forget the opposition, and when they married, set sail for England immediately. They never returned to live in Canada. Kate’s sister, Emily, was a close friend and companion, and lived with the couple, then with Kate after John’s death, for the rest of their lives.
John Rae had never been good at advancing himself, and never produced exciting, romantic stories about his travels (though his meticulous diaries, published later, are fascinating to read), such as the epics written by Sir John Franklin, which captured the Victorian imagination. And although Rae did gain the grudging respect of the establishment, he was never properly recognized for what he did, in terms of mapping and surveying the uncharted Arctic coastline, and being the first person to deduce accurately exactly where the North-West Passage lay. (Many of his original, exquisite charts, are now housed in the excellent Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg.) He was unfairly vilified for reporting the cannibalism of Franklin’s crews, and his reputation, blighted by Lady Jane Franklin and friends, has never recovered.
Lady Jane died in 1875, and John Rae in 1893. Kate Rae survived her husband by twenty-six years, and never gave up trying to right some of these wrongs. She always intended to write his life, but was prevented by ill health. She did, however, organize his extensive papers, wrote catalogues and encouraged exhibitions; and she patiently highlighted, wherever possible, the achievements which had never been properly credited to him. Kate Rae maintained a large correspondence in the latter part of her life, and what shines out is her clear spirit, her dogged faith in Rae’s case, and their great love.
Lady Jane Franklin had worked equally tirelessly, however, and with her connections amongst the higher echelons of society, and her fearsome way of mowing down any opposition, her campaign had been ultimately more effective.
In 2013, I was commissioned by the St Magnus International Festival to write a community play about John Rae, to mark the bi-centenary of his birth, in 1813 in Orkney. Below, is an extract from the play Long Strides, which imagines a conversation between a ghostly Lady Jane Franklin and very much living Kate Rae, taking place just after Rae’s death. Lady Jane is accompanied by her niece, Sophia Cracroft, and Kate Rae by her devoted sister, Emily Thompson.
Lady Jane: You’re not a bad-looking creature, Mrs Rae. I am pleased your husband made better use of his time after the disgrace he made of himself.
Kate: He always felt for you Lady Jane. And I do, too.
Sophia: How dare you feel for her Ladyship? You have no idea of her feelings.
Emily: Oh, I think her Ladyship has made her feelings abundantly loud and clear.
Lady Jane: Catharine Rae! Will you do as you are told? Will you agree to bow to common sense and the truth? Will you allow your husband’s name to pass out of history, be forgotten?
Kate: I agree full willingly to bow to common sense and the truth!
Will I allow my husband’s name to be forgotten? Never!
Sophia: But Sir John has a monument in Westminster Abbey. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Kate: My John will have his monument, in St Magnus Cathedral. It will be beautiful, as he was. It will tell no lies. And when the light falls on it in the late summer, his face will be bathed in warm red gold.
This is an imagined encounter, of course, but Kate, as the wife of an extraordinary man unfairly marginalized by history, is in danger of being forgotten, unlike her adversary Lady Jane Franklin, herself a remarkable, and dangerous, force. John Rae recognized Kate as a great spirit, and in her own quietly determined way, she has helped to lay the foundations of truth about that time, and the characters involved, which is waiting patiently to be fully exposed and acknowledged.