- Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860
The British obsession with polar exploration - only nominally a search for the Northwest passage, in fact a route to imperial glory and a stage on which to demonstrate the supposed strengths of the national character - has received much attention in scholarly and popular books over the last twenty years. Janice Cavell's study investigates familiar material then, but approaches it from a new perspective - that of the popular press. Cavell has dug deeper in the newspaper archives than any previous historian of the subject, and the results are illuminating. She shows that our received picture of the place that voyages of Arctic exploration occupied in Victorian culture is flawed: we have tended to follow the line that these voyages were promoted in the Tory Quarterly Review by John Barrow and, as a result, were criticized by its Whig opponents in the Edinburgh and later in the Times. We have also tended to judge the popularity of the exploration project by the sales of the narratives produced by the captains when they returned. Cavell demonstrates, however, that a much more varied and widespread press response occurred, turning the captains into heroes and, especially, turning John Franklin into a national martyr. The skepticism displayed by the Times towards the missions sent to rescue Franklin's lost expedition, was, she reveals, abnormal. The popular press disseminated the voyage narratives in the form of excerpts to a far more numerous readership than could ever afford the narratives themselves: in this way the exploits of men such as Captain John Ross became part of popular culture, despite Barrow's disapproval of his conduct. Thus the view established by Fergus Fleming in Barrow's Boys (2001) - that Barrow was the impresario of Arctic exploration, both organizing the voyages and framing their dissemination in the press - is significantly modified.
Cavell is especially illuminating about the Franklin voyage and the rescue missions, precisely because the affair became such a cause ce´le`bre. But she also discusses the romanticization of the Arctic in the earlier figure of Captain Edward Parry - whose successful voyage led him to be portrayed in terms that Walter Scott and Lord Byron had developed in their poetic romances of quests and travels. Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Smiles are canvassed to define the role of imperial hero as it was formulated in the wake of Nelson's glorious death at Trafalgar: Robert Southey's 1813 biography of Nelson - a bestseller - was also instrumental. Later chapters recover, by virtue of carefully nuanced study of both private and public writings - the captains' letters and the [End Page 358] press reports - the course of the controversies about the likely cannibalism of the Franklin party. Also discussed, although it is not the main theme, is the popular depiction of Indians and Inuit derived from the voyage narratives.
Overall, Cavell's study - originally a PhD dissertation - is a valuable contribution to the history of Arctic exploration, developing a more nuanced picture than has previously been available of the cultural framing of the voyages and the captains and illuminating one of the discourses in which the Victorian figure of the empire-building hero was constructed and questioned.
Timothy Fulford, Department of English, Nottingham Trent University