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Franklin's ships discovered in Watson Hall

Franklin's ships discovered in Watson Hall

When one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition was discovered this autumn, Erika Behrisch Elce, MA'97, PhD'02 (English), shared how she first discovered Franklin's ships through the correspondence between Lady Franklin and Benjamin Disraeli.

[cover photo for the book "As affecting my late husband..."The pictures on CBC were the first photographic images I saw of HMS Erebus, but I actually discovered Franklin’s two missing ships 17 years ago in a classroom of Watson Hall.

In 1998, as a doctoral student in English literature, I took a graduate seminar on scholarly editing hosted by Mel Wiebe, director of the award-winning Disraeli Project, then housed within the Queen’s English department. Our task: to identify, transcribe, contextualize and annotate a collection of letters of our choosing, under the watchful eye and to the exacting standards of Professor Wiebe and his fellow editor, Dr. Mary Millar.

I was lucky enough to stumble across a small cache of letters written to Benjamin Disraeli by Jane, Lady Franklin. The discovery changed the course of my life.

I knew, as many Canadians do, something about the lost Franklin expedition – the missing ships, the lost men, the spectre of cannibalism lurking through the story. But reading the words of Lady Franklin to Disraeli about the search for her husband made the story come alive: it was not an abstract history, but the anxious words from a frightened wife that leapt off the page.

Writing to an old family friend (she was in a book club with Disraeli’s father), she relied on Disraeli to support her in Parliament, and he did so whenever possible. She thanked him for his “generous support” in the public and highly charged discussion about the search for her husband.

She wasn’t just vulnerable, though. Throughout her correspondence to Disraeli and other government officials, Lady Franklin was impressively knowledgeable and precise in all Arctic matters, including the best areas to look for the lost expedition.

In 1855, after the discovery of a number of skeletons on the north shore of the Arctic mainland, Lady Franklin advocated one final search for the remains of her husband’s party “in the neighbourhood of the great Fish river” – very close to where Franklin’s ship was recently discovered. Had her pleas been listened to, that ship may well have been located in 1855, not 160 years later.

Lady Franklin’s thirteen letters in the Hughenden Archives, the foundation of the now 10-volume (and growing) Benjamin Disraeli Letters series, were the beginning of my doctoral work on nineteenth-century polar exploration and the core of my 2009 book, As affecting the fate of my absent husband: Selected Letters of Lady Franklin Concerning the Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition, 1848-1860.

Along with my continuing passion for nineteenth-century polar exploration, the archival research skills I learned at the Disraeli Project remain at the centre of my work at the Royal Military College of Canada. This year I also find myself back at the Disraeli Project as a research associate.

Professor Wiebe and Dr. Millar have retired, Dr. Michel Pharand is now director, and the project has become independent of the English department, but the microfilm reels are in their usual drawers, and portraits of Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria still grace the walls of Watson 142, where we do our research. There, we are hard at work on Volume 11: 1869-1873 – the interregnum between Disraeli’s two premierships. With such a wealth of archival material to work through, who knows what mysteries we’ll solve next?

Erika Behrisch Elce is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Royal Military College of Canada, and Research Associate at the Disraeli Project.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014 issue 4 cover]