The Franklin Expedition & Atwood’s “The Age of Lead”

If you didn’t see my preview for this post last week, you might be a bit lost as to what this is all about.

Just to catch you up:

“In 1845, explorer Sir John Franklin set sail from England with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of a Northwest Passage across what is now Canada’s Arctic. The ships and crews vanished, prompting a massive search that continues to this day.”

Parks Canada

In 2014, the Victoria Strait Expedition set out to find evidence of the Franklin Expedition ships, and they found the HMS Erebus. Since then, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists (new dream job, anybody?) have been excavating the site of the wreck.

Margaret Atwood wrote “The Age of Lead” long before the HMS Erebus was found. In the 1980’s bodies from the expedition were found, and evidence from them suggested that lead poisoning might have played a significant role in their deaths. Since then, this speculation has been increasingly undermined by new evidence, but I still love Atwood’s story, so I don’t really care.

Speaking of which, I feel this passage best relates the story’s intertwining of Atwood’s original characters and the Expedition’s history:

     Jane has seldom paid much attention to history except when it has overlapped with her knowledge of antique furniture and real estate- ’19th C. pine harvest table’, or ‘prime location Georgian centre hall, impeccable reno’ – but she knows what the Franklin Expedition was. The two ships with their bad-luck names have been on stamps – the Terror, the Erebus. Also she took it in school, along with a lot of other doomed expeditions. Not many of those explorers seemed to have come out of it very well. They were always getting scurvy or lost.

What the Franklin Expedition was looking for was the North­west Passage, an open seaway across the top of the Arctic, so people, merchants, could get to India from England without going all the way around South America. They wanted to go that way because it would cost less, and increase their profits. This was much less exotic than Marco Polo or the headwaters of the Nile; nevertheless, the idea of exploration appealed to her then: to get onto a boat and just go somewhere, somewhere mapless, off into the unknown. To launch yourself into fright; to find things out. There was something daring and noble about it, despite all of the losses and failures, or perhaps because of them. It was like having sex in high school, in those days before the Pill, even if you took precautions. If you were a girl, that is. If you were a boy, for whom such a risk was fairly minimal, you had to do other things: things with weapons or large amounts of alcohol, or high-speed vehicles, which at her suburban Toronto high school, back then at the beginning of the sixties, meant switchblades, beer, and drag races down the main streets on Saturday nights.

Now, gazing at the television as the lozenge of ice gradually melts and the outline of the young sailor’s body clears and sharpens, Jane remembers Vincent, sixteen and with-more hair then, quirking one eyebrow and lifting his lip in a mock sneer and saying, ‘Franklin, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ He said it loud enough to be heard, but the history teacher ignored him, not knowing what else to do. It was hard for the teachers to keep Vincent in line, because he never seemed to be afraid of anything that might happen to him.

It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with Atwood’s characters. Even if you hate them, you love how complex they are, and that definitely applies to Jane and Vincent.

If you haven’t read the story yet (which you should), be warned: there be spoilers below.

So Vincent dies of an unknown illness, and when Jane asks him what the doctors thought caused it, he says “‘Who knows? It must have been something I ate.'” – which seems irrelevant at the time, but then later on, you get the passage talking about the scientists on the tv special explaining the cause of disaster amongst the Franklin Expedition:

“There is a shot of an old tin can, although open to show the seam. It looks like a bomb casing. A finger points: it was the tin cans that did it, a new invention back then, a new technology, the ultimate defence against starvation and scurvy. The Franklin Expedition was excellently provisioned with tin cans, stuffed full of meat and soup and soldered together with lead. The whole expedition got lead poisoning. Nobody knew it. Nobody could taste it. It invaded their bones, their lungs, their brains, weakening them and confusing their thinking, so that at the end those that had not yet died in the ships set out in an idiotic trek across the stony, icy ground, pulling a lifeboat laden down with toothbrushes, soap, handkerchiefs, and slippers, useless pieces of junk. When they were found ten years later, they were skeletons in tattered coats, lying where they’d collapsed. They’d been heading back towards the ships. It was what they been eating that had killed them.”

Atwood connects this to the overarching theme throughout the story of whether or not freedom has its consequences; Jane and Vincent as adults made unconventional life choices, and although Atwood doesn’t damn them for that (rather, she seems to celebrate it at times) she does force you to think about the fact that the choices we make catch up with you in the end.

So I went on Tuesday with a friend to see the Franklin Expedition pop-up exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, in attempt to gain some perspective on the ongoing story.

Originally, I thought there might have been more to the exhibit that I could talk about, but in retrospect, I probably should have read the website more clearly, which describes it as a “new interactive pop-up display, The Franklin Exploration, is your source for learning about this incredible story as it evolves in real time.” Because they’re still looking for the HMS Terror, and excavating the Erebus, there weren’t any actual artifacts or anything, but there was a touchscreen that played videos about different parts of the ‘exploration’, and graphics explaining the story of the project.

So I considered not posting anything about this, because of how small the exhibit ended up being, but I made an announcement about it last week, so I felt obligated to post some kind of update on how it went.

I guess they’re still in the process of ‘writing history’, which is pretty incredible to me, even though it means I’ll probably have to wait another decade for a proper exhibit. Oh well.

If you’re interested, this short but beautiful video also explains some of the history of the expedition:

(Margaret Atwood is mentioned about 22 seconds in)


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I'm Emma Kath. Welcome to my blog! This is where I post my original book reviews, litstyle (lifestyle for the lit-nerd), and other bookish things. A little about me: I'm Canadian, and currently a student majoring in English lit and cultural studies. I'm an introvert (INFJ, if you believe in that sort of thing), sarcastic to the bone, I love art and history, and hope to one day travel around a bit. Until then, I'll be reading, writing, and trying to spread a little kindness around the internet. If you have any questions or inquiries, feel free to contact me!

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