Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860

December 18, 2008

The past decade has witnessed a notable increase in public interest in polar exploration, particularly in figures of the "heroic age", such as Franklin, Shackleton and Peary. Many like to see in such figures the embodiment of those virtues - steadfastness, courage and patience - which they find lacking in our own time, while others regard them as symbols of arrogant ethnocentrism, no less colonisers than the explorers of more temperate zones.

Janice Cavell takes cues from both camps in her detailed account of what she calls the "connected narrative" of Arctic exploration. Drawing from a commendably wide range of periodicals, from the Penny Magazine for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to The Athenaeum and The Times, she finds evidence of an implicit and recognisable meta-narrative, and traces it from the dawn of post-Napoleonic exploration in 1818 through to the final news of Franklin's fate brought back by Sir Leopold McClintock in 1859.

That there is such an underlying narrative is not quite the news Cavell claims - this ground has been covered, albeit not so exhaustively, by a number of other scholars, among them Beau Riffenburgh and Michael Robinson. Nevertheless, the breadth of her study is impressive, and it is remarkable to see a similarly enthusiastic tone on the value of Arctic exploration in periodicals as different as the staunchly Tory Quarterly Review and the stridently reformist Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. Some indeed might take such conjunctions as evidence of something more than simply a connected story, and call it an ideology, but Cavell dismisses "postmodernism", even as she draws from theorists such as Foucault.

For Cavell, there are but two dimensions to print discourse on the Arctic - a political one, by which she means the interests and affiliations of political parties, and a social one, which identifies the class strata of the audience for various periodicals. With the former, she rejects much of contemporary critical theory, and with the latter she resolutely resists anything resembling a critique of class, Marxist or otherwise. Social class just is; the parallel interest of working-class readers is not, she insists, a sign of "intellectual subservience", but simply because "such literature genuinely met their needs".

Such assertions, though regrettable, do not negate the book's larger purpose; by its sheer scope it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Arctic meta-narrative in every kind of printed matter of the time. There are some sections, as with her description of Sir John Franklin's struggle to produce the narrative of his first land expedition, which offer striking new insights into the mechanisms that guided self-representation in print among newly anointed polar heroes. Yet in its refusal to question the underlying ground that motivated and sustained this polar discourse, her book may leave some with a sense of having accomplished an epic journey without ever having dug very far beneath the surface.

Cavell also takes a narrow view of "print culture", neglecting visual materials; aside from brief mentions of illustrations in books and the press, the path she traces is limited to alphabetic text. This seems odd, given that the book's cover is based on a handbill for a moving panorama of the Arctic that appeared in 1875. Nevertheless, Tracing the Connected Narrative adds much to our understanding of the substance of what was, in many ways, the first great public debate over the value of geographical exploration.

Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860

By Janice Cavell
University of Toronto Press
352pp
£40.00
ISBN 9780802092809
Published 21 February 2009

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