Explorer and Wife of Explorer Sir John Franklin Writes about Jonathan Swift, Moon Craters and Women’s Education

Signed by Lady Jane Franklin

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FRANKLIN, LADY JANE. (1792-1875). Devoted wife of the arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), who perished with his crew while attempting to discover a way through the North West Passage. ALS. (“Jane Franklin”). 2¼pp. 8vo. London, November 26, 1869. On black-bordered mourning stationery. To DR. WILLIAM BALLANTYNE HODGSON (1815-1880), an influential professor of Political Economy in Edinburgh, supporter of Women’s Suffrage and education reformer.

Thank you for so kindly giving a moment’s after consideration to the ‘parasite’ authorship. It is quite clear that the authorship of the couplet in Mr. Piazzi Smyth’s book has taken his idea & almost his words from Swift, resetting them in a more terse & droller form. It was in Mr. Smyth’s book on Tenerife that I first met with the lines, thus prefaced, “Perhaps this gradation of scale has led certain geologists thinking of the parasites and those two immortal lines,

‘Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs and little fleas have lesser fleas and so to bite ‘em ad infinitum’ to call such features parasitic craters.”

This reads somewhat like Theodore Hook but it is only another reading of Swift & the ‘immortality’ seems to belong of right to the latter.

I shall get your lectures on Womens Education, & may I ask you on the strength of the sympathy I have with your efforts to do good in this direction if you will not let me improve my acquaintance with the author? Our last party before starting for America this winter is on on [sic] Monday next, when we have some friends at dinner & shall be much pleased if you will kindly join us at ½ 7. I hope Mrs. Baden Powell will come in the evening…”

A Royal Navy officer, Sir John Franklin had already completed three Arctic expeditions between 1819 and 1823 before setting out to traverse a previously unknown portion of the Northwest Passage. The 59-year-old veteran explorer assembled a crew and two ships, the Erebus and Terror, both of which became icebound in the Canadian Arctic. The fate of the vessels and their crew, last sighted at Lancaster Sound near Baffin Island in July 1845, was shrouded in mystery for many years.

From 1850-1857, Franklin’s wife, Jane, herself an accomplished traveler and explorer, outfitted five search teams to locate Franklin and his 129-person crew, whom many believed were still alive. In 1854, Scottish explorer John Rae heard Inuit tales of cannibalism amongst Franklin’s men. Rae’s report to the Admiralty was leaked, angering Jane Franklin and the public, which had come to regard Franklin as a hero and had become captivated by his widow’s devotion to locating her missing husband and crew.

Among the 25 expeditions that set out to discover Franklin’s fate, two were headed by Cincinnati newspaper publisher and explorer Charles Francis Hall. During his first, from 1860-1863, interviews with natives led him to believe that members of the expedition might have survived, but on his second voyage, lasting from 1864-1869, reports to the contrary led him to conclude that the crew had starved to death.



Jane Franklin


Jonathan Swift

Our letter was written around the time that Hall was promoting the Arctic Resolution, legislation that would authorize Congress to fund an American expedition to the North Pole. Hall had already visited President Grant in Washington and convinced him of the merits of his proposal. In 1870, believing that members of the expedition might still be alive, 77-year-old Lady Franklin traveled to the United States with the purpose of meeting Hall in person, the voyage “starting for America,” discussed in our letter. With Grant’s support and Franklin’s blessing, Hall’s Polaris expedition, set sail from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in June 1871. However, Hall died aboard the Polaris, likely poisoned by his mutinous crew, a fact swept under the rug by the naval board of inquiry who wished to avoid a scandal.

“In 1875 Lady Franklin financed one more mission to the Arctic. Its goals were to discover further records of the Franklin expedition and sail through the Northwest Passage. The Pandora set sail on June 25. Just three weeks later Lady Franklin died at the age of 83. The Pandora’s mission was unsuccessful, and the ship returned home in October,” (“The Lady & The Queen,” Hana Hou!, von Buol). Lady Franklin’s undying loyalty and perseverance, synonymous with the mention of her name, are immortalized in Westminster Abbey’s monument to her and her husband.

“Using the latest in technology, including underwater imaging, and assisted by the oral histories of the Inuit, Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, was discovered on September 7, 2014. Two years later, on September 12, 2016, Canadian researchers announced that they had discovered Franklin’s HMS Terror. The ships are about thirty miles apart and far from their last reported positions. Both have been described as being in remarkable shape,” (ibid.).

The bulk of our letter regards the 1858 book Teneriffe, an astronomers Experiment, which details English astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth’s (1819-1900) experiment on Tenerife’s Mount Teide to test Sir Isaac Newton’s assertion that telescopes “cannot be so formed as to take away that confusion of the Rays which arises from the Tremors of the Atmosphere. The only Remedy is a most serene and quiet Air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of the highest Mountains above the grosser Clouds.” Smythe was Astronomer Royal for Scotland at Calton Hill and a professor of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, making him a colleague of our letter’s recipient. His Teneriffe, an astronomers Experiment, quoted in our letter, was the first book to be illustrated by stereoscopic photographs. Franklin is commenting on the section of the book which discusses “parasitic craters,” and actually quotes Augustus De Morgan, a London mathematician, logician and education advocate notable for formulating Morgan’s laws. Morgan’s lines: “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, / And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. / And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on; / While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on,” were published in the Athenaeum sometime between 1840 and 1858, and later collected in Budget of Paradoxes, published in 1872. The lines paraphrase Irish satirist Johnathan Swift’s (1667-1745) satirical poem from 1733 On Poetry: A Rhapsody: “So, naturalists observe, a flea / Has smaller fleas that on him prey; / And these have smaller still to bite ‘em, And so proceed ad infinitum. / Thus every poet in his kind / Is bit by him that comes behind.” Interestingly, craters on the moon have been named for both Smyth and De Morgan.

Theodore Hook (1788-1841) was an English man of letters and composer known for his practical jokes, including the remarkable 1809 Berners Street Hoax.

Hodgson was a popular professor at the University of Edinburgh, a member of the Women’s Suffrage Society and advocate for better pay and education of women, publishing numerous of his lectures on the latter subject, mentioned in our letter. A contemporary review of his 1837 Lectures in Education stated “Mr. Hodgson’s views are sound and liberal, and in scope and spirit essentially agree with those propounded in former Numbers of this Journal and other phrenological works; but there is a force and freshness to his mode of conveying them which sufficiently indicate that he is not repeating a lesson parrot-wise but has studied his subject and made the ideas his own,” (The Phrenological Journal, and Magazine of Moral Science, Volume 11, 1838). Hodgson was also a bibliophile whose massive collection of works on political economy included 32 items from Adam Smith’s own library.

Franklin herself had long been an advocate of education, helping establish a number of schools when her husband was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and where she also advocated for more humane treatment of convicts, founded a museum and founded the first Royal Society for the advancement of science outside of Britain.

Henrietta (née Smyth) Baden-Powell (1824-1914), was the sister of Charles Piazzi Smyth and wife of English mathematician and theologian Baden Powell. A longtime Savilian Chair of Geometry at the University of Oxford, Powell was a proponent of the theory of evolution. He was married three times and, after his death in 1860, Henrietta, changed her last name and that of a number of her children to “Baden-Powell” to distinguish them from the four children from his second marriage. Among their children was the founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir Robert Baden-Powell.

Docketed in the upper left corner of the first page. Folded with some scattered light stains. In very good condition. Apparently unpublished; not in “The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin, 1792-1875.” Rare.

Explorer and Wife of Explorer Sir John Franklin Writes about Jonathan Swift, Moon Craters and Women’s Education

Signed by Lady Jane Franklin

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