On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier

Originally published in Quebec in 2008, I read the 2010 edition translated into English by Sheila Fischman.

There are three noteworthy epigraphs:On the Proer Use of Stars

“Sail, sail adventurous Barks! Go fearless forth,
Storm on his glacier-seat the misty North,
Give to mankind the inhospitable zone,
And Britain’s trident plant in seas unknown. ”
– Eleanor Porden

“The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have, in every
respect, provided most liberally for the comforts of the
officers and men of an expedition which may, with the
facilities of the screw-propeller, and other advantages of
modern science, be attended with great results.”

– The Times, May 12th, 1845

“You are mad and I am blind;
Tell me, who will take us home?”    – Jalal Ud Din Rumi

“The sun was shining on that 19th day of May in 1845, when the Erebus and the Terror were preparing to cast off at Greenhithe, their reflections shivering in the greenish water of the port where floated garlands, handfuls of rice, and small dead fish.A crowd of a John Franklingood ten thousand was assembled on the docks to witness the departure of Sir John Franklin, hero of the Arctic, who was setting off once again to conquer the mythic Northwest Passage, as always for the greater glory of the Empire. On the deck of the Erebus, in full regalia, the explorer was holding aloft a coloured handkerchief so that his wife Jane, Lady Franklin, could easily make him out in the midst of his inferiors, who were waving handkerchiefs of black silk.”

The story is told using journal entries made by John Franklin and Francis Crozier, second-in-command of the expedition juxtaposed with accounts of what Jane Franklin was doing either on her own travels or at home and also the details of some of the activities of her niece Sophia, her sister Fanny and her step-daughter Eleanor. There are also letters that provide considerable background information such as the “Instructions from Sir John Barrow (second secretary to the Admiralty) to Sir John Franklin complete with latitude and longitude readings.


ErebusAn early log entry by Sir John reads: “Terror and Erebus weighed anchor in the Port of Greenhithe on 20 May for a Journey undertaken by order of the Admiralty with the objective of discovering and navigating a Passage leading from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.  129 men on board 2 Ships. The pages that follow are the Ship’s Log of Captain John Franklin, Commander in Chief of the Expedition.”

Sir John “had discussed at length with his wife the contents of this logbook, which would in all likelihood become a valuable document for geographers, seamen, merchants, servicemen, and scientists of the day, as well as for posterity. He had agreed with Lady Jane that he would use a concise style and content himself with delivering factual information as precisely as possible. …Lady Jane would take what he had written and polish it sentence by sentence, as she was accustomed to doing for all the documents her husband composed, and, with his consent, she would breathe new life into them and give them the scope by which one can recognize the accounts by the great discoverers.”

Fortier further humanizes the story for us with details about various crew members: Crozier gave classes in the common room  and one fellow “asked to be taught to read”…”others were curious to learn the principles of physics, optics, the laws of astronomy and magnetism _ subjects on which Crozier enjoyed holing forth. Others still spent those few hours consulting the technical and scientific works that had been brought on board in their hundreds. But oddly enough, it was the novels and books of poems that enjoyed the greatest success.”  The Vicar of Wakefield and the poems of Lord Tennyson (a nephew of Sir John Franklin) were among the most popular books. “One seaman showed an unexpected talent for caligraphy; another was able to solve equations with a number of unknowns without the help of pen and paper; a cook’s helper discovered a passion for magnetism, a science for which he had something of a gift, as Crozier discovered when he was setting out the basic principles to a small group.” The latter young man turned out to be Adam Tuesday (he was found on a Tuesday on the steps of the orphanage where he had been abandoned). Crozier learned from Adam that he had read all the books on board on magnetism and also the Sonnets of William Shakespeare which he “particularly liked.” Details such as this made the characters come alive.

Also included is a description of John Franklin’s first marriage to Eleanor Anne Porden whom Jane met when Eleanor was twenty-three. Eleanor was a poet and Jane found her choice of Franklin as a husband disappointing but changed her mind about this later when she discovered that “John Franklin was prepared to learn, to change, to improve himself. All that was needed was a firm hand to guide him.” Jane married John Franklin after “Eleanor died following a lingering consumption.”

And what of “the proper use of stars”?

Stars receive at least two major mentions in the book: in Tasmania where Sophia first meets Francis Crozier and John Ross who were on an expedition to Antarctica, she has a discussion about stars with each of the two captains. After dancing with John Ross she asks him if he knows all the stars and he replies that he knows “the sailors’ stars” and that he “know[s] the stories less than their usefulness for navigators when it is time to take one’s bearings”.  “Sophia sighed in the face of such dull pragmatism. They were alone beneath a sky that could have been studded with diamonds…and here she was with this deuced Captain who could only talk about navigation.” Shortly afterwards, Crozier comes upon her at the ship’s rail and when he comments on the fact that she might prefer to be alone she replies: “No, no, stay, it’s fine. You can no doubt teach me a great many fascinating things about the proper use of stars in navigation.” Crozier thinks and says that he has been too “blunt” and apologizes and tries again. They have a very different conversation in which he discovers for her a new constellation by pointing to eight stars and then”by drawing an S in the middle of the sky that appeared, after being designated, to shine with a more brilliant light.” Pragmatism vs. romanticism?

A second mention of stars comes a few pages later when a crewman named Thomas observes that there are more stars to be seen from the deck of the expedition’s ships than he had ever seen at home. He believes this to be because there are no other lights to outshine the stars and dim their brilliance. One can’t help but think about how that applies to our modern urban skies. Then he sees the Aurora borealis which “seems to confirm for him that the place where he is, is at once at the end and the dawn of the world.”

The fate of the Franklin expedition of 1845 may or may not be known to you. I would highly recommend that you not do any research in advance as it will all become quite clear quickly in this relatively short novel. I find that it has inspired me to do more research and I am particularly looking forward to some additional reading on Lady Jane Franklin. I have had a book on my shelf for a few years now by Canadian writer Ken McGoogan: Lady Franklin’s Revenge. This book is sub-titled A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History. With the reading of On the Proper Use of Stars it has made a quantum leap to the top of my To Be Read list thus illustrating one of the greatest rewards of reading : it leads to more reading. Enjoy!


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