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Exploring the Arctic in the Regency era

This winter has brought snow and ice to large parts of the United States in recent days, such that we can empathize with Jane Austen when she exclaimed in a letter to her sister in a letter dated June 30-July 1, 1808, “What cold, disagreeable weather!” In the Regency era, many authors included unforgiving icy landscapes in their writing. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” opens with the call to explore the Arctic, and freezing imagery features throughout Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”: “Ah, what bitter chill it was!/ the owl, for all his feathers was a-cold,/ the hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass;/ and silent was the flock in woolly fold…” But it wasn’t just the weather that may have inspired them.

Following the victory at Waterloo in 1815, the British navy answered the call to expand the empire in all directions. The British East India Company, established in 1600, had grown into a global economic power akin to major corporations of today. Thanks to imports such as cottons, silks, spices and opium, Regency life in Britain was dependent upon a steady stream of ships sailing to and from the East Indies. The appeal of the mythic sea route the Northwest Passage never ceased to capture the imagination, not only as a means to improve Britain’s ability to trade but also as a source of national pride and sense of adventure. According to author Robert Morrison (“The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern”), the drive to discover the Northwest Passage held the same influence over the national psyche as the space race held over America during the 1960s.

"The Expedition Driven into the Ice," July 30, 1818, painting by Frederick William Beechey. (Google Commons)

Morrison’s book describes how in spring 1818, two expeditions departed London on the treacherous voyage to the Arctic. The first expedition got no further than the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, stymied by ice and snow. The second was not only charged with finding a Northwest Passage but also collecting scientific data from its journey including temperatures and magnetism. Both expeditions returned that fall, not wishing to winter in the Arctic.

The next year, the British navy tried again, this time sending one expedition closely following the Canadian coast and going inland, and another through Baffin Bay between Canada and Greenland. This time, both teams were prepared to endure a challenging winter, but a little more than half of the first team died. The second expedition, however, was considered a success, not only because it went the farthest and collected interesting scientific data about the Arctic but because its crew fared better than the first team. Crew members had found ways of keeping their spirits up, such as performing for one another and publishing their own newspaper, which contributed to their survival rates in addition to hunting and rationing supplies.

Source image from Wikimedia Commons; illustration by Robin K Floyd

None of the expeditions found a Northwest Passage to the East Indies, prompting Great Britain to try yet again in the 1840s, the subject of which inspired the TV series "The Terror."

To learn more about the Arctic voyages and other adventurous pursuits of the British navy during Jane Austen’s lifetime, check out “The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern” by Robert Morrison, who will be a featured speaker at our virtual Jane Austen Summer Program in June. And stay tuned for an interview with Morrison next week!

To see some of the scientific discoveries explorer Captain John Ross made in Baffin Bay, click here.


Registration is now for the 2021 virtual Jane Austen Summer Program! CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.


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