The end of the world

University of Nevada, Reno professor Jen Hill’s book White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination examines the Arctic as the place where the sun finally set on the British Empire

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The Arctic is a mysterious landscape. Looked at from the right angle, it forms a bleak, cold panorama, a white horizon. University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of English Jen Hill’s book White Horizon: The Arctic in the Nineteenth-Century British Imagination is about the limits of British imperialism, about the real and the metaphorical meaning of the Arctic and, lastly, about how the British nation saw itself and its highly masculine empire reflected, and possibly defeated, in the vast, ice-covered ocean.

White Horizon, doesn’t necessarily offer answers but does find connections—the connections among 19th-century literature, the Arctic and, most importantly, the end of British imperialism. Any short explanation only scratches the surface of what Hill’s book is about. Hill knows that. After six years of research, trying to explain her own academic work is akin to explaining Shakespeare to a kindergartner.

It’s an icy subject (pun intended) and also a philosophical and metaphorical funhouse. In fact, Hill knows of only one other author—Francis Spufford, author of I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination—who has tried to investigate these connections.

Hill teaches Core Humanities 202, upper-division Victorian literature and Renaissance classes. She loves to teach, and she loves the university and its students. She did her graduate studies at Cornell University and her undergraduate work at Stanford University. She’s also the editor of An Exhilaration of Wings: The Literature of Bird Watching (Viking Press, 1999).

As Hill explains, the idea for White Horizon came simply as a matter of interest during her graduate thesis. After a bit of soul-searching, she discovered an autobiographical tie to her interest—Hill is a Canadian. Not only that, she is a Canadian with an aunt who in the 1950s and ’70s organized artist collectives with the Inuit tribes. Although her aunt died before she could really know her, Hill has numerous pieces of Inuit art left to keep her aunt fresh in her imagination—an autobiographical link clearly intact.

Failed expedition
It’s important to note that Hill is Canadian because Canadians know something most Americans don’t: the story of Sir John Franklin’s mysterious disappearance.

“Every [Canadian] fourth grader would know this guy’s name and would know something about his disappearance,” explains Hill.

In White Horizon, Hill writes that Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage led to a nation obsessed with its own masculine and imperialist identity. Franklin was the epitome of a British masculinist, and the Arctic was his proving ground. Although Franklin was British, his story is well known throughout Canada for his baffling failure.

His expeditions on the aptly named ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departed with 130 men aboard in the spring of 1845. But, as Hill writes, “After calling it in at Greenland on their way to the frozen seas, [they] were never heard from again.”

Multiple subsequent expeditions searched for clues to Franklin and his expedition’s disappearance. What they found were traces: forks, knives, buttons and knick-knacks. In one discovery, they found what some believed were the remains of a cannibalism camp. A more recent discovery found the frozen bodies of some of the men of the expedition, their faces frozen in time.

The month of Franklin’s death—June 1847—is known from a document found at a site, which added that 23 others had died. But none of the discoveries could describe exactly how Sir John Franklin, the undaunted adventurer, died.

“His disappearance at the very peak of his fame kind of occludes or obscures his legacy, which is failed imperialism,” says Hill.

Literary references
In some ways, Franklin acts as the catalyst for White Horizon, and as the catalyst for many questions about the ethical and moral dilemmas and anxieties of British imperialism.

“You kind of strangely see these narratives, and in debates about whether or not they should explore the Arctic more or not,” says Hill, “whether or not British imperialism is ethical or moral or a good thing.”

While reading the literature from that time, Hill found more and more connections to Franklin’s story. In literature like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hill finds narratives giving indications that the authors were attempting to put themselves in the Arctic—a geographical space, that, at the time, was a male-only club and symbolized a society intent on keeping it that way.

“What happens when you read the Arctic literally in there?” Hill asks. “Because we know Charlotte Brontë and her sisters read Arctic exploration accounts in the early 19th century in popular magazines, and those were part of their childhood stories. If you sort of read the Arctic in Jane Eyre, literally, you can see she’s trying to insert herself into arguments and conversations about national identity and gender and the role of women in the nation of the empire.”

Hill also looked at authors like Charles Dickens and R.M. Ballantyne, who wrote hundreds of boys’ adventure books, including The Coral Island, a precursor and inspiration for The Lord of the Flies. But the Arctic was a place where Ballantyne couldn’t write about impressionable imperialists conquering the land.

“If you are an explorer, you fail,” says Hill. “You don’t find the Northwest Passage. You don’t find the North Pole.”

The Arctic is a blank page, says Hill. Its space is wide open to interpretations. By the early 20th century, British imperialism had all but vanished with World Wars and the postcolonial era. Eventually, there were new questions about the meaning of the Arctic. But Hill is content with finding the heart of something so off-center.

“That’s kind of what academics do,” she says. “We find things that might seem peripheral but might unexpectedly end up being unexpectedly central. That’s the way we understand ourselves, and that’s what we hope to do.”