Jane a lady ahead of her time

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - WAR­REN BREWER

THE AM­BI­TIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN By Ali­son Alexan­der ( Allen & Un­win, $ 35)

WHAT an as­tound­ing woman. Tas­ma­nian his­to­rian Ali­son Alexan­der’s bril­liant bi­og­ra­phy shat­tered the flimsy im­pres­sions of Jane Franklin I had ac­cu­mu­lated over the years.

As re­vealed in Alexan­der’s book, Lady Jane Franklin be­came un­doubt­edly one of the most sig­nif­i­cant celebri­ties in 19th cen­tury Europe and her brief time in Tas­ma­nia played an im­por­tant part in her amaz­ing story.

It is said the seeds of what we be­come as adults are sown in our child­hood.

Strange then that the young Jane Griffins emerged from a mod­est and in­con­spic­u­ous fam­ily of silk weavers in Lon­don with no ap­par­ent as­pi­ra­tions and lit­tle prospects of so­cial ad­vance­ment.

From th­ese hum­ble be­gin­nings emerged a charm­ing, pe­tite and at­trac­tive lady whom seemed un­likely to at­tract un­due at­ten­tion.

Un­derneath that dis­arm­ing ex­te­rior, how­ever, was a sharp eye, a keen mind and a gift for com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Added to this were a fierce com­pul­sion to suc­ceed and an iron will to learn and be heard.

This drive for recog­ni­tion could be at­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to her dis­ci­plined Lutheran board­ing school ex­pe­ri­ence and to the gen­er­ous pa­tron­age of a learned and wealthy un­cle. Com­bined within, a fire had been pre­pared.

Jane’s rather be­lated mar­riage to 42- year- old Arc­tic ex­plorer Lieu­tenant John Franklin be­came the fuel for its ig­ni­tion.

As Alexan­der ex­plained “he was de­cent, depend­able and af­fec­tion­ate”.

Ca­reer- wise, how­ever, he needed ur­gent help and Jane was just the woman to pro­vide it.

Cap­tain Franklin’s ear­lier Arc­tic ex­plo­rations had not earned him the ac­co­lades he ex­pected and when the of­fer of the post of Lieu­tenant- Gover­nor of Van Diemens Land was made it seemed al­most an in­sult.

A post de­scribed here as “the end of the world” for the gen­teel and be­nign Franklin was far from at­trac­tive.

To the Gover­nor’s clever wife, an ob­ses­sive trav­eller, how­ever, it of­fered an­other op­por­tu­nity for a great ad­ven­ture. Her force­ful in­flu­ence pre­vailed and they sailed for Van Diemens Land in 1837.

Her sojourn as the Gover­nor’s wife was event­ful and con­tro­ver­sial. She made many per­sonal and of­ten danger­ous ex­plo­rations into many re­mote ar­eas on the is­land and be­yond.

She ini­ti­ated pro­found de­vel­op­ments in ed­u­ca­tion, art and ar­chi­tec­ture and at­tempted un­easy but well- in­ten­tioned re­la­tion­ships with the con­victs and the abo­rig­inies. Her legacy here is abun­dantly ap­par­ent. Van Diemens Land was a test­ing ground for her.

In par­tic­u­lar, lo­cal pol­i­tics were like the in­hab­i­tants, rough and tough.

She was a woman way be­fore her time and be­cause of that fact alone she made en­e­mies in high places.

Many ref­er­ences are made in the book to Govern­ment House with vis­i­tors re­call­ing it pro­vided a some­times “over­whelm­ing” stage for Lady Jane’s spe­cial in­vi­ta­tions.

Lo­cated in what is now Franklin Square in down­town Ho­bart, com­plete with an im­pos­ing statue of Sir John at its cen­tre­piece, this first Govern­ment House build­ing in­vites fur­ther in­ter­est.

How­ever, it was not in re­mote Ho­bart Lady Jane’s fame and no­to­ri­ety emerged and flour­ished.

When the Franklins re­turned to Lon­don in 1843 they ac­tively sought an­other post­ing.

Sir John made the fate­ful de­ci­sion to ac­cept a com­mis­sion to lead an ex­pe­di­tion to search for the elu­sive North West Pas­sage.

Con­trary to the wishes of the fam­ily and oth­ers, Sir John, at 58, set sail in 1845 on “the glo­ri­ous ex­pe­di­tion”.

He had the best steam and sail ships and per­son­nel avail­able as well as equip­ment and pro­vi­sions for three years. All to no avail.

He and his en­tire en­tourage and crews never re­turned. The si­lence from the Arc­tic waste­lands was deaf­en­ing.

Lady Jane’s re­sponse to her hus­band’s puz­zling dis­ap­pear­ance is now leg­endary.

Mul­ti­ple searches, pub­lic ap­peals for funds and in­ter­na­tional res­cue at­tempts were ini­ti­ated to solve what had be­come a great mys­tery. Her search cam­paigns held pub­lic at­ten­tion for al­most a decade.

Un­de­terred, grasp­ing at scant sight­ings and bits and pieces of ev­i­dence, Lady Jane re­con­structed her hus­band’s ter­ri­ble jour­ney into a suc­cess story.

In the ab­sence of con­trary ver­sions her ac­counts were pub­licly ac­cepted. Her loy­alty and pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tions were re­lent­less and Sir John’s and Lady Jane’s pub­lic sta­tus was re­stored. It was a pub­lic re­la­tions tri­umph.

This must be the de­fin­i­tive work on Lady Jane Franklin.

The re­search is thor­ough in the ex­treme, the prose flu­ent and the vo­lu­mi­nous his­tory clev­erly con­structed.

In­ter­est­ingly, Alexan­der avoids ab­so­lute con­clu­sions about many con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of Jane Franklin’s mo­ti­va­tions and am­bi­tions.

Read­ers will reach their own con­clu­sions.

AMAZ­ING STORY: Author Ali­son Alexan­der

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