Jane a lady ahead of her time
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