Feisty wife the force be­hind the ex­plorer

The Am­bi­tions of Jane Franklin: Vic­to­rian Lady Ad­ven­turer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith Ba­bette Smith’s

By Ali­son Alexan­der Allen & Un­win, 294pp, $35

MY first reaction to The Am­bi­tions of Jane Franklin was, ‘‘ Do we re­ally need an­other book about her?’’ Th­ese doubts were com­pletely con­founded by Ali­son Alexan­der’s bi­og­ra­phy, which does jus­tice to her sub­ject’s com­plex­ity and char­ac­ter be­yond any pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tion.

Alexan­der, one of Tas­ma­nia’s best-known his­to­ri­ans, tells Lady Jane’s story with a mix­ture of so­phis­ti­cated anal­y­sis, per­sonal in­sight and af­fec­tion­ate hu­mour that pen­e­trates much more deeply to the real woman. It holds the reader’s fas­ci­nated at­ten­tion to the end.

A vo­lu­mi­nous Franklin ar­chive re­mains for pos­ter­ity, par­tic­u­larly Jane’s own jour­nals, but th­ese were culled be­fore and af­ter her death to en­sure what was left showed her in the best pos­si­ble light. Alexan­der’s suc­cess is ex­plained by a more scep­ti­cal ap­proach to th­ese sources, which she al­ready knew well. As she puts it: ‘‘ A flash of re­al­i­sa­tion — that Jane Franklin did not al­ways tell the truth — trans­formed my read­ing of th­ese records.’’

She be­came trans­fixed by the gaps left by the culling and asked, ‘‘ What did they hide?’’ An­swer: ‘‘ A dif­fer­ent per­son to the va­pid crea­ture of mid-20th­cen­tury bi­og­ra­phy.’’

Jane had two am­bi­tions. First, from a very early age she wanted to live life to the full. Sec­ond, she was in­tent on sup­port­ing and pro­mot­ing her hus­band at a per­sonal level and in pub­lic life.

The ex­tent to which Jane prac­tised her am­bi­tion ‘‘ to live life to the full’’ is breath­tak­ing and im­pos­si­ble to do jus­tice to here. The anec­dote that opens the book demon­strates where her in­tense, lively cu­rios­ity could lead her. It is also a good ex­am­ple of how Alexan­der uses her sources: The com­man­dant of the con­vict-pow­ered coal mine near Port Arthur was as­tounded . . . [when] the vice-re­gal party ar­rived af­ter sun­set but she in­sisted on go­ing down the mine — it was dark un­der­ground any­way, she pointed out. ‘‘ Ladies and all dive first thing into the Mines . . . minutely ex­am­in­ing ev­ery­thing,’’ wrote the com­man­dant stunned. ‘‘ En­tered far­thest hole in cliff,’’ [Jane] wrote in her diary. ‘‘ Get in here slightly stoop­ing.’’ They con­tin­ued down a pas­sage, in­spect­ing the iron rollers, deep shaft, soli­tary cells, buck­ets, rope . . . An­other pas­sage ‘‘ more stoop­ing’’; on and on, ‘‘ very wet and muddy and be­ing bent dou­ble, got worn out’’. Stout Sir John was also suf­fer­ing, the dim can­dle­light show­ing the per­spi­ra­tion stream­ing from his head . . . but Jane Franklin per­sisted. They fi­nally emerged through an­other pas­sage —‘‘came out with black­ened hands and drag­gled pet­ti­coats’’ — and con­tin­ued their in­spec­tion . . .

John Franklin was al­ready fa­mous as an ex­plorer when Jane met him, some­thing Alexan­der thinks was part of his at­trac­tion for her. Fur­ther­more, he was a kind and gen­tle man, not overly bright and an in­no­cent in the world of pol­i­tics. Jane rightly felt he was a man she could help to strate­gise and man­age his ca­reer. This was never more true than in his po­si­tion as lieu­tenant-gover­nor of Van Diemen’s Land but it ap­plied to his ex­ploratory ca­reer as well.

Al­though in many ways a fem­i­nist pro­to­type, Jane saw her­self as a de­voted wife and took gen­uine plea­sure in the role while con­scious that the im­age must be fos­tered so she could pur­sue her goals. ‘‘ She was his pro­tec­tor, of his per­son and his rep­u­ta­tion, and come what may she would show him as suc­cess­ful (and her­self the wife of a suc­cess­ful man).’’ Alexan­der rightly em­pha­sises that ‘‘ to claim her as an early fem­i­nist is to mis­un­der­stand both fem­i­nism and Lady Franklin’’.

Af­ter the cou­ple re­turned to Eng­land in 1844, Jane suc­cess­fully in­flu­enced the de­ci­sion that her hus­band should lead an­other search for the fa­bled North­west Pas­sage. When his party van­ished with­out trace, it was she who kept the hunt to find him alive for 12 long years.

Dur­ing this time she net­worked with peo­ple of in­flu­ence in all quar­ters of Bri­tain, from the monar­chy down — in an in­spired ges­ture, she even named one of her five con­sec­u­tive search ves­sels the Prince Al­bert. Her suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing ef­forts ex­tended to the US and, of course, the An­tipodes. As Alexan­der points out: ‘‘ She was a ge­nius at pub­lic re­la­tions.’’

His fate un­known, John Franklin was at risk of be­ing de­clared a fail­ure. There were even sug­ges­tions of can­ni­bal­ism. Jane re­dou­bled her ef­forts, in­clud­ing bom­bard­ing news­pa­pers with ar­ti­cles writ­ten by her or her as­sis­tant, in which her im­age as the griev­ing but in­domitable wife was cru­cial.

Her cam­paign con­tin­ued un­til John Franklin was ac­cepted for pos­ter­ity as ‘‘ the epitome of the gal­lant English gen­tle­man win­ning against the odds, dis­cov­er­ing the North­west Pas­sage’’.

The Am­bi­tions of Jane Franklin demon­strates yet again how re­ward­ing it is to look be­tween the cracks and be­hind the pub­lic fa­cade of Aus­tralian his­tory. It is likely to be the de­fin­i­tive study of Lady Jane Franklin for many years.

Jane Franklin and, above, her hus­band John

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