Feisty wife the force behind the explorer
The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer
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