Review: The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer by Alison Alexander
by Ann Skea - April 12th, 2013
Lady Jane Franklin, “a Victorian Lady Adventurer” as this book’s title proclaims, is best known for her unflagging support of her husband, the Arctic explorer Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 on an expedition to chart and navigate the North West Passage. In all, Jane Franklin raised the funds for seven expeditions to find her husband or some record of what had happened to him and his men. She was also unflagging in her efforts to protect his reputation against accusations that the men resorted to cannibalism in an effort to survive after abandoning their ship. She was a determined and energetic woman.
How Jane came to be a Victorian adventurer is less well-known but, as Alison Alexander notes, other biographers have charted her extensive travels and the lady herself left copious records of her life. Alexander, however, has turned to a variety of new sources of information to fill out what she suggests is a more honest assessment of Jane Franklin’s character. Jane, it seems, was not averse to lying or to doctoring her writings in order to present herself as a loyal, devoted, loving and, above all, ladylike and charming wife, but this does seem to have been the way most people who met her saw her. Perhaps earlier biographers were naive in taking her writings at face value, but Jane was certainly not the only writer to fudge the facts, and in the end Alexander’s biography does nothing to reverse the accepted view of her character, it merely adds “ambition” to Jane’s goals. It also demonstrates the intelligence and intellectual curiosity of a woman who took every opportunity to explore the world around her, to broaden her own knowledge, and to be as innovative and effective in society as she could be.
Jane’s childhood, schooling and young adulthood were not very different to those of other young women born into middle-class immigrant artisan families in England. Her father was a successful Protestant Huguenot silk-weaver whose own father had fled Catholic France, set up business in London, and become a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Jane’s schooling was carefully attended to but she was clearly not satisfied with just needlework, card-playing and genteel, ladylike conversation. She read widely, travelled widely with her family, and her father settled on her a sum of money which gave her an independent income. What was unusual, was her late marriage, at the age of thirty-six, to a forty-two year old widower who was already a celebrated explorer. She appears to have had no shortage of eligible suitors but, until then, had rejected them all.
Alexander is not the first to suggest that Jane saw in Captain John Franklin an honest, decent, modest man who was in need of a clever wife whose drive and determination could further his career. Certainly, Jane had those qualities and she exercised them, but she had been a friend of John’s first wife Eleanor, and had met John Franklin socially whilst he was a celebrated and feted explorer who had also fought in several naval battles and had been wounded (slightly) at the Battle of Trafalgar. They got on well together, and she knew John was often away and that his wife had a good degree of independence. She knew, too, that although his first marriage had not been untroubled he was a mild man who appreciated intelligent women and was a warm and loving father to his small daughter. Whatever Jane’s reasons for accepting John Franklin’s proposal of marriage, there is nothing about their life together to suggest that ambition was Jane’s only motivation, and his love for her was certainly matched by her life-long devotion to him.
John Franklin was knighted a year after their marriage and for the next three years he was frequently absent on naval duties. Jane travelled in Spain and North Africa during this time, meeting up with John whenever possible, although this was made difficult by his roving commission. Then, in 1836 John was appointment as lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
Most of this book is taken up with Jane’s life in Tasmania. This was certainly an adventure which she relished and she used her position as governor’s wife to the full. As well as helping her husband with administrative work (which was not unusual for a governor’s wife) she tried hard to improve educational opportunities for boys and girls; she initiated social gatherings at which intellectual discussion was promoted; she was instrumental in founding a scientific society and in building a Classical museum for the arts; she established the Huon land-scheme to encourage colonists; and she took an interest in the aboriginal population and fostered a young aboriginal boy and girl. She also explored the island extensively, reaching some of the most remote parts, and she climbed the rugged 1274m. densely vegetated Mount Wellington. Jane was also the first woman to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney, camping each night along the way.
Judging by the footnotes, which mostly list manuscript references, Alexander’s research has been extensive. Unfortunately, after the tantalizing excitement of her ‘Introduction’, the book often reads like paraphrasing of these documents. Alexander’s express claim that she “stopped short of trying to get inside Jane Franklin’s head” is undermined by her frequent authorial interjections which interpret Jane’s feelings or offer Alexander’s own exclamatory comment on the situation. Some readers may find that this enlivens the book: I just found it unnecessary and irritating.
As a Victorian woman ‘adventurer’, Jane was not unique. Like Frances (Fanny) Trollope, who published her own adventures in America in the 1830s, Jane perhaps hoped one day to publish her writings. Her status ensured that her story has been told, but there were other independent-minded, intelligent women who, as early settlers in Australia, had equally exciting and adventurous lives and were equally influential in shaping their society.
Clearly, Jane Franklin was a remarkable woman. That she crossed swords with some who resented her influence over her husband whilst he was governor of Tasmania, is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that revisionist historians have questioned her interference in the lives of Tasmanian Aborigines. However, she worked hard to improve the life of the colony. The Royal Tasmanian Society, the Huon settlement and the Ancanthe Museum still exist. And although they only lived in Tasmania for seven years, Lady Jane and Sir John Franklin are still well remembered there.
Tags: alison alexander