By Alison Alexander
Allen & Unwin. 294pp. AU $35
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
For all her enormous stature -- her inspiring of three dozen search expeditions for her missing husband, her persuasive powers over Presidents and Prime Ministers, and her eponymous ballad, Lady Jane Franklin has remained a difficult subject for biographers and historians. It's not that she left no documentation -- between her own letters and journals (extensive, though her handwriting is infamously close and difficult to read) and those of her niece Sophy Cracroft, there's ample material -- it's just that, between the private woman who emerges in these manuscripts, and the public figure so dominant that her apartments opposite the Admirality's headquarters were dubbed "The Battery," there seems at times a strange gap. Not only that, but even with all the material available, there a second, perhaps unbridgeable gap between what Jane confided to her own writings, and what she actually, deeply, thought and felt. She was no confessional writer, not especially forthcoming about her own motives, and what few traces of controversy or impropriety there may have been, she and her correspondents took care to discreetly excise or destroy. Few recent books have really managed to bridge either of these gaps; while Penny Russell painted a delightfully wry and engaging portrait of one of Jane's undertakings in This Errant Lady, and Ken McGoogan fired a broadside of his own with Lady Franklin's Revenge, it's hard to reconcile these two accounts, and the sole volume of her letters recently published, that edited by Erika Elce, includes only her published, public missives.
Happily, in Alison Alexander, Jane Franklin has found a biographer as adroit and willing to explore obscure nooks and crannies as herself. Alexander, a widely-recognized historian whose works encompass both Australian and specifically Tasmanian history, is perhaps best known for her historical accounts of women, particularly her 1987 volume Governors' Ladies: the Wives and Mistresses of Van Diemen's Land's Governors. She is the first biographer to bring the kind of broad familiarity with primary historical sources in Australia needed to set Jane's time in Van Diemen's Land in context, as well as to make full use of the extensive papers held at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. And, despite the vast amount of material involved, Alexander has written an eminently readable, engaging, and lively portrait, one which for the first time gives the reader of today a full sense of Lady Franklin's curious admixture of perspicacity, persistence, and whimsy, and the way she used all three of these qualities to advance her husband's career and her own status, all the while clinging to a curiously conservative set of (often unarticulated) values.
For Jane Franklin, as she emerges here, is a bundle of contradictions. She was a social butterfly who passed up many an eligible bachelor, settling on a famous but famously milquetoast man; an outward embracer of penal reform who privately favored a harshly moralistic philosophy of prison management; an inveterate hostess of balls and social gatherings who at often preferred to absent herself from "civilized" company; a tireless traveller capable of considerable exertion but who often chose to be carried along in a chair; and a remarkable embodiment of a woman with an active intellectual and social life who nevertheless disdained other women who wore their intellect, or their politics, on their sleeves.
Jane was active -- restlessly so -- but not what one could call an an activist. The portrait that emerges here in Alexander's capable hands is of a woman who delighted in the private machinations made possible for her as the wife of a famous explorer and colonial governor, but preferred to demur, crediting her husband and always invoking his name rather than her own. As a Governor's wife, she established schools, founded learned societies (though declining to be a formal "member" of them), and conducted ambitious tours of Tasmania, Australia, and New Zealand in which she sought to learn all she could about the people and places she encountered. And, when her husband became famously lost, she mobilized searches for him, public and private, on two continents. Her letter to President Zachary Taylor led to the First Grinnell Expedition; her pressure on the Admiralty helped launch several government-funded searches, and when official interest declined, a series of private ones. The most famous of these was that of Francis Leopold M'Clintock, which in 1859 finally succeeded where others had failed in finding a final record of Franklin and his men -- but fifteen years later Jane was still supporting searches for her husband's men and the 'papers' she was sure they'd cached somewhere; the last of these -- Sir Allen Young's -- did not return until after her death.
She was skilled at using the power of the pen, and although she fulfilled a youthful promise not to 'write any books,' her writings could fill many of them. Alison Alexander has read them all, and judiciously draws from them to illustrate the texture of Jane Franklin's daily life, opinions, and passions. And though it is true, as Alexander notes, that it's very hard to see into Franklin's inner character, The Ambitions of Jane Franklin comes as close any any book has (or likely will) to discovering the essence of this remarkable woman.
NB: The book is handsomely designed, and includes numerous plates, both color and black-and-white. Notable among them is a photograph, taken in Yosemite in 1861, which is the only known one of Lady Franklin.