The other Jane

Lady Jane Franklin

Lady Jane Franklin (Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

Those of you who have read a bit of my blog will know that I am a big Jane Austen fan, and so when you see the name Jane in a post’s title you would not be wrong to assume that it’s about her. However, over the last decade another Jane has been coming to my attention. She’s not a writer, unless a lifetime of journal-writing counts, but she was born during Jane Austen’s time, and is a fascinating woman. Her name is Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875), and these are the ways I’ve been meeting her:

  • Andrea Barrett’s The voyage of the Narwhal, dealing with one of the expeditions which set out to find Lady Jane’s missing explorer husband, Sir John Franklin, was the first thing I read that brought her truly to my consciousness;
  • Matthew Kneale’s English passengers in which as I recollect she is portrayed as the rather strange wife of the Governor;
  • Richard Flanagan’s Wanting which partly explores the Franklins’ time in Van Dieman’s Land and, in particular, their disastrous adoption of the little indigenous girl, Mathinna;
  • Resident Judge’s reviews of  Lady Franklin’s revenge by Ken McGoogan and This errant lady by Penny Russell;
  • Adrienne Eberhard’s Jane, Lady Franklin, a poetry collection written in the persona of Lady Jane (and given to me this year by my Tasmanian-based historian brother); and
  • Silkweed’s Lady Jane Franklin: an examined life, a musical-theatrical-visual presentation of her life, which I saw this weekend at the National Folk Festival.

Silkweed’s website describes her thus:

a woman ahead of her time; she was an explorer and adventurer, a prolific diarist and wife of Sir John Franklin, Arctic explorer and one-time Governor of Tasmania. John Franklin died searching for the North-West passage and his widow spent her later years ensuring his place in the history books.

Their production had some rough edges and is still, I think, being developed, but it was thoroughly engaging and made me finally realise that this is one rather astonishing woman. So, what have these various “sources” told me about Lady Jane? Well, first and foremost that she was a strong, intelligent woman who was intellectually curious and adventurous, who was ambitious for her husband whom she had married in her late thirties, and who had a lot of energy much of which she channelled into all sorts of plans for improvement or “doing good”. She was, paradoxically, both ahead of her times and firmly planted in them. For example, in Wanting she is presented as a childless woman who genuinely wanted to do the right thing by Mathinna but who really had no idea. For a woman who was ahead of her times in so many things, she was not so when it came to raising children or understanding the real needs of indigenous people.

I am well and truly intrigued now … and will try to read more about her, but for now I’ll end with some lines from the first poem in Eberhard’s book. The poem describes her well-documented plans to rid Tasmania of snakes and ends with:

No. For all this work,
this hatching of plans
– catching, dispatching –
when I close my eyes
the snakes multiply.

The Franklins did not have a smooth path in Tasmania, and their plans to create a “model society” failed, due partly to the machinations of self-interested others. I cannot help thinking that it’s not coincidental that Eberhard opens her collection with the failure of Lady Jane’s snake-removal plan, as there were indeed snakes in that grass.

16 thoughts on “The other Jane

  1. How serendipitous! I just finished ‘Wanting’ myself – and really enjoyed it. Poor Jane Franklin didn’t come off too well in it as you say – she had the chance of motherhood, but failed both herself and Mathinna terribly. An interesting post. Thanks.

  2. I was terribly curious who your “other Jane” would be, but very surprised. I’ve read those three novels where she shows up, but never thought much about that fact that three contemporary novelists focused on the wife of a provincial governor and unfortunate explorer.

    • Thanks for commenting Susan. No, I hadn’t a lot either, really, until the show at the Folk Festival when I started to get a real sense of who she was. I’d like to read a biography now.

  3. Isn’t it funny how historical figures keep popping up in a variety of novels. You almost feel you’ve met them before when it happens. I love the quotation about trying to rid Tasmania of snakes – St Patrick was apparently more successful in Ireland!

    • Yes, you’re right. As for the snakes, I think she actually mentions St Patrick in her journals about her plan – at least that’s what I gathered from Silkweed’s performance – but she clearly didn’t have his touch.

  4. Jane sounds like a fascinating woman! It is funny how you met her in several novels. I think she’d make for an excellent biography.

  5. I am a big Jane Austen fan also but have yet to read this Jane. Women ahead of their time definitely resonate with me, I feel so much compassion for them – and we can learn from their struggles. Relatively speaking, we have it so easy these days, and the least we can do is appreciate those struggles and read about those stories. Thank you for sharing!

    • Totally agree – we do have it easier (much) these days but we need to stay vigilant don’t we? I love reading about women who dared to be different, to go against the trend. Sometimes we forget how many women were, and how hard it was for them. She was often seen as a freak.

  6. I can’t really say I’ve ever thought about Jane Franklin. I imagine she would have had to be a resourceful woman, helping her husband raise money for his expeditions and then spending years without him not knowing whether he was dead or alive. Are her diaries published?

    • I think she was a hugely resourceful and energetic woman. She used up a lot of her “fortune” to try to find her husband. I don’t believe they have been published in entirety. They would be great to digitise and put on line, I think. Sections have I think been published though, such as this one detailing her Illawarra trip (just a week in 1839!):

  7. Lady Jane is big in Tasmania, of course. Indeed my workplace was the museum of the successor of first scientific society established outside the UK, founded by Lady Jane and Sir John Franklin in their efforts to bring culture to convict Van Diemen’s Land. Biographies have been written about her, notably by Frances Woodward in 1951. Sections of her diaries have been published and I believe someone has been working on editing her Tasmanian diaries for some years.

    • Thanks Ian – great to have an expert’s contribution to this discussion. I found one small published section … she was fascinating wasn’t she.

      Have you seen Silkweed?

      • Yes, Oscar and I saw Silkweed performing this piece (and another about Maria Island) two years ago. I enjoyed it (although don’t remember much about it now), Oscar spent most of the performance asleep in my lap! The cellist housesat our house about fifteen years ago – but that is Tasmania’s half a degree of separation in force.

  8. I understand it’s a bit of a work in progress – but didn’t realise it’s been that long in the making! Was the Maria Island one good too? I’ve read quite a few of the poems in the Eberhard book now – must get back to it. I have too many books on the go at present and am starting to feel a little discombobulated.

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