The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. As it was a private school, we were sorted into ‘Houses’, a sort of artificial way of engendering competition between us, and a team spirit amongst us.  As it was a girls’ school, the Houses were named after famous women, and as it was a relatively innovative school, they were Australian women – or at least, women who spent some time in Australia.  In chronological order they were Elizabeth Macarthur, Jane Franklin, Caroline Chisholm and Lucy Osburn. I suspect that if our teachers had known then what I know now about Jane Franklin, there wouldn’t have been a Franklin House.

Nineteenth century governors’ ladies tend to be a fairly insipid lot, at least as traditionally portrayed in their husbands’ biographies. A few exotic specimens peek through the gloom, or influence wider events: Elizabeth Macquarie, whose dreadful gynecological experiences brought the ex-convict doctor William Redfern to unexpected prominence; Lady Mary FitzRoy, killed in a carriage accident while her husband was driving; Diamantina Bowen, with her Greek Orthodox religion and Italian mother tongue.

These women were expected to be hostesses, at a time when an invitation to Government House was an important marker of social status, and became patrons of institutions such as schools, hospitals and philanthropic societies.  They also supported their husbands, managed the servants, and bore and raised children.  It’s not a job description that allowed for much self-expression, and most governors’ ladies appear, however inaccurately, to be worthy but dull.

Alison Alexander: The Ambition of Jane Franklin

The term Alison Alexander uses in her new biography Jane Franklin, Victorian Lady Adventurer (2013) is ‘vapid’. Jane Franklin, wife of Governor Sir John Franklin of Van Diemen’s Land (1836-43) was neither dull nor – in some rather interesting ways – necessarily worthy.

Alexander has written a lively, fast paced biography of Lady Franklin that puts her few short years in the Australian colonies in a wider context.  She has been assisted by a vast archive of diaries and letters, both at the main Franklin repository, the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, and elsewhere in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada.

It’s an impressive research effort, but Alexander’s real breakthrough was when ‘A flash of realisation – that Jane Franklin did not always tell the truth – transformed my reading of these records.’ (ix-x) On the face of it, an ability to ‘read the silences’ is not remarkable, but the extent to which Jane Franklin and her faithful acolyte Sophy Cracroft rewrote, culled, and otherwise manipulated the records is unusual, even by Victorian standards.

Alison Alexander has used her research skills to tease out the truths behind the legends these two women erected. As a result of her research, Jane Franklin emerges as a much more interesting and complex person.  She spent several erotically charged months exploring Egypt with a Prussian clergyman she met in Cairo while her husband was at sea in the Mediterranean. She burned a letter from her husband’s good friend Sir John Barrow when it arrived in Hobart because she knew it was going to contain angry criticism of Franklin, for his treatment of Barrow’s nephew in Hobart. She casually adopted a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, then left her behind in an orphanage when she left the colony.


“I am good little girl, I have pen and ink cause I am a good little girl . . . . I have a got a red frock like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad.”
Mathinna, watercolour by Thomas Bock, 1842.

I’ve written before about the Rajah Quilt, now in the National Gallery of Australia, a magnificent patchwork quilt that was made by convict women on their voyage out and presented to Lady Franklin when they arrived in Hobart.  It’s a little sad that by the time this quilt was presented in 1841, the Franklins were no longer sharing a bed on which to spread it. According to Hobart gossip, duly reported by Alexander, the Franklins had no children because Sir John’s extremities had been frozen during his Arctic adventure. Sadly, her research also demonstrates that the famous incident when a group of convict women mooned Jane Franklin – that is, raised their skirts to present her with their bare bottoms – never took place.

Jane Franklin spent seven years in Van Diemen’s Land. She is remembered in Tasmania but elsewhere she has been largely forgotten.  Yet her main claim to fame came after Sir John and Lady Franklin left Tasmania in 1844 and returned to England. At the end of that year, Sir John accepted command of a third expedition to discover the North West Passage.  He was 58. The voyage set sail in May 1845. After letters from Baffin Island that summer, they were never heard from again.

For the next 12 years Jane Franklin urged the Royal Navy to send out search parties.  When they gave up, she organised private expeditions, helping to pay for them out of Franklin’s estate. In so doing she ran down her stepdaughter’s future inheritance – and became a major private sponsor of British polar exploration.

It is an extraordinary story, well told. My only slight criticism is that in reassessing Jane, Alison Alexander makes clear her preference for John. Several times she refers to his kindness, his happy disposition, his general niceness. This is a man who fought at Trafalgar, commanded naval vessels and led two earlier polar expeditions, during one of which he tested whether a frozen lake was safe to cross by sending a man out to see if he fell through. In reinstating the Governor’s lady in all her rich complexity, Alexander risks turning the Governor into another vapid figure.

Alison Alexander, The Ambitions of Jane Franklin, Victorian Lady Adventurer (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013)
The story of Franklin sending a man, probably a Yellow Knife, out onto the ice, is quoted in Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2013)

5 responses to “The Ambitions of Jane Franklin

  1. residentjudge

    I haven’t read the book, but I’m puzzled by Alexander’s choice of the word ‘vapid’. I think of the term as meaning ‘insipid’, and nothing that you’ve quoted here seems to me to be insipid. An airhead, perhaps; a celebrity seeker maybe?? By the way, have you read Richard Flangan’s novelistic take on Jane Franklin in ‘Wanting’? He downplays the amount of research he did for that book, I think.

    • Hi Janine. I probably didn’t express myself well. Alexander uses the term ‘vapid’ meaning ‘insipid’ – and she makes it clear that Jane Franklin was the antithesis of vapid.
      I haven’t come across Richard Flanagan’s novel – thanks.

  2. residentjudge

    And now that I look back, I misread what you wrote! I’m sorry. A year or so back I read “This Errant Lady” by Penny Russell (who’s been working on Lady Jane for some time) which is based on Lady Jane’s travel diary when she came across to Port Phillip and up to Sydney to visit the Gipps. She wasn’t vapid there either. (The review is on my blog) Though I’m a bit disconcerted that she was rather cavalier with the truth- makes me wonder which bits of her diary were embroidered!

    [MD: The Review of Penny Russell’s book is here –

  3. Yes, if you know she has been unreliable once, everything else becomes questionable. Alison Alexander says she and Sophy rewrote letters and edited diary entries, and in some cases she was able to compared the revised and original versions.

  4. Pingback: Histories and Life Writing: 2014 Wrap-up | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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