Lady Franklin’s Revenge Q&A

1. How did you become interested in Jane Lady Franklin?

In autumn 1998, while working on my book Fatal Passage in Cambridge, England, I began wondering why Arctic explorer John Rae had failed to receive the recognition he deserved. After all, Rae had discovered both the final link in the Northwest Passage and the fate of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. As I sifted through letters and documents at the Scott Polar Research Institute and consulted old newspapers at the Cambridge University Library, I discovered that Charles Dickens had crucially undermined Rae’s reputation by writing and publishing two articles in Household Words – and that he had done so at the behest of Jane Franklin.

The erasure from history of John Rae, the injustice of it, disturbed me enough that in Fatal Passage, I portrayed Jane Franklin as essentially villainous. My outrage did not quickly dissipate, and it must have surfaced when I spoke of the book, because again and again, after giving a public reading, I found myself answering questions about Jane Franklin. Who was this powerful woman? And how, precisely, did she bring about such a change in the historical record?

Even so, I didn’t seriously consider writing a book about Jane until the autumn of 2002, when I was living in Dawson City, Yukon. As writer-in-residence at Berton House, I gave a reading from Fatal Passage. Afterwards, as I signed a few books, a visiting playwright told me: “You feel so strongly about Jane Franklin that you really should write a book about her.” I muttered noncommittally, but she insisted: “No, no, really: think about it.” When I arrived home that night, I sat down to scribble a few notes . . . and discovered that I’d opened a floodgate.

2. What are the challenges, for a male writer, of embarking on a biography of such a formidable woman of an earlier century? What methods and materials did you use to get inside the head of Jane Franklin?

That Jane Franklin was female gave me pause, if only because pop psychology insists that men are from Mars and women from Venus. But I think that, as human beings, we are all of us far more alike than different. Men and women are equally capable of lust, love, greed, ambition, obsession, you name it. Of those intriguing differences that do arise, the vast majority are socially constructed, not innate — and so can be researched by conventional methods, by poring over books and papers.

With Jane Franklin (1791-1875), quintessentially a Victorian figure, I enjoyed the advantage of having studied her time and place while writing Fatal Passage. After reviewing the general background, I investigated the more focused secondary literature, choosing among the hundreds of volumes, if not thousands, that have been written on the role of women in Victorian England. Then came the archival research — the letters, the notebooks.

Even as I gathered the requisite facts, I began to write, applying imagination and craft. For a couple of decades, while earning my daily bread as a journalist, I would rise at five in the morning and spend a few hours writing fiction. I ended up publishing three novels, and wisely buried four or five others. Writing fiction, even more than reading it, develops the ability to empathize. You become more adept at projecting yourself, at viewing events from the perspective of an “other.” You apply that ability, together with certain learned skills associated with writing fiction, like how to develop a compelling narrative, how to sustain a point of view, and voila! You’ve got a biography.

3. In what ways was the marriage of Jane and John Franklin a conventional one? In what ways was it unconventional?

The courtship, the property arrangements, and the exchanging of money for title were characteristic of their time and place. John Franklin requested permission to court Jane from her father. At marriage — though she sought an exemption — Jane yielded all her property rights to her husband. In return, almost immediately, she gained a status-enhancing title: she became Lady Franklin. So far, so conventional.

But after marriage, Jane Franklin emerged as the dominant partner – and this was unusual. Soon she was telling her husband which offers of employment to reject, which to accept. She said no to the directorship of an Australian agricultural concern, and no to the lieutenant-governorship of a tiny island in the Caribbean. She said yes to the lieutenant-governorship of the Van Diemen’s Land — after having orchestrated that offer into existence.

Yet these machinations, which unfolded behind-the-scenes, counted as nothing in comparison with the outlandishness of Jane’s globe-trotting. Captain Franklin had brought a small daughter into the marriage. While he fulfilled his obligations as a naval officer, his wife would have been expected to remain at home, caring for this child.

Yet no sooner had Franklin boarded his first ship, post-marriage, than Jane began preparing her own departure. She deposited her stepdaughter with one of Franklin’s sisters and away she went . . . not for five or six weeks, but for three years. When Franklin was sent home to England, Jane remained abroad, determined to journey up the Nile River. For a woman to give her love of travel priority over her marriage — this went so far beyond conventional as to test the limits of respectability.

4. Britain in the mid-nineteenth century was at the height of its powers. Can you provide readers with some of the historical context in which Jane Franklin lived. What did British dominance consist of geographically and politically?

By the time Jane Franklin entered middle age, Great Britain ruled the greatest empire the world has ever known. The geographic and political entities under British control — colonies, dominions, dependencies, trust territories, protectorates — comprised one quarter of the earth’s land area and population. The British Empire included territory on every continent — the British Isles, British North America, British West Indies, British Guiana (South America), British West Africa, British East Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand. When, at age seventy, Jane circumnavigated the globe, she lived the reality that “the sun never sets on the British empire”.

5. The section of the biography where Jane Franklin takes on the British Admiralty is very dramatic. Can you tell us more about the political importance of the Admiralty to Britain at this time?

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British Admiralty exercised the authority wielded today only by the Pentagon, or the United States Department of Defence. The Admiralty controlled the Royal Navy, easily the most powerful military machine in the world – indeed, the force without which the British Empire could not have existed. The Admiralty was run by a Board comprising five to seven Lords Commissioners, all political appointees. The First Lord, comparable today to the American Secretary of Defence, was responsible to Parliament. When Jane Franklin confronted the Admiralty, she was going up against some of the most powerful men in the world.

6. One of the most fascinating parts of the biography is the section set in Tasmania. Can you describe the research you conducted there?

I find it immensely valuable to visit and “get a feel” for places important to my biographical subjects. And certainly I felt driven to visit Tasmania, formerly called Van Diemen’s Land, because it was so crucial to Jane’s story. With my partner, Sheena, I managed to spend three weeks doing research on that large island, thanks mainly to Joe Bugden, director of The Tasmanian Writers’ Centre.

In Hobart, the bustling capital, the original Government House is long gone. But near the spot where once Jane Franklin once paced its halls, you can see the statue of Sir John Franklin she sent to the antipodes, splendidly enhanced by a continuing spray of water. We visited Ancanthe, the Greek museum that Jane built, and saw the ruins of the women’s prison into which she ventured. Mount Wellington looms over Hobart, its peak now accessible by winding road, and after driving there scrambled to the highest point and stood, as once Jane did gazing out over the harbour and the Derwent River.

From the writer’s cottage in Battery Point, where we stayed, we walked to the house where John Montagu lived, and likewise to St. George’s Church, the steeple of which proved so contentious. Meanwhile, by poking around at both the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the State Library of Tasmania, I turned up material available nowhere else, including newspaper clippings and a typescript of the infamous Montagu’s Book, whereabouts of the original unknown.

From Hobart, Sheena and I drove south to Port Arthur and explored the ruins of the penal settlement Jane knew best. Here stood the guard tower, there the triangles where convicts were flogged, and there the commandant’s house, renovated and restored, complete with the bedroom in which Jane and Sir John once slept.

Port Arthur was instructive, but it has become a major tourist attraction. More exciting was the visit to Macquarie Harbour, a long day’s drive across Tasmania. In the fishing village of Strahan, we boarded the Lady Jane Franklin II and sailed out into the harbour. The day was calm, and after investigating Hell’s Gate, the aptly named entrance to the harbour, we sailed a few miles up the winding Gordon River. At a rough wooden landing we debarked and, on foot, explored a tiny fraction of the rainforest through which, in 1842, Jane Franklin had beat her way. This is rugged country by any standard, and that she refused to turn back, even when an expert outdoorsman urged her to do so, reminded me that Jane was one resolute human being.

7. At what point did you realize that you had mastered your characterization of Jane Franklin? What aspect of her character most surprised you? What aspect of John Franklin’s character most surprised you?

The character of John Franklin came into focus when I visited Spilsby, in Lincolnshire, England, and discovered the small house in which he was born – now a bakery shop. One hears of the good Sir John, always with the honorific, and assumes he was born into wealth, or at least comfort. The exact opposite is true. Having never seen a photo of his first house — no book but my own contains one — I was struck by the modesty of his original circumstances.

His humble origins explain a lot about his relationship with Jane, who started life socially far above him. In Spilsby, I grasped that Franklin yearned always to impress his wife, to prove himself worthy. A missing piece clicked into place.

As for Jane Franklin, coming out of Fatal Passage, I regarded her as clever, connected, and powerful — essentially a devious woman who had mistreated John Rae. I viewed her as arrogant, snobbish, probably racist — found her intriguing but suspected, basically, that she personified the worst aspects of British imperialism. As I learned more about her situation as a woman, and what barriers she faced, I came grudgingly to respect her curiosity and resourcefulness, and to appreciate that she was a remarkable traveller — despite her disclaimers, probably the greatest woman traveller of the age.

Even so, I didn’t begin to identify, and to develop a sympathetic vision of Jane, until I began focusing on the five years she spent in Van Diemen’s Land. As I learned more about her strenuous efforts to improve the island for those who lived there — building a museum, establishing scientific societies, battling to improve education — I began to reassess. What struck me was that, even when Jane made mistakes, she meant well — she acted in good faith. What’s more, while journeying through the Tasmanian bush, this upper-middle-class woman began to empathize even with the convicted criminals who accompanied her. Approaching her fifties, Jane Franklin continued to grow.

The final breakthrough came at Macquarie Harbor. After probing the Gordon River, the Lady Jane Franklin II took us to Sarah Island – site of the original penal colony. Here we debarked and rambled the ruins of a settlement that, when Jane visited, remained largely intact. The original twenty-eight or twenty-nine buildings have been reduced mostly to rubble, although the walls of the three largest — the bakehouse, the jail and the three-storey “new penitentiary” — remain standing.

As I scrambled among fallen stones and clambered over broken walls, I imagined Jane exploring the site in 1842. At that time, she was tormenting herself with worry over what her avowed enemy, the unprincipled John Montagu, would be doing in England — though she could hardly imagine how vindictive he would be.

That’s when I glimpsed it — a distinction that had previously eluded me. Jane made mistakes, some of them grievous, but she did not behave with sickening malevolence. Jane Franklin was no John Montagu. On Sarah Island, as I stood in the ruins of a once-terrible prison, gazing out over Macquarie Harbour at the dark green rainforest on the distant shore, I contemplated this distinction. In mistreating John Rae, Jane had done something I could not excuse. And yet, even there, she had not acted maliciously. She had erased the accomplishments of the peerless explorer because he had got in the way of her reconstruction of Arctic history — and Jane could allow nothing to stand in the way of that project, not her dwindling resources, not her precarious health, not even her relationship with the father she loved. Unlike John Montagu, Jane Franklin made her worst mistakes while serving an honorable obsession.

As I realized that I felt a barrier come crashing down inside me. I felt released, somehow, from the confines of my original perception. In retrospect, I think that’s when, as a biographer, I forgave Jane Franklin for being human. I felt free to look at her through fresh eyes, and to appreciate the magnitude of her accomplishment — free to write Lady Franklin’s Revenge.

8. What books were most useful to you in writing this biography. If readers wanted more background on this historical period, what would you recommend?

Readers looking for background might begin with Women in England: 1760-1914, by Susie Steinbach; The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, by Judith Flanders; Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers, by Dea Birkett; and The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes. They might also check out Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, by yours truly, and Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. Lady Franklin’s Revenge contains a longer bibliography.

Coming October 7, 2023


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