Daily Archives: March 10, 2010

‘Lady Franklin’s Revenge’ by Ken McGoogan

2006, 435p & notes

The author of this book has written several biographies related to arctic exploration and one senses that he came to this biography almost grudgingly.  His other biographies focus on Arctic heroes- John Rae, Samuel Hearne and Elisha Kent Kane.  Amongst these male explorers, Lady Jane Franklin must have seemed an obsessed, vindictive, indulged woman, intent on pushing forward her husband’s reputation to the expense of others’.   Perhaps McGoogan still feels that way, but it seems that he found much more in Jane Franklin than he expected to.

Well educated and well-to-do, Jane Griffin did not marry John Franklin the Arctic explorer until she was thirty-seven years old.  He was a fleshy, dull man and she was driven and ambitious and she used her connections to procure a position for him on the Mediterranean, and later as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land.  She was an inveterate traveller, heading off for months and sometimes years at a time, accompanied by her iron bedstead which she insisted on having assembled for her on her travels.

The author is Canadian, with a readership no doubt attuned to Arctic themes.  But as an Australian, Lady Jane Franklin is far more familiar to us as the Governor’s wife; we see her in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting; we know of the Franklin River, and her diaries while travelling to Melbourne and Sydney have been well-mined. In fact, there seems to have been quite a Lady Jane Franklin revival recently.

McGoogan captures well the limitations of women’s financial position and influence in Victorian Britain.  He describes well the small-colony political machinations surrounding the dismissal of the VDL Colonial Secretary Montagu, and the lumbering, stiff style of Colonial Office politics and communications.  Lady Jane Franklin has money in her purse to bankroll numerous expeditions in search of her husband when he disappears into the Arctic white and she uses her connections with Dickens, the media, the American government and the Admiralty well.

There is much detail in this book- rather too much, I thought.  He does rise above the mass of detail to make informed and informative observations about gender, patronage, love, women’s position, memory and memorialization, but sometimes it is engulfed by too much information. Of course, Jane Franklin is a generous source: she diarized her life extensively; there is a wealth of communication; the Colonial Office and British bureaucracy built their edifice on paper and she used the public sphere to her advantage.  It is an embarrassment of riches- oh to have that as a problem! but I can see that sometimes you just have to say ‘enough’.