‘This Errant Lady’ by Penny Russell

2002, 207p.& notes

Now here’s a way to decide which book to read next-  what goes well with your decor?  It gave me great pleasure to see Penny Russell’s This Errant Lady lying on my bed, matching so well with my doona cover!  Martha Stewart, eat your heart out!

I was drawn to read this after finishing Ken McGoogan’s Lady Franklin’s Revenge recently.  I’d forgotten that Jane Franklin visited Port Phillip and Sydney in 1839 and I was interested to see what she said about Port Phillip in particular, even though Judge Willis, the Resident Judge of Port Phillip had not arrived at this stage.  I’ve been writing a chapter the last few weeks on Judge Willis’ involvement in colonial politics, which has taken me back to his relationships with Sydney colonists, and as a member of the government elite (albeit of a neighbouring colony), Jane Franklin was well-placed to comment on political events and personalities in Sydney.

Having now read her journal of her overland trip to Port Phillip and Sydney in 1839, I can now see why Ken McGoogan wrote the biography he did, quite apart from any other propensities that a writer on arctic exploration might have.  Jane Franklin’s journals are travel diaries in the true sense of the word- lots of information about routes taken, facts gleaned, people met etc. but not much about her own inner world.  I share the frustration of Penny Russell the editor in her preface:

In recording this epic adventure, Jane Franklin treated her diary essentially as a notebook, producing a compendium of often unrelated scraps of information.  This was in keeping with her general habit in travel writing.  Despite her enthusiasm for knowledge, Jane Franklin rarely ventured to express her opinions, speculations, or interpretations in writing.  The judgments offered in this, as in all her diaries, are generally borrowed from guidebooks, histories or local inhabitants.  Whether she agreed with them or not, she did not see her diary as a space for formulating her own opinions.  She confined her attention to the external, the observable- to what could be ‘fixed’ on the page (p. 16). … Her opinions, her thoughts, her own personality must be deduced as much from what is unwritten as from what is written- her character sketched in the space left vacant in her accounts. (p. 17)

This utilitarian approach can be partly explained by the fiction by which her trip was justified, both to her husband and to Tasmanians generally- that it was a research trip into a sister-colony that would be of use to her husband Sir John Franklin, Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and would be a form of diplomatic representation of VDL at a governor-to-governor level.  The reality was that she was restless and curious and liked nothing better than getting away from her husband and the scrutiny of a small colonial society.  Mind you, she liked her comforts too- the iron bedstead came on this trip, just as it did on all her journeys.  But she revels in ‘roughing it’ and escaping amongst people who were only vaguely aware of who she was, and you sense the increasing tightening of protocol and deference as she moves from the outlying areas into the more settled districts surrounding Sydney.

The editor, Penny Russell, has excluded much of  the weight of detail that shackled Ken McGoogan’s biography, but she has tried to keep enough in

to preserve the rich texture of Jane Franklin’s portrayal of a colony arrested at a particular moment of development: a moment of optimism for the future, in a society still built on convict labour and pastoral expansion, in which progress rested upon the sufferings of the chain gangs and the brutually dispossessed Aborigines…But the catastrophic pastoral depression that would destroy the hopes of so many in the early 1840s had not yet made its mark, and the grandeur of half built churches and suburban villas, the growing concern over education, and the diversity of experiments in agriculture and industry all suggest an overall confidence. (p. 16-7)

Russell  has also worked hard, though, to preserve the human aspects of Jane Franklin’s interactions with the people she met.  Her trip was a long one- from April to July 1839- and she was quite devious in her excuses to cut it short as Sir John wished her to do.  But she probably should have come home earlier: it was quite clear by July that she had outstayed her welcome with the Gipps’, and it is her discomfort at this knowledge that makes her more likeable.  We have the intimacy of her coming into Mrs Gipps’ bedroom for a chat, thinking that she was alone, and finding Governor Gipps stretched out on the bed; we have the cringing, walking-on-eggshells  embarrassment when Gipps was furious that she had allowed his carriage to become soaked while she was using it.

For me- and I admit that this is probably an acquired taste- I enjoyed finding characters from “my” Port Phillip and Sydney strolling onto the stage.  So we meet Mr Verner (who was to become Judge Willis’ good friend and neighbour) bowling along in his carriage with two friends;  there’s a ship with Protector Robinson’s Van Diemen’s Land aborigines on board (some of whom were to be sentenced to death by Judge Willis two years later);  Captain Lonsdale (who was to become one of Judge Willis’ targets) taking them to a corroboree but arriving late so that it was all over by the time they arrived; there’s Chief Justice Dowling and his wife, and Justice Alfred Stephen (Judge Willis’ brother judges with whom he was anything but ‘brotherly’).  In fact- and this is important for my purposes- conspicuously absent is Judge Willis and his good lady from the balls and levees and receptions that were laid out for Lady Jane Franklin.

And so, eventually Jane headed for home. What a trip that was!  As with all journeys, once you’ve decided that yes, you’re ready to go home, it seemed to take an age.  But in this case it did-  five weeks from leaving the heads to their arrival back in Hobart (a trip that can take about 3-4 days for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race today).  Buffeted by storms, and with food and water supplies running low, their ship bobbed around; once almost glimpsing the coast of Tasmania before being swept out into the seas again over towards New Zealand.   Relieved, no doubt to be back, you still sense Hobart society swallowing her up again, with criticisms of her recklessness in even embarking on the trip and sniffy comments about petticoat government.

Penny Russell has intervened quite a bit in this book.  She has, by her own admission

emphasised particular stories, bringing into bolder relief images that are blurred, tangled or broken in Jane Franklin’s original. (p.17)

From the original transcript, retrieved and recorded by Roger Millis (who wrote the huge tome on Waterloo Creek), she has favoured people over trees or buildings, but not reproduced “the exhaustive and inexhaustible coverage of the original”, she has omitted hearsay information, and trimmed wordiness and detail “to give them greater narrative cohesion and more dramatic immediacy.”  She has supplemented the text with lengthy footnotes, giving a biographical sketch of the people Franklin mentions in passing, and interspersed Jane Franklin’s own text with clearly marked corroborating information from letters and other people’s diaries.  The book is given a clearer structure by its division into chronological chapters, many of which are prefaced by an italicized introduction.  You are aware, and Russell makes no secret of the fact, that you are reading a mediated text.   Which is probably a good thing: as the back cover blurb notes:

An intrepid traveller, Jane Franklin was consumed by an unquenchable curiosity. She looked, questioned, listened and wrote- pages and pages of minuscule notes on every topic that came to hand.  This edition, carefully abridged and introduced by Penny Russell, makes the diary available for the first time to general readers.

And while it’s probably not exactly a ripping yarn,  we general readers (and more specialized ones too)  should be glad that she has.

6 responses to “‘This Errant Lady’ by Penny Russell

  1. It makes me wonder what a Lady Franklin might have accomplished in an age that allowed her more freedom….

  2. Yes, although it seemed that once she got away- and that was the hard part- being a lone women and so unusual seemed to open up opportunities that might not have been available had there been other women doing it too. But the really hard bit was breaking free to actually DO it!

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