Jane, Lady Franklin by Adrienne Eberhard
Black Pepper, 2004
Adrienne Eberhard's collection Jane, Lady Franklin can almost be described as a poetic novel. It contains a clear storyline, based partly on the real life voyage of Lady Jane Franklin, who traveled with her husband, Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin, from England to Hobart in 1837. Eberhard's well-researched set of facts form the barest bones of the work, which follows Lady Jane's six year stay in Tasmania.
The work is divided into nine sections which comprise poems about Lady Jane's initial impressions of Hobart through a visit to Port Arthur; her adoption of an Aboriginal girl, Mathinna; her interaction with George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of the Aborigines; her attempts to reform the prison system for female convicts; her exploration of the geological and natural world around her; her difficult overland trek with her husband from Lake St Clair to Macquarie Harbour; her use of Laudanum for her headaches; and her return to England in 1843. The poems are each footnoted and the book includes an extensive list of sources. However, while history certainly lends depth and interest to this work, Eberhard's greatest achievement is in creating her own, very real Jane, a protagonist who draws the reader directly into her world, and away from the his-story on which her narrative is based.
The poetry in this volume is direct, and even simple in terms of the single intention of each individual piece. The meaning is very clear, without any kind of overt experimentation or form for form's sake. For example, by using the power of extended metaphor – something that Eberhard does very well – the author provides the reader with an insider's feel rather than an onlooker's perspective on the weather in Hobarton:
In England, the rain was a melodious drubbing on the roof.
Here it is a torrent of knocking;
angry wasps, Pandora's spirits
hitting their small bodies against the box,
the Furies wrapped in wet garments,
dragged from the sea like a trawl of netted weed. ('Wet Autumn')
The poetry is not without humour. One immediately feels the almost silly exuberance of a stranger-in-a-strange-land comic scenario with 'Victuals':
Quail pie for breakfast, whole wallaby for dinner
Kangaroo soup –
those furred creatures with their great tails
and dark-lashed eyes.
Will we assume their speed
the shark's cunning
the squid's mobility
the flathead's knowledge?
jostling in our bodies –
I could walk on my hands for sure.
We come to empathise with Jane as she discovers both the harsh and beautiful in her adopted country, walking along the water, looking up at the moon, or standing at the black fossil cliffs of Maria Island. It is a personal exploration of a public time and place, and Eberhard works deftly to create a character who has as much visceral presence as the “red lichens the eye finds” ('Thark Ridge, Mt Wellington') or the “Mud thick as chocolate” ('Frenchman's Cap') which she comes across on her travels. Her perspective is as limited as any of her class, but it is the depth of her perception which makes her interesting, as she marvels at the height of tides, or experiences the hunger of a convict as she eats biscuits and flour, or steals apples from a garden on her trek to Macquarie Harbour.
Although Jane struggles with the limitations of her class and her desire to understand the women of the Female Factory, or the convicts and the badly oppressed Aborigines of the strange world of Van Diemen's Land which she explores, she begins to form a kind of makeshift bond with its inhabitants, sensing and collaborating with the stitchwork of the convicts or the longing that they might have felt on their trip:
I wonder, when she mends her new mistress's garments
Will she remember the lithe stitches of the quilt,
Colours that rioted like the sunset on the sea,
Seams that gathered together the patches:
Small pockets of love and hope. ('Patchwork I')
Jane has her own personal longings which tie her more concretely to the land than her observations. Her debilitating headaches become writhing tiger snakes, her understanding of the land's loss – both the aborigines and the Tasmanian Tigers – as a silence that etches the country. Her personal longing for a child is also a “shadow and absence” which reaches its apex as a young Aboriginal child, Mathinna, enters her life:
you are all spirit
dispersed in the wind
your heart is wild.
You were never really mine. ('Mathinna')
The poetry here is exquisite, beautifully taut, clarified to instant meanings that bypass the need for conjunctions and adverbs. Eberhard's work demonstrates how powerful a medium for storytelling poetry can be, and yet none of the poetic force of each piece or its particular intensity is sacrificed. The character of Lady Jane is deeply and intensely drawn, both in terms of what she sees, and what she feels, using powerful imagery which heaps metaphor on metaphor until they reveal that which lurks under the rocks of the land, and under the petticoats in the parlour. Minor characters like Sir John, Mathinna, George Augustus Robinson, and Ornithologist John Gould are also revealed in a few deft strokes through Lady Jane's perspective. This is a dramatic work, and the quiet voice through which it is told, serves to heighten the drama. Lady Jane is a character history refers to only in the periphery, but Eberhard succeeds beautifully in giving her center-stage. The perspective and sense is a deeply female one, full of pathos, loneliness, loss, hunger, and empathy. While each poem is strong enough to stand on its own, and many in this collection have indeed been published on their own, together they form a most intimate and powerful portrait – a history, but also a story of what it means to be alive in any time: to experience, to fight for justice, and to be fully conscious of one's own limitations.
Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader website http://www.compulsivereader.com/html. Her body of published work includes reviews, literary theory, articles, poetry, and fiction. Her non-fiction book, The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything is available from her website.