Sunday, June 28, 2009

By Richard Flanagan
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 272 pages

The thread that links the three narratives in Richard Flanagan’s “Wanting” is Lady Jane Franklin, the indomitable wife of Sir John Franklin, the British Arctic explorer who had mapped much of Arctic Canada in 1819 and 1823. He was rewarded with the governorship of Van Dieman’s Land, the penal colony south of Australia now known as Tasmania.

There, he was renowned (and sometimes reviled) for his more humane approach to the territory’s residents, and she for her pioneering effort to improve educational and cultural opportunities. She also adopted an aboriginal child, Mathinna, whom she planned to raise in the English fashion to prove that the native islanders were not savages — a belief that had justified their slaughter in the early days of the colony and their virtual enslavement later.

When we first meet Lady Jane, she is in London soliciting help from Charles Dickens. After Tasmania, Sir John led a third Arctic expedition in search of the much-vaunted but illusory Northwest Passage. He departed in 1845 with technologically advanced ships, 129 crew members, a three-year supply of food, and much publicity. Nothing was heard from him.

Belatedly the Admiralty offered a 20,000 pounds reward for the rescue of the expedition. Only the Inuit had any news: though they had resorted to cannibalism to stave off the end, everyone had perished.

Lady Jane was horrified at the suggestion of cannibalism. She wanted Dickens to refute such claims in his magazine Household Words. He responded in fine patriotic style, writing several articles, and then deciding that an Arctic theme would be just the thing for the annual play he put on at his home. He got his friend Wilkie Collins to write “The Frozen Deep,” with a starring role for Dickens as a man desperate for love.

The play and Dickens’ anguished performance wowed the invited London audience who saw it in his house. Why not act it in public to raise money to clear Franklin’s name? England’s biggest venue was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, so Dickens took his amateur troupe there and hired professional actresses for the starring parts.

Among them was Ellen Ternan, with whom he fell in love. In his novels he has always glorified the family clustered round home hearth. Nonetheless, he had long lost any affection for his wife Catherine, so he installed her separate accommodation with one of her sons for company, while he spent the last 13 years of his life with Ellen.

Mr. Flanagan portrays Dickens as a genius of immense energy and unmastered desires. We get a darkly colored picture of him as a man tortured by want and torturing others so he can grasp the glittering prizes of life. Mr. Flanagan achieves this by staying true to the main facts of Dickens’ biography while tuning into the dynamics of his novels, especially the later ones, written when Dickens seemingly had everything he had wished for, but was miserable living the kind of family life he lauded in his work.

Lady Jane lacks Dickens’ fame, but like him she marches off Mr. Flanagan’s pages as a woman energized by her desires. She wants the honors due as the Governor’s lady. She wants him to govern as she sees fit. She wants to bring enlightenment to the antipodes. And after three miscarriages, she wants a child if only because not having one is a kind of failure.

Given her faith in continuous improvement, it is perhaps not surprising that she hit on the idea of adopting an aboriginal child and educating it like an English child to prove that aborigines can be brought into the modern world. She chooses Mathinna, who charms almost everyone with her spritely spontaneity. But while spriteliness appeals, it is not what is required, so Lady Jane subjects Mathinna to the kind of Victorian education shown in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”

If that is not enough, she has to wear unfamiliar clothes, including shoes (which she hates) and eat unfamiliar food such as toasted cheese (which she loves). The experiment does not go well, and when Sir John is recalled back to London, Mathinna is abandoned — yet another aboriginal destroyed by contact with the alien invaders.

Contemplating her behavior with Mathinna, Lady Jane realizes that she has erred and injured herself as well as the child. But when she contacts Dickens 10 years later, she is as peremptory as ever, and as willing to bend everyone else to her purpose. Though she is not like Dickens, she matches him in the range of her wants and the intensity with which she goes after them.

And what of Mathinna and her people? Dispossessed and exploited, they are physically alive (unlike so many thousands of their number), but they have lost their old lives and want them back. Since that desire won’t be met, they are prey to magical thinking, drugs, alcohol and all the ills that desperation brings.

Mr. Flanagan’s description of them is elegiac. By juxtaposing their story with the stories of Lady Jane and Dickens, he suggests that want is the human condition. Want is like hunger: it needs satisfaction, but satisfaction is short-lived, so want always returns and the longer it is unsatisfied, the more demanding it gets — so demanding that cannibalism is not out of the question.

The title of this novel keeps in play the twin meanings of the verb: “wanting”can mean both “desiring” and “lacking.” Mr. Flanagan’s meditation on its ramifications, his careful weaving of history and fiction, and his hard gaze at human behavior makes clear that want is central to human life. His book is stark and affecting, and probably hard to forget.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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