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Charles Dickens, Defender of Civilization

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

WANTING

By Richard Flanagan

Atlantic Monthly 256 pp. $24

The story of a girl subjected to a deadly social experiment more than century ago has haunted the Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan for decades. As a young man, he was looking at some early-19th-century paintings at the Hobart Museum, when he spotted a watercolor of a child in a pretty red dress. The curator explained that she was Mathinna, an aboriginal child taken in by the renowned Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin in the 1830s while he was lieutenant governor of Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land. That strange biographical fact was tantalizing enough, but then the curator removed the oval frame from the portrait to show how it cut Mathinna off at the ankles, hiding her bare black feet. From that carefully cropped portrait, pregnant with suggestions of charity, repression and racism, Flanagan has now spun a tragic story that connects the lives of the 19th century's most expendable people with such luminaries as Sir John and Charles Dickens.

"Wanting" is a smaller novel than "Gould's Book of Fish," Flanagan's masterpiece inspired by Tasmanian history, but its geographical scope is broader as it repeatedly jumps far from that mysterious island to events in England and even the Arctic. In each of these diverse but oddly related settings, Flanagan charts the wreckage done by people convinced that repressing their desires -- and others' -- is the key to civilization.

The book begins on Flinders Island, where Tasmania's aborigines have been forcibly resettled, with disastrous results. Inexplicably -- to those in charge -- these native people have not welcomed the invaders as liberators but have resisted all the civilizing improvements pressed upon them, which include a host of infectious diseases that are finishing off what a program of genocide began. As usual, Flanagan is brilliant at re-creating this "weird land predating time, with its vulgar rainbow colours, its vile, huge forests and bizarre animals that seemed to have been lost since Adam's exile." Everything here is simultaneously fecund and rotting, such as "a small meadow glistening with so many wet spiders' webs that it seemed veiled in a sticky gossamer."

But the people determined to settle this primeval land live in a state of denial, convinced of their immunity from moral judgment. During a highly staged visit from the mainland, Lt. Gov. Franklin and his strong-willed wife, Lady Jane, take a liking to an orphaned 7-year-old girl and decide to use her in their own Pygmalion experiment. "If we shine the Divine light on lost souls," Sir John announces, "then they can be no less than we. But first they must be taken out of the darkness and its barbarous influence."

The bitter irony here is pretty safe nowadays, efforts to bring the light of civilization to the darker people of the world having gone somewhat out of style (see: Operation Iraqi Freedom). But what keeps the novel's satire from sounding shrill is Flanagan's sensitivity to the conflicted conscience of Lady Jane and others involved in this "rigid programme of improvement." Flanagan portrays her as a woman of ferocious determination and relentless loneliness, a figure in many ways more interesting than her famous husband, who "gave no more appearance of any active intelligence than a well-tended pumpkin." Terrified of feelings she can't bear to acknowledge, she squelches every atom of affection, with ruinous results for little Mathinna.

This is a captivating tale of cruelty and disappointment, but "Wanting" periodically flashes forward to another equally engaging story in England, a jungle of a different kind, brought to life with the same lurid and startling detail. Lady Jane, now widowed, has dedicated her life to defending her late husband's reputation from reports that he and his crew failed to discover the Northwest Passage and resorted to cannibalism before expiring in a manner unbecoming to British gentlemen. Determined to raise her husband above such ignoble rumors, Lady Jane enlists the help of the age's most popular writer, Charles Dickens, who not only defends Franklin's incorruptible British spirit but goes on to write and star in a sensationally popular play about the expedition!

The broad outlines of this bizarre story are historically true, though Flanagan points out in an author's note that his novel "is not a history, nor should it be read as one." But, actually, "Wanting" could profit from a little more factual exposition. Whereas Flanagan's earlier novels described the settlement of Tasmania with spellbinding effect, the fragments of that history presented in "Wanting" presume a familiarity with his home country that few readers abroad will possess. Particularly in the early sections, the effect can be as confounding as it is dazzling.

But persist and you'll quickly be drawn into the variations of sadness and yearning that connect these famous figures, rendering them all the more familiar and tragic. Lady Jane, with her deadly cultural chauvinism, seems monstrous until her armor cracks and we see the desperate longing beneath. Dickens -- that patron saint of domestic life, the man who practically invented Christmas -- wanders the streets late at night, crippled by grief over his daughter's death and baffled by the unhappiness of his marriage. "His soul was corroding," Flanagan writes, as though channeling the Victorian novelist himself. "Only in his work did Dickens truly feel that he became himself. . . . All he could do was try to steady himself by returning to work, to some new project in which he might once more bury himself alive." As he produces his play about Franklin's demise, he comes to see the Arctic expedition as a metaphor for his own trapped existence. "For twenty years," Dickens thinks, "had not his marriage been a Northwest Passage, mythical, unknowable, undiscoverable, an iced-up channel to love, always before him and yet through which no passageway was possible." And yet he remains convinced that "the mark of wisdom and civilization was the capacity to conquer desire, to deny it and crush it."

While the grim results of that philosophy play out in Dickens's loveless life, its geopolitical effects ravage a small band of natives on the other side of the world. Like everything in "Wanting," it's a harrowing reckoning of "the way we say no to love."

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