The power of wanting

Historical figures set stage for the forces of desire

Richard Flanagan weaves historical characters around unnatural desires. Richard Flanagan weaves historical characters around unnatural desires. (Colin Macdougall)
By Alexander Theroux
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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“Wanting’’ is a novel, 19th-century in location and characters, that involves historical figures: Sir John Franklin, the famed polar explorer and governor of Van Dieman’s Land and his wife, Lady Jane; the novelist Charles Dickens, and actress Ellen Ternan. It also involves a young Aboriginal girl named Mathinna Flinders, a sort of American Topsy, who, something of a legend in Tasmania, was adopted into white society, thrown back, fell into dissolution, and at 21 drowned in a puddle - or was possibly murdered - while drunk in 1856. A watercolor of her at the age of 7 in a red dress, now celebrated, was done by Thomas Bock in 1842. A small Australian town located in Tasmania has also been named after her. She is the subject - the lore of her - of dance performances, poetry, and now fiction.

The stories of these principals are all tied together - knotted, is more like it - in this maudlin account of lust and exploitation, vanity and need, impulse rejection, which Flanagan describes in an “Author’s Note’’ as “a meditation on desire - the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That,’’ he adds, “and not history, is the true subject of Wanting,’’ a generic and, frankly, weak title that snugly fits virtually any novel ever written whether about love or lemon-cookery or fishing lures.

A central theme here is unnatural love between older men and young girls. It is both Franklin’s secret and unlikely passion for Mathinna, “the most beautiful savage he had ever seen’’ - he notices her budding breasts at 9 - and the unhappily married Dickens’s priapic love for the teenage actress Ellen Ternan, that book-end this narrative. The two obsessions are paralleled. The “sinful desires’’ of both older men, betraying their aging wives while opting for the adoration of prepubescents, are unsettling to read. To see the fat Sir John, “a well-tended pumpkin,’’ creeping into the young girl’s room to watch her as she sleeps is skin-crawling, while having to witness the 45-year-old Dickens writing desperate notes to a bewildered “Nell,’’ “scarcely more than a child,’’ and slobbering over her instead of turning his attention to “Little Dorrit,’’ the novel he was writing at the time, is no less repulsive. These lives conveniently cross in the novel, for the wistful and traduced Lady Jane, after Franklin later disappears in the Arctic ice in his fabled search for the Northwest Passage, looks to Dickens to repair the reputation of her husband sullied by suggestions of cannibalism. Dickens, who momentarily pauses from abusing his tubby, indolent wife, Catherine, agrees to write a pamphlet attacking that calumny. Along the way, all sorts of real Victorians are given cameo appearances: Captains Crozier and Ross of the Royal Navy; Maria Beadnell; Wilkie Collins; Douglas Jerrold; the entire Ternan family; Georgina Hogarth; Katy Dickens, the novelist’s daughter; and the irrepressible John Forster, probably Dickens’s closest friend and his first biographer.

It is that biography of Dickens, Forster’s two-volume set, that I would recommend to redeem the fellow from the skimpily rendered lust monger found in these pages, and in the matter of the wayward affair that left him guilty for much of his life, specifically Ada Nisbet’s “Dickens & Ellen Ternan’’ (1952), although much more has come to light of the two since that publication.

The heavy-handedness is seen not only in the two empty and miserable marriages of these two celebrated Victorian men along with the oversimplified portrayals of their put-upon wives who are seen as desperate, hand-wringing, and sadly inadequate. Flanagan also resorts to clumsy parallels. Mathinna’s ardor for red becomes her symbol throughout the book, while Ternan coyly asks, “Mr. Dickens! Do you or do you not like my pomegranate mantilla.’’ We are hit with implications of venality, lust, and lost virginity as if with a shovel.

It is a Victorian soap opera, and Flanagan rather lamely resorts to the locutions of that genre. We are told of Franklin, “He was beginning to live in two worlds, and only one mattered to him’’ and “Secretly he delighted in what had become his life: those few stolen moments with the child’’ and “He began to crave such touch and warmth.’’ Flanagan quite happily plods along filling in dialogue when and wherever it suits him, excusing himself in the “Author’s Note’’ with the old canard, “This novel is not a history, nor should it be read as one.’’ The true and actual alliance between Dickens and young Ternan is well-covered in Dickens scholarship and is far more interesting to read in its true biographical depth. Whether Franklin in fact lusted after Mathinna I cannot say.

But my objection is not the theme. This is a book of stick figures, the characters cobbled from other people’s research. Major presences, notably Dickens, are reduced to a few farcical snippets of dialogue. Worse, the story is poorly told, pieced out in abrupt and broken segments that seem more like interruptions. Told out of sequence, the narrative with illogical fits and starts becomes a Rubik’s Cube of confusion. Signs of haste are everywhere. Take the book’s chronology. We are flung forward then backward. “Five years hence, Sir John would recall this moment . . .’’ “Three years passed. Then came . . . ’’ This is artless. Scene often becomes summary. “He could not know that within a year his marriage would be ended. That in thirteen years of life left to him, he would be faithful to Ellen Ternan, but that theirs would be a hidden and cruel relationship.’’ Much of it is writing that Flanagan did not want to bother with - lazy work - or could not manage. At one point, Mathinna is 19 years old and then two pages later she is suddenly 15. Flanagan has an equally bad habit of using three dots as a substitute for drama, always a sign of hackery: “I am afraid . . .’’ Forster began. “I did what I . . .’’ he said. “No,’’ she said, “Not that I . . .’’ she paused. “She thought she smelt damp sandstone.’’

What emerges like a thread from any reading, what one is struck by, is that poor guileless Mathinna - young, energetic, and hopeful - is experimented with like a fruit fly, taught the ways of the whites, and then in the end deserted by those very people who once had given her hope and left in Hobart in 1843 to die. It is a moral fable, to be sure. But the ambition of the account is nowhere realized, and I would say the novel is found wanting.

Alexander Theroux is the author of many books, including “Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual.’’

WANTING By Richard Flanagan

Atlantic, 272 pp., $24

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