Not many people know that Charles Dickens was an actor as well as a writer. A workaholic who was haunted by memories of his impoverished childhood, when he worked in a blacking factory, Dickens was never the most emotionally stable of men at the best of times, never mind at the worst. In 1857 his friend Wilkie Collins wrote a play about a failed Arctic expedition. Dickens became obsessed with it and, like a rapper who’s tired of the recording studio, volunteered to play the role of the villain. Then he fell in love with his 18-year-old co-star and left his wife.
You couldn’t exactly say that Dickens is hot right now, but something is going on with him. Not just with his work, but with Dickens the person. So far this year he’s turned up as a character in Dan Simmons’ Drood and Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens, both of which deal with his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Writers love to prey on their own kind anyway, but what’s so intriguing about Dickens is the disconnect between his life and his art. His novels are full of last-minute redemptions and neat resolutions, but his life was a mess worthy of reality TV. This year’s third and most ambitious novel about Dickens is Wanting, by the Australian–or if you like, Tasmanian–writer Richard Flanagan. Wanting begins when Dickens is mourning the death of his ninth child, Dora, and feeling increasingly alienated from his wife and from himself. “They say Christ was a good man,” he cracks, “but did he ever live with a woman” Flanagan’s Dickens is a man who has only ever lived emotionally through his novels. Acting in Collins’ play, which was called The Frozen Deep, he sets free feelings he was accustomed to keeping tightly confined, and his co-star, the toothsome Ellen Ternan, finds herself right in the splash zone. The Frozen Deep was based on the disastrous Franklin Expedition, which furnishes Wanting with a secondary plot . Launched in 1845 under the command of Sir John Franklin, its purpose was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage. Franklin’s ships were fitted with the bleeding edge of English naval technology, but the Arctic swallowed them and their crews with hardly a trace. Later explorers found evidence that Franklin’s men had resorted to cannibalism before they finally died of hunger, disease and exposure. What the stories of Franklin and Dickens have in common is the issue of wanting. Under what circumstances do men and women give in to forbidden desires–Dickens, a man starving for love, and Franklin, a man just plain starving “We all have appetites and desires,” Dickens says, “but only the savage agrees to sate them.” The revelation that the stuffy Victorians had desires and acted on them isn’t a particularly shocking one . But Flanagan makes the matter more interesting by posing it in the form of an insoluble dilemma: Which is worse, giving in to desire or keeping it locked up inside “If you turn away from love,” Franklin’s widow asks, “did it mean you no longer existed” Each one can lead to its own kind of disaster.