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Great Literary Experiment, Not So Great Novel
on 5 August 2015
As a literary exercise, this was an excellent book. As a novel, for me, it just didn't quite work.
There are two stories set about twenty years apart. In the first, in Van Diemen's Land, the British-run penal colony, John Franklyn and his wife have taken over the governorship and 'adopted' a native girl. The plan is to convert her from savage to a 'true' English woman, to demonstrate to the world the 'superiority' of Englishness, and to 'prove' that it can triumph over even what they perceived to be the most base, the most vicious and amoral instincts with which the girl was imbibed simply by virtue of her birth.
In the second story, we find Charles Dickens at a crossroads. He's fallen out of love with Catherine, his wife, he's lost Dora, his youngest child, and his melancholia has driven him out onto the London streets, to question the whole ethos of family, hearth and home that he has essentially created. Enter Jane Franklyn, whose husband John has perished in a bid to find the North West Passage, and has been accused of resorting to cannibalism. Jane, appalled at this very savage and un-English accusation, which undermines the noble memory she's worked so hard to create of her husband, wants Dickens, through his writing, to 'prove' that there is no way Franklyn would have allowed himself or his crew to commit such a foul crime.
At this point in the story of course, we don't know what happened to the Franklyn's experiment with their native adopted child, but the parallels are clearly drawn. Frankly and Dickens both feel themselves trapped, past their prime, and are seeking to reclaim their earlier fame. Both feel that their wives are dragging them down. Both are attracted to the youth, the freshness, the tabula rasa of a young girl - at this point Franklyn is obsessed with his adopted daughter, and Dickens has just met Ellen Ternan, the 18 year old actress with whom he had an affaire that lasted the rest of his life (and if you want to know more about this, do read Claire Tomalin's fabulous biography of Ellen). Dickens's play about Franklyn takes over his life, and as he writes and acts in it, the concept of the noble savage, of Englishness, of man's carnal appetites when the bonds of civilisation are removed, take over him too. As his play begins to re-establish Franklyn, we see, in Franklyn's previous life, that not only is his wife's experiment with the native child fading, but that rather than have her 'tamed', she is in fact going a long way to un-tame them.
So, as I said, this is a fascinating literary study. I love the use of two so famous historical characters, the probing into the darkness of their minds and the speculation as to their motivation. I loved the parallels in the stories. But...
The problem is, there was no real story. In a literary novel, there maybe doesn't have to be - in my university years, I'd probably have argued strongly for this to be the case. But I don't think so now. So okay, it was a character study. Yes, it was, but it left me wanting something more out of it. There weren't any conclusions. Don't get me wrong. This was brilliantly written. The prose in places left me in complete awe. It was a fascinating subject matter, and it asked some really interesting questions. But I felt, on the whole, that the novel didn't reach a destination. I felt, ultimately, frustrated.