Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan emphasizes, through his ambiguous title, two of the most contradictory characteristics of Queen Victoria's reign---the "wanting," or desire, to conquer other lands and bring "civilization" to them, and the "want," or lack, of empathy and respect for the people and cultures which they deliberately destroy in the process. The same contradictory characteristics are also reflected in (hypocritical) personal relationships: desire is "uncivilized," something to be overcome, though men routinely indulge their passions with those far "beneath" them. These ideas provide the thematic underpinning of this novel.
The novel opens in 1839, as a preacher, overseeing a small group of wretched aborigines exiled from Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) to Flinders Island, is mystified by the increasingly "monstrous deaths" of the people under his "protection." He has been careful to demand that the aborigines adopt western dress, eat a western diet, and follow a western way of life. When their leader, King Romeo, dies an agonizing death, the Protector saws off his head for further study by British scientists. Ten pages (and fifteen years) later, Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, the former Governor of Van Dieman's Land, is in London, trying to raise money for new expeditions to discover the fate of her explorer husband, his ships, and their crews, lost for nine years in the Arctic. She has displayed the skull of King Romeo to phrenologists, who have concluded that the King was a savage, enslaved by his passions.
Ironies abound. Lady Franklin is frantic to find an influential ally who can help her quell the rumor that Sir John Franklin and his crew became so savage during their final days in the Arctic that they engaged in cannibalism and other "uncivilized" behavior. Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, the two most popular writers in England during the period, answer the call.
As the action moves back and forth between Van Dieman's Land and London, Flanagan gives depth to the bleak picture of colonial life, creating an emotionally wrenching portrait of Mathinna, orphaned child of King Romeo, as she is wrested from her countrymen on Flinders Island and brought into the home of the ambitious Lady Jane Franklin to be "civilized." He creates, in London, a parallel character study of Charles Dickens, who, though miserable in his marriage, believes that "we all have appetites and desire," but that "only the savage agrees to sate them." Throwing himself into his work to stay sane, he finds himself, ironically, attracted to one of the actresses in his play, The Frozen Deep.
The constantly changing time periods and revolving settings are sometimes challenging to follow, and the connections among the various plot lines are a bit tenuous (and may be historically inaccurate), but Flanagan creates memorable characters who reflect their cultures and their hypocrisies. Numerous parallels and ironies between the "civilized" British characters and the "savages" show the arrogance of power, while Flanagan's vivid descriptions of the characters' surroundings add to the sense of immediacy and bring the often brutal action to life. Life in Van Dieman's Land is ugly---pitiless---grinding down the characters (and the reader). Three years after the departure of the Franklins, life for all the people they have left behind is worse than it was before their arrival. An unusual novel which shows the damaging effects of empire-building on both the conquered and on the arrogant conquerors, Wanting makes the reader understand why the surviving aborigines ultimately believe "the world was not run by God but by the Devil." n Mary Whipple
Gould's Book of Fish, Flanagan's masterpiece, 2001, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
The Unknown Terrorist, 2006.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1997.
Death of a River Guide, 1994.
Wanting is the story of Sir John Franklin, a navigator immortalised in folk song: "ten thousand pounds would I freely give, to say on Earth that my Franklin do live". Lost seeking a passage through the Arctic Ocean, Franklin was an enterprising hero.
The truth, ostensibly portrayed here by Richard Flanagan, is that Franklin was a weak and lazy man, spurred to take high office and seek adventure by a domineering wife. After he was lost, it is common knowledge that his wife kept his memory alive through offering rewards, demanding rescue missions and soliciting the help of the great and the good. In Wanting, we see Lady Franklin trying to sign up a dubious Charles Dickens to the cause.
But of perhaps greater interest is Franklin's previous experience as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemans's Land (now Tasmania). Franklin inherited a pretty lawless place where European settlers had created the harshest conditions for convicts and set about exterminating the indigenous population - and Franklin sat back and watched. Under sufferance and at the behest of his wife, Sir John set about touring the colony and found the remains of a tribe of Aboriginal people who had suffered violence and disease. The king, Towterer, had been killed and his head taken for study. His infant daughter had been named Mathinna and appropriated by the local headman, Robinson, but was taken back to Hobart by Lady Franklin and adopted as her own. Initially an experiment to see how far indigenous people could be trained to act like white people, Mathinna fell out of favour when the answer turned out to be "too much". And when the Franklins returned to England, Mathinna was sent to the state orphanage. Mathinna was subsequently returned to her community, rejected because she was too European, and died young whilst working as a prostitute.
Mathinna's story is true and known, hence it is not really a spoiler to discuss it. It represents one of the darkest episodes in a dark history of European settlement in Australia.
The point in Wanting is, perhaps, to bring that story to those who do not already know it, but more to counterpoint the supposed heroism of the Franklins with this despicable act of colonial betrayal.
The Dickens sections of Wanting feel slower and more laboured. There is supposed to be a conflict between Dickens's public and very proper persona and his private life as a womaniser. Perhaps it is a parallel to the chasm between public and private conduct of the Franklins. But as a story, it is covered better by Gaynor Arnold in Girl In A Blue Dress. There is some discussion about whether the mark of a civilised person is being master of his own desires. Doubtless, Lady Franklin would have felt vindicated by Mathinna's fall into sin and disgrace and seen this as nature shining through lavish nurture, but the reader is left to reflect that Dickens himself led no more moral a life.
Wanting is a complex novel and as an account of the injustices faced by the Traditional Owners of Australia, it works well. As a debunking of Franklin, it does work but was probably unnecessary - the recent proof of rumours of cannibalism in the Arctic being sufficient. But the Dickens stuff just seems to get in the way.
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.
Wanting is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan. In 1841, Mathinna, an orphaned young Aboriginal girl, one of the remaining Van Diemen’s Land indigenous who were kept on Flinders Island, was plucked from the “care” of George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, to become the subject of an experiment in civilisation of the savage, conducted by the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.
Mathinna loved the red silk dress she was given, but hated wearing shoes. She wanted to learn to write because she knew there was magic in it. “Dear Father, I am a good little girl. I do love my father. ……come and see mee my father. ……I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad……..Please sir come back from the hunt. I am here yrs daughter MATHINNA”. But when her (dead) father failed to come to her after several letters, her passion for writing faded. “And when she discovered her letters stashed in a pale wooden box….she felt not the pain of deceit for which she had no template, but the melancholy of disillusionment”.
In tandem with Mathinna’s story, Flanagan relates incidents in the life of Charles Dickens, some twenty years later. The tenuous link between the two narratives is this: when Sir John Franklin is missing in the Arctic on his search for the North West Passage, Lady Jane asks Dickens to help refute allegations of cannibalism made by explorer, Dr John Rae. Dickens also writes and stars in a play about Franklin’s lost expedition, during which he meets Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he leaves his wife.
Flanagan’s interpretation of Mathinna’s life is certainly interesting: his extensive research into the lifestyle and common practices in the colony in the mid-nineteenth century is apparent, and he portrays very powerfully the mindset that led to the virtual extermination of the native population. While the Dickens narrative does have interesting aspects, it is so far removed from the Tasmanian story as to seem somewhat irrelevant, more of an interruption than an enhancement.
Flanagan states in his Author’s Note that “The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire-the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting”. Perhaps this statement would be better placed in a preface so that readers do not find themselves distracted wondering about the relevance of the Dickens narrative. Excellent prose make this, nonetheless, a powerful read.
on 11 April 2015
Not an easy read but worth persevering as the narrative switches from the Victorian heroes of Dickens, Franklin and the rumoured cannibalism at his end and the earlier colony of Van Diemans land in which the attempts to civilise the Aborigines is both ludicrous and horrific. Desire, it's repression and enactment, are the drivers of all mankind - be they black or white. Only Matthinna the adopted black child is innocent in her misunderstood vitality which so-called civilisation corrupts and destroys.
on 7 April 2010
There have been many novels in the past few years about Britain's colonial past. The best have skilfully avoided the guilty self flagellation that might cause excessive simplification into all whites = bad, all natives = good. Kate Grenville's The Secret River was a beautifully written novel set at the time of the first white settlements in Australia. Richard Flanagan has now done the same for Tazmania - previously known as Van Diemen's Land.
First published in Australia in 2008 and in the UK in hardback in 2009, the paperback edition of Wanting was published in the UK just a couple of weeks ago.
My expectations about this book were sky-high: after all, not every novel comes with a glowing endorsement from the likes of William Boyd stamped on the back cover. Other reviewers from The Times, The Guardian, The TLS, The NYT and the Australian press have joined in the eulogies. So, no pressure then.
Wanting is a fictionalised account of the time when Sir John Franklin, the enthusiastic explorer, was governor of Van Diemen's Land in the 1840s. Sir John Franklin was the explorer who was credited with finding the northwest passage around the world. He was much lauded as a man who died in honourable circumstances during this expedition with his two ships, Erebus and Terror, in the late1840s/early 1850s, and a monument was built to his memory. However, the work of another expert sent to investigate the disappearance of the two ships several years after they set off, Dr John Rae, who spent time with the Inuit people around the Arctic, suggested that Franklin's men had perished because of the unsuitability of the climate and had resorted to cannibalism. The writer Charles Dickens rose to the posthumous defence of Franklin, even though Rae's theories and research were later vindicated.
The novel is set in two different settings. One is Van Diemen's Land in the early 1840s. Sir John Franklin is governor and his wife, Lady Jane, a woman torn between conventionality and warmth, decides to adopt an orphaned native girl, Mathinna. This is an industrious attempt to carry out a social experiment mingled in with a maternal urge that Lady Jane finds distasteful in herself. Mathinna is taken away from a culture in which fellow tribesmen and women are dying at an alarming rate despite the patronising and paternalistic attempts by a Presbyterian carpenter turned preacher to 'civilise' them.
The young girl is uprooted from her culture and taken to the governor's house where assiduous attempts are made to educate her. The failings of a dismal stream of incompetent tutors and governesses are misinterpreted as an inability to learn, and Mathinna is left to play and enjoy her privileged life.
But then events take an ugly turn and Mathinna's life is changed forever. Sir John decides to set off on the ill-fated expedition, and he is never heard from again.
The second strand of the story is set in London some 9 years after Sir John set off on the doomed journey. Charles Dickens is established as a respected writer in London but is filled with ennui privately. He has grown tired of his wife, who has become fat and listless after giving birth to ten children, and is scarred by the death of his youngest daughter. Dickens is summoned by Lady Jane, now resettled in London, to help clear the reputation of her vanished husband in the face of damaging suggestions of cannibalism by Dr John Rae.
The most mesmeric parts of the novel are those dealing with Mathinna's life. The changes wrought in her existence and the catastrophic results of this ill-conceived and inconsistent social experiment are gut-wrenching and compellingly evoked.
A theme running through the story is desire - the repression of it by stiff upper-lipped Englishmen, the way suppressed human urges can boil over, the methods by which it can lead to salvation or ruin.
Flanagan combines a taut ability to narrate events, an ability to create convincing characters, and a wry, observant wit. Sir John's body is said to give 'no more appearance of an active intelligence than a well-tended pumpkin.' And his dullness is mischievously evoked:
'She (Lady Jane) talked to him of history, landscapes, picturesque ruins and her sensations of vertigo when, as a child, she gathered with vast crowds of the lowliest of London to watch Byron's funeral parade and thought she might fall forever. He replied with reports of navigation, Admiralty regulations, auroras, and how delightful reindeer tongues were to eat when properly cooked, the skin peeling off like a sock...The prospect of eating something redolent of feet notwithstanding, she liked his seriousness, which she mistook for an achievement in which she might share.'
Wanting did not disappoint - it's a mesmeric read, written with acuity and panache. The only misgiving I have about novels that fictionalize real-life historical figures is where the line should be drawn at creating fictional characteristics and actions. In Jay Parini's The Last Station, Tolstoy's last few years were imagined with the aid of many diaries kept by those closest to him, and Parini was careful not to imbue Tolstoy with any controversial traits. Sir John Franklin is long dead and it's unlikely that any existing relatives will be upset by the imagined elements of this story, but caution might be wise with more recent public figures.
But taken as a novel, as it's intended to be, Wanting is a haunting tale which will not be easily forgotten. It's a tragic story, beautifully told, and Flanagan richly deserves the praise that has been heaped his way.
on 5 June 2009
1850's Van Diemen's Land - Tasmania and the ongoing war between the whites and the blacks is a war the Aborigines can no longer win. With the colonial government offering the last and only realistic option: sanctuary at Wybalenna, the outpost on the islands of Bass Strait in return for their country, it is here amongst the sad broken-down remnants of what was once a proud race that a man called "The Protector" tries to become their savior. But nothing that he did for them could alter the fact that the people who he had bought to God's light were yet dying in a strange way. When the famous polar explorer the newly appointed Governor of Tasmania Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin travel to Flinders Island, Lady Jane befriends Mathinna, a young aborigine girl initially under the tutelage of The Protector.
Entranced by Mathinna's dancing, her slow way of moving, so distinct and so poignant, Lady Jane transports her back to Hobart as part of a new kind of experiment. Perhaps they can somehow breed some of this "savagery out" of the wayward girl. Cementing Mathinna's introduction into Hobartian society, the Governor and his wife instill in her all that is virtuous in English civilization, along with a favorite red dress, uncomfortable court shoes, and the appointment of a tutor Francis Lazaretto. Unfortunately the marriage between Sir John and Lady Jane is on shaky ground with Lady Jane feeling faint and lost. Watching Mathinna she feels she understands the child, imagining her grief, her needs, and her dreams. Even as the Franklins fall ever-more in love with the girl, Mathinna can't shake the ways of her native world. She's a girl where freedom is running through wallaby grass, her bare feet on the wet mushy earth and the beliefs in the sacred spirit stories of her people, the spirits who could fly.
While the dramas of Mathinna and her strange involvement with the Governor and his wife play out amongst the balls and parties and society events of the young colony of Hobart, the town awash in visitors, old colonists, and prospective new free settlers, all the way across the oceans in England, Charles Dickens finds himself linked to the fates of Lady Jane and that of the faded actress Mrs. Ellen Ternan. Emotionally fleeing from his wife, Catherine, her very presence bringing on in him a wordless anguish, Charles's life suddenly becomes an object lesson in the control of his passions. Ironically, it is his best friends Wilkie Collins and John Forster, and his meeting with Lady Jane that resonate in an unexpected and as yet intangible ways with him.
This beautifully composed novel works on so many levels, especially as a subtle homage to the nature of unfilled desire contained in the private passions of Dickens, of Sir John and Lady Jane, Ellen Ternan, and mostly of poor Mathinna who finds herself exiled from both worlds as she steadily drinks herself towards darkness. Of course fate waits by to ambush Mathinna in what predictably becomes a sad and sorry life. Weaving into his characters an intricate web of personal demons, political desires, and an intense ambition, the harsh realities of a cruel world and that of Tasmania, and it's convict and aboriginal history (and also this reviewer's birthplace) are what ultimately drive this intense novel.
Certainly for the natives, the arrival of the British heralded a new world filled with the devil, for their part the white settlers considered the aborigines as pests and barbarous heathens who had turned away from God. At first, the narrative which constantly moves between Dickens's England and the events in Van Diemen's Land is a bit distracting, yet the sections with the world's most famous author do give an added weight to much of the presumed power and moral authority of the "mother country." But what is ultimately so formidable and tragic in this story is Flanagan's simple but gifted prose and his vision of a State and of a country forever on the cusp of change. Mike Leonard June 09.
on 25 November 2014
I agree with the majority of reviewers that the tenuous links between two effectively separate stories makes the novel structure unsatisfactory. In the end neither story is told as well as it could have been. Nor was I convinced by the characterisation and I did not find that the novel informed me satisfactorily on how the desires that contributed to the "wanting" in the characters originated. I was left with the feeling that here were two very interesting novels, each of which needed more work to make them fully compelling.
on 26 March 2016
I enjoyed the book. However, in the end the predictable downfall of Mathinna was tedious and uninspiring,as well as that of all the other characters who learnt nothing and carried on in an inevitable downward spiral.
The vista was beautifully painted as we imagined the Australian outback with its open spaces and the claustrophobic drawing rooms in England.
on 5 November 2014
An interesting imaginary 'historic' novel but not as good as The Narrow Road to the Deep North