Wanting, the fifth novel by Tasmanian author, Richard Flanagan, opens in 1839 as a former London builder, George Augustus Robinson, aka, the “Great Conciliator,” aka, the “Protector,” has been sent to clean up the killing fields of Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Land) by resettling the remaining natives in camps, first at Wybalenna on remote Flinders Island, and then at Oyster Cove, in the south of mainland Tasmania. As he travels, Robinson notes: “There is not a boat harbour along the whole line of coast but what numbers of the unfortunate natives have been shot; their bones are to be seen strewed on the ground.”
In the camps, Robinson’s charges are “scabby, miserable and often consumptive,” and under his care, they are “dying like flies” despite the fact that he has converted them and protects them, giving them Western clothes, a Western diet, and teaching them Western prayers to pray to a Western god. Robinson puzzles about the reason for the tribes’ decline all the while knowing he is, at least in part, to blame.
One of Robinson’s charges is Towterer, or King Romeo, a chieftain of a Tasmanian tribe, his wife, Wongerneep, and their daughter, Mary. Robinson respects Towterer; he looks on him, not as a “charge” but as an equal, and after Towterer’s death, Mary, a vibrant child, becomes a part of Robinson’s own group in Tasmania.
From 1836 to 1843, Sir John Franklin, the English explorer, was governor of Van Dieman’s Land. Along with the ordinary and routine duties of a governor, Sir John and his wife, Lady Jane, were charged with establishing a semblance of Westernization in Tasmania and with converting the native people – referred to as “savages” – to Christianity. Franklin is better remembered as the Arctic explorer who died during an 1845 expedition he led to find the Northwest Passage, and whose story was brilliantly fictionalized by Dan Simmons in The Terror.
In their efforts to bring Christianity to the “savages,” Sir John and Lady Jane adopt the orphaned Mary, now seven-years-old, renaming her Mathinna. As Sir John puts it, “If we shine the Divine light on lost souls, then they can be no less than we. But first they must be taken out of the darkness and its barbarous influence.”
For Lady Jane, though, it more than “educating Mary.” Lady Jane really does love Mathinna. Lady Jane wants to be a mother. Her “wanting,” however, which she finds difficult to admit even to herself, is subsumed into the less emotional, more political, wishes of her husband, and Mathinna is put “on a rigid program of improvement.”
Several years later, in 1843, just before the Franklins are to depart for England, Lady Jane learns that her husband has sent Mathinna back to the orphanage. Desiring only to bring her home again, Lady Jane visits Mathinna, wanting “to rush down to the filthy courtyard, grab Mathinna and steal the frightened child away from all this love and pity, this universal understanding that it was necessary that she suffer so. She wished to wash and soothe her, to whisper that it was all right, over and over, that she was safe now, to kiss the soft shells of her ears, hold her close, feed her warm soup and bread.” But as worries over her family’s social and economic status get in the way; Lady Jane considers her more tender wantings to be those of “her reckless heart,” and so she abandons Mathinna, now tragically trapped between two worlds and two cultures, and accompanies Sir John home to England.
Life in England doesn’t prove happy for Sir John and Lady Jane. After Sir John is lost in the Arctic, reports surface, courtesy of Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor, Dr. John Rae, reports that would later prove to be true, that Sir John and his men had turned to cannibalism before succumbing to the horrors of the frozen north.
In 1854, an effort to redeem her husband’s tarnished reputation, Lady Jane contacts none other than the great “patron saint” of family life, Charles Dickens, asking that he debate Dr. Rae in his (Dickens’) periodical, “Household Words,” asserting that a fine, God-fearing Englishman such as her husband was would never allow himself to descend to such depths of depravity and savagery no matter how dire the circumstances. And Dickens agreed with Lady Jane, writing: “The convict, the Esquimau, the savage: all are enslaved not by the bone around their brain . . . but by their passions. . . . A man like Sir John is liberated from such by his civilized and Christian spirit.”
Dickens, in his mid-forties, is, himself going through a personal crisis. Though profoundly depressed at the death of his ninth child, Dora, and the failure of his marriage to his long-suffering wife, Catherine, he is, perhaps, at the height of his literary powers. He’d just completed Hard Times and was about to begin Little Dorrit. “His soul was corroding,” Flanagan writes. “Something was guttering within him, no matter how he fed the flame. He chose to embody merriment in company; he preferred solitude. He spoke here, he spoke there, he spoke everywhere; he felt less and less connection with any of it. 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.”
The project Dickens chooses to bury himself in is Sir John’s cause, and in 1857, with his friend, novelist, Wilkie Collins, Dickens wrote and starred in a wildly successful play defending the dead explorer titled The Frozen Deep, a play dedicated to showing that a “proper Englishman” does not give in to his passions like a “savage” does. And Dickens, himself, comes to see a parallel in his own marriage. “For twenty years,” he 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 even though the great writer still firmly believed that “the mark of wisdom and civilization was the capacity to conquer desire, to deny it and crush it,” he, too, is confronted with his own “wanting” in the form of eighteen-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he abandoned his wife, choosing instead to live in “secret domesticity” until his death in 1870.
Wanting – both the yearning and the lack – forms the thematic underpinning of this beautiful novel and its two story threads. And what these two story threads – the one in Tasmania involving Mathinna and Lady Jane, and the one in London involving Dickens and Ellen Ternan – have in common is that they both do revolve around the issue of wanting, though those in question move in opposite directions. Lady Jane represses her desire for motherhood, while Dickens gives in to his desire for a younger, more vital woman, even as he says, “We all have appetites and desires, but only the savage agrees to sate them.” Apparently not. Apparently the “stuffy” Victorians could and did give in to their own desires and wantings on occasion. And that brings us to the dilemma of Wanting: Which is worse, giving in to desire, or keeping it locked inside you? “If you turn away from love,” Lady Jane asks, “did it mean you no longer existed?”
And of course Flanagan explores what he terms the “catastrophe of colonialism,” something he’s explored in previous books, when he wrote of individuals who, like the Franklins, travel to foreign lands to impose a foreign culture on the natives of that land, and who, as a result, often do far more harm than good.
Wanting is a powerful, lyrical book, filled with many stunning images and set-pieces. There’s the image of Dickens as he’s about to meet Ellen Ternan for the first time:
The working entrance to the Haymarket Theater was a furtive door protruding into a side alley, from which the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odors. With the toe of a boot, Dickens flicked aside the oyster shells splattered with bird droppings that were piled over the entrance steps.
And there’s Lady Franklin taking forty-eight hat boxes on a journey into the heat of southwestern Tasmania “borne aloft through its unmapped jungles on a blackwood palanquin shouldered by four barefoot convicts.” It reminded me a little of Voss, which I recently read and also loved.
Another memorable image was that of the two visiting expedition ships, docked in the harbor and decorated for a ball with “700 looking glasses, destined for use in exchange with any natives the explorers might meet in the South Polar regions,” hung off “the ships’ sides so that the Chinese lanterns with which the deck and masts were lighted reflected back and forth” across the water.
The prose is so beautiful, it sometimes reads almost like poetry:
She held her face in her hands, as if she were unsure that both it and she were still there, and looked skywards. Through the cracks between her fingers a silver light fell.
And Flanagan is also poetic when describing the unspoiled beauty of Tasmania, that “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.” It’s a place where everything is both fecund and rotting at the same time like the “small meadow glistening with so many wet spiders’ webs that it seemed veiled in a sticky gossamer.”
The novel’s structure is sophisticated and complex and moves back and forth in time from 1839 through the 1840s and the 1850s, and from Tasmania to London to Manchester and back to Tasmania. I thought the book flowed wonderfully, though, seamlessly, really, and I never felt disoriented as the narrative cut back-and-forth.
This is a book that abounds in symmetries and ironies, and like me, you might have to read Wanting more than once to catch all of them, but it’s worth it because when you do, they’re beautiful.
The voice is perfect for a novel set in Victorian times – controlling and omniscient, one that can enter the minds of any of the characters at will and learn their most intimate thoughts.
The characters are fully fleshed out (or in the case of Franklin, notably absent) and totally believable. Mathinna is Flanagan’s most successful creation, and his most tragic, and the one whose thoughts we get to know the least. Perhaps this helps the reader bond with Mathinna. We have the opportunity to connect with her on a deeper, more emotional level. Ultimately, Wanting is her book, for it’s Mathinna the reader remembers most of all. Even when she’s not present in the narrative, we can feel her presence, in her red dress, dancing at the edge of the story the way she dances at the edge of our consciousness.
Flanagan ends his book, not with a negative, but with a positive, with one of the characters who didn’t turn away, one who said “yes” to love. Charles Dickens, on stage, presses his cheek to Ellen Ternan’s “uncorseted belly” and declares that “he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of a savage, realised that he could no longer deny wanting.”
Wanting is a beautiful, intricately patterned, shimmering book. It’s a book that’s found its way into my “top ten of all time” and into my heart.
Recommended: To those who love literary fiction. The book’s dark, though beautiful. You’ll probably be impressed with its beauty, but it’s not a book to choose if you’re looking for something to cheer you up. It won: the Tasmanian Book Prize, 2011; the London Observer’s Book of the Year, 2009; the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2009; and the Western Australia Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2008, so I’m not the only person who thinks its wonderful.
Note: Mathinna was real. Richard Flanagan has said that the genesis for this novel was a beautiful, moving watercolor he saw in a Hobart museum. It was of an aboriginal girl in a red dress bound with a black velvet band. As Flanagan stared, entranced, the museum curator lifted the bottom of the frame to reveal two dark shoeless feet. Embarrassed by Mathinna’s refusal to wear shoes, the Franklins, in framing her portrait, had cut her off at the ankles. Years late, in Kimberley, Australia, Flanagan was told that “shoes blinded you to everything in life.”