Wanting has been on my radar and taking up space in my house for close to three years now. It definitely qualifies as a Read It Or Remove It title. No longer will Wanting be a bridesmaid.
With incredible feeling and spare writing author Richard Flanagan intertwines his novel Wanting with the stories of several historical figures over the course of twenty five years in the mid 19th century with a young Aboriginal girl, Mary and the disappearance of an expedition trying to locate The Northwest Passage. Mary was the daughter of a Tasmanian chief. She arrives into the story when in the 1830's George Augutus Robinson comes to Tasmania as a mediator between the Tasmanians and the white settlers. Robinson's ideas on mediation involved corralling the remaining Tasmanians and placing them in camps. Sound familiar? None of these campers would still be alive forty years later.
While Mary's father was under Robinson's control in the death camps she is noticed by the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony Sir John Franklin, and his wife Jane and brought to live with them. They rename her Mathinna. Publicly it's seen as a incredible generous, Christian gesture by the Franklins. How wonderful of them to take in this backward, savage girl and educate her. Privately the childless Jane Franklin was desperate to have a child and thrilled to get Mathinna.
Sir Franklin was one of those Victorians who seem to have done a bit of everything. He made his career as a naval officer and his name as an explorer. During Franklin's years as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), from 1836 to 1843 he was viewed as too liberal by other officials but was popular with the locals. This may have led to his being removed from office. The Franklins returned to England and Franklin returned to exploration. His last expedition was in pursuit of The Northwest Passage. For a couple centuries the search for The Northwest Passage was the Golden Ticket numerous countries were after.
When the Franklin Expedition fails to return, Jane enlists the help of taste-maker and moral authority Charles Dickens to dispel the rampant rumors of cannibalism and cowardice that dog the doomed Franklin party. Dickens is mourning the death of one of his children, estranged from his wife and soon to fall in love with a young actress. He is also at the height of his success as an author, publisher and theatrical producer. Dickens denounces the rumors concerning the expedition in his magazine Household Words. He writes that whereas savages may give in to any desires a civilized man can withstand temptations and hold on to his honor.
~~Whew~~ That's a whole lot of story. Drama, twists, retribution and desires enough for a couple books.
Flanagan takes Dickens words on savages, civilization, and temptations and applies them to all of his characters. Flanagan is clever and talented enough to show us their actions through their own eyes while slowly over the course of the novel revealing his characters true selves and motives. He writes so beautifully about Tasmania it's easy to feel the European's lust to own the land for themselves. He does occasionally handle the colonialism and racial notes with a heavy hand but that seems to be the case in most historical novels about those subjects.
Wanting is a meticulously well told story about the effects of desire. For Mathinna, the Franklins and Dickens desires bring moments of happiness at incredibly high costs. They are forced to lead double lives. A public life that displays all of the Victorian virtues and a private life of guilt and brief pleasures at the expense of others.