‘Wanting’ is a book by Australian author Richard Flanagan. The year is 1839. The setting is Van Diemen’s land (Tasmania, as it is known today). A young Aborginal girl by the name of Mathinna attempts to get help from the Protector for her dying father. Fast forward twenty years on. Charles Dickens, the most prolific author of his time, is dealing with a dead end marriage and lack of interest in life. Until he is approached by the person connecting the two stories together. Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of one of the most famous explorers, Sir John Franklin.
In 1841, Sir John Franklin was the governor of Van Diemen’s land and lived in the convict colony with his wife. Lady Jane is enamoured by Mathinna and decides to adopt her as part of an experiment to ‘civilise’ the ‘savage’ child. The underlying belief of the times is that by controlling one’s passion and wanting, one will be civilised. It is apparently the ‘savages’ who give in to the passion and wanting. Thus, Lady Jane, being the civlised person that she is, does not give in to her needs to hug or comfort the child. On the other hand, Sir John eventually finds himself living for the time spent with Mathinna. Thus drawing ridicule from his peers. Lady Jane’s experiment fails and Mathinna is left back in Van Diemen’s land in an orphanage. Sir John Franklin disappears on an exploration which is rumoured to have ended in cannibalism. A scandalous suggestion for the times. Lady Jane requests Dickens’ help to put an end to these rumours. As Dickens get into the story, he ends up producing and starring in a play inspired by Sir John Franklin. His belief is that discipline and strong will can help conquer yearning and desire. Except, through the play, he meets Ellen Ternan and finds himself unable to conquer his own wanting.
The central theme of course, is wanting. The belief of the era that giving in to your longings and wants is something a ‘savage’ would do and not a gentleman or lady. The book looks at how there are consequences of giving in to ones wants and that is seen through the characters of Dickens, John Franklin and even Mathinna while similarly, you can have negative consequences by not giving in to your desires as is depicted through Lady Jane. Flanagan also explores the colonisation of the Aboriginals. How there was a belief that they needed a ‘protector’ or someone who could make them more ‘civilised’. Through Mathinna’s character, you see the ill that was done by the British and the whites to the Aboriginal population of Australia. The stolen generation rings out loud even though this book was before the time. The sad thing is that the repercussions of this colonisation is seen till today with the Aboriginal population. Mathinna’s character is endearing and the conflict she feels after being abandoned by the Franklins between her race and the white race is one that is very relatable. You feel for the pain she goes through. The writing is quite exquisite and the chapters move between Dickens and Franklin/Mathinna, thus keeping you engrossed to know more. The author warns that it is not a novel of history. But to me, it was enlightening to learn about the past.