Recently awarded the Man Booker prize for his World War II-era novel, Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan’s earlier fiction is just as satisfying and disturbing. In Wanting, Flanagan brilliantly intertwines the lives (and desires) of two of the most celebrated men of the 19th century British Empire – Charles Dickens and Sir John Franklin.
In 1850s London, Lady Jane Franklin asks Dickens (at the height of his popularity) to use his magazine Household Words, to defend the honor of her husband Sir John, lost during a polar expedition some years earlier. Dickens responded by publishing a racist attack against accusations that Franklin and his crew had descended to the level of “savages” by resorting to cannibalism. Dickens is defensive because he too struggles to resist his own desire – to continue his romantic pursuit of the young actress Ellen Ternan.
Richard Flanagan also interweaves the story of Sir John Franklin’s disastrous governorship of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in the 1830s. During their tenure, the Franklins decide to “adopt” an Aboriginal girl named Mathinna. Although the childless Lady Jane wants nothing more than to love the girl, she buries her desires and forces Mathinna into a “civilizing” curriculum. Meanwhile, Sir John begins to develop towards Mathinna desires and obsessions of his own. Flanagan uses Mathinna’s story (she really existed!) to describe the suffering of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people under the brutal rule of the British colonizers. After the Franklins abandon their “civilizing” experiment and return to England, Mathinna descends into alcoholism and prostitution, ultimately drowning in a puddle at age 17.
In London, Dickens decides to work with his friend Wilkie Collins to stage a dramatized version of Sir John Franklin’s expedition called The Frozen Deep. Abandoning his wife, Dickens eventually gives into his desires and consummates his relationship with Ellen Ternan.
Wanting is a meditation on desire. What do we lose (or gain) by giving in to our hearts? And, what are the consequences for those around us when the wanting becomes too much?
Recommendation: “Must read” for fans of Dickens, Australian history, and 19th century literature.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Book with a one word title