Wanting by Richard Flanagan

A reread, of a novel I first read in 2009.

‘We have in our lives only a few moments.’

This novel, set in the 19th century, contains separate but connected stories involving a number of historical figures and events. These include Sir John Franklin, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania); his wife Lady Jane Franklin, George Augustus Robinson (Chief Protector of Aborigines), Mathinna, an aboriginal girl adopted by the Franklins, and the novelists Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. 

A policy of removal of Van Diemonian aborigines has led to their near extinction.    On a visit to  Flinders Island, where Mr Robinson has established a settlement for aborigines, the Franklins are captivated by Mathinna.  Lady Jane Franklin has no children of her own, and decides:  ‘To raise one individual with every advantage of class and rank would be an experiment of the soul worth making, both for science and for God.’

Sir John and Lady Jane each become obsessed with Mathinna but she is unable to meet their idealistic needs and each, in their own way, abandon her. 

Years later in England, Lady Franklin seeks the support of Charles Dickens.  Sir John’s expedition to discover the North West Passage has vanished, and rumours of cannibalism are spreading.  Dickens defends Sir John Franklin through ‘Household Words’ and Collins writes ‘The Frozen Deep’, a play inspired by Dicken’s writing.

The Franklin’s obsession with Mathinna, and Dickens’s obsession with ‘The Frozen Deep’ are each powerfully written.  I found the story of Mathinna sadder than the story of Sir John’s lost expedition.  In my reading, Mathinna had fewer choices available to her once abandoned by the Franklins.

This is a beautifully told story made more interesting, perhaps, by its setting.  The history it embraces is fascinating.  This is a story about the tragic consequences of desire and ambition writ large on a global canvas. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith