The inspiration for Wanting, Australian Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, was a 19th century painting of a little girl in a long red dress. When Flanagan learned the child was Aboriginal and adopted by a famed Arctic explorer, he was intrigued. But his interest was really piqued when he discovered the secret of her dark, shoeless feet, included in the portrait but subsequently tucked out of sight beneath the picture frame.
For the Tasmanian-born writer, the image spoke volumes about his homeland. Before turning to novels, Flanagan wrote several history books about Tasmania. Each of his five novels is set there, and several, including Gould’s Book of Fish (2002), winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, take anecdotes from Tasmania’s past as their subject.
I was eager to read Wanting, which contains a dozen historical figures, some of them illustrious. How would this historian and gifted storyteller navigate between fact and fiction?
There are two stories in Wanting, both anchored in fact. The first involves Sir John Franklin, who, in 1836, after two successful Arctic expeditions – but before his third and fatal one in 1845 – was named Governor of the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania). Upon arriving, he and his wife adopted an Aboriginal child with the aim of civilizing her. The girl, Mathinna, remained in their care until 1843, when Sir John was recalled by London for unsatisfactory performance of his duties. She was sent to a local orphanage.
The second story involves Victorian British novelist Charles Dickens, who, in the 1850’s, co-wrote a play about Franklin’s doomed Arctic adventure. He also performed in it, playing to delighted crowds in London and Manchester with a young actress named Ellen Ternan. Middle-aged Dickens fell in love with the girl, an event that terminated his marriage and turned his life upside down.
This is fascinating material and Flanagan builds a complex narrative to convey it. Wanting alternates between two places and times — Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s during Franklin’s life, and England in the 1850s after his disappearance and presumed death. The sections involving Dickens feature ruminations on fiction writing and are wonderful.
The sections set in Van Diemen’s Land, while dramatic, are weaker. Savagery is a central theme, but Flanagan’s handling of it is a source of the novel’s main weakness. His fictional rendering of what he terms “the catastrophe of colonialism” is too stark to allow for shades of insight.
On his website, Flanagan lays out some of his historical research. He admits that he could find no evidence of “what Sir John’s feelings were towards Mathinna – if he had any at all.” The fictional relationship Flanagan creates is monstrous. The Franklin of the novel calls his stepdaughter “the Savage” and rapes her. His wife is equally brutal, lecturing the child on sensuousness and wickedness on their first meeting when Mathinna is only seven, forcing her to wear shoes, and ultimately abandoning her to an orphanage where it’s plain she won’t survive. In response, Mathinna is a one-note victim. For such a rich and beautiful story, Flanagan’s moral frame is, ironically, a little tight.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer whose recent novel, The Heart Specialist, which mines Quebec history, has been at the top of the Gazette bestseller list since it came out in February.