As a born and bred Tasmanian, I was deeply moved by this colorful saga of the theatrical world of Charles Dickens, the fledging colonies in 1850’s Van Diemen’s Land, and the ongoing war between the whites and the blacks
that the Aborigines could no longer win. The novel opens against a background of the colonial government of Hobart Town offering the last and only realistic option for this once proud and war-like
race: sanctuary at Wybalenna, an outpost at the very edge of Flinders Island.
The sad and broken-down remnants of the Aboriginal people have begun to die in strange and baffling ways. Even a man called “The Protector,” who tries desperately to become their savior by bringing them toward “God’s light,” can do little to assuage the race’s slow descent into extinction.
When the famous polar explorer and newly appointed governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, travel to Flinders Island, Lady Jane hopes to rescue at least one of the tribe. Entranced by Mathinna, a young aborigine girl, her dancing, her slow way of moving, “so distinct and so poignant,” Lady Jane becomes obsessed with the well-being of this “savage” child to whom she becomes
Buoyed by the possibility that she can perhaps breed some of this savagery out of her, Lady Jane transports Mathinna back to Hobart Town and embarks on a mission to convert the girl, trying rather pointlessly to instill in her all that is virtuous in English civilization.
At this point, Flanagan crosses the oceans, balancing the lives of Sir John and Lady Jane and their efforts to “tame” Mathinna with that of Charles Dickens, who has become an enthusiastic theater entrepreneur and actor and is about to be linked to the fates of Lady Jane and of the actress Mrs. Ellen Ternan. It’s not surprising that Dickens falls into the arms of Ellen in order to appease
the encroaching melancholy caused by his wife, Catherine, who with every passing day seems to bring on a wordless kind of anguish in Charles.
This beautifully composed novel works on so many levels. As the private passions of Dickens, his wife, Sir John and Lady Jane, Ellen Ternan, and poor Mathinna gradually unfurl, the story becomes an object lesson in the control of one’s passions. Not surprisingly, poor Mathinna becomes the ultimate victim, exiled from both worlds and ambushed by her sad and sorry life.
Flanagan weaves into his characters an intricate web of personal demons, political desires, and intense ambition, but the harsh realities of a cruel world and a young Tasmania’s convict and aboriginal history eventually drive this visually intense and provocative novel.
Questioning the distance between savagery and civilization, the characters in Wanting seem to be imprisoned within their desires and their dreams of others. Even as the aborigines call to their abandoned ancestors - and the tragic Mathinna drinks more and more toward the darkness - this intelligent, challenging story explores man’s intractable desires and the price that was paid for 19th-century imperialism.