Lady Jane had requested in writing a scientific specimen—a skull from what she termed ‘the vanishing race’—and this the Protector had been happy to accommodate. But as he had decapitated, flensed, boiled up and rendered down his friend’s skull, glad to know that it was going to such fine people of keen scientific mind, he had not anticipated the request now made across the dinner table. As a further course of roast black cygnets was served, Lady Jane announced she wished to adopt a native child, as though it were the final item to be ordered off a long menu. [loc. 764]
In 1854, nine years after her husband's disappearance in the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin visited Charles Dickens and asked him to respond to a recent article accusing Franklin and his crew of cannibalism. Dickens promptly produced a racist diatribe, 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers': you can read it here.
That historical fact is the germ of Richard Flanagan's Wanting. The novel entwines parallel stories: Jane Franklin's marriage and widowhood; Charles Dickens' mourning for his dead daughter and his love affair with an actress; and the life and death of Mathinna, a young aboriginal girl from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) who survives a massacre and is adopted by the Governor -- Sir John Franklin -- and his wife.
Mathinna and Dickens are both defined by what they want -- by their wanting -- as, to a lesser extent, are the Franklins. Jane Franklin wants a child. John Franklin wants the cold white spaces of the far North, 'a world of lost children whose failures were celebrated as the triumphs of men'. Dickens wants absolution for his child's death. Mathinna wants to belong somewhere, to be loved -- and because her old life has been destroyed by the British, she tries hard to make a new life in the Governor's household. Everybody wants: none of the characters are sufficiently introspective to understand the wants of others.
Wanting is a powerful condemnation of racism, imperialism and colonialism. Mathinna is perhaps the single likeable character in it -- and she's not always especially likeable. Flanagan's writing is sensuous and rich: the novel's full of evocative phrases such as 'the summer morning heat was raising a chutney of odours'. And his portrayal of the inherent cruelty of Victorian attitudes (see the quotation above) is masterful.
I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel, but it is extremely well-written, savagely critical, and emotionally wrenching.