The practitioners of (good) historical fiction are a multi-talented lot. They possess the ability to write plot and character, a deep knowledge of their chosen period, and a creative spark and insight to tie the two together in a way that intrigues but does not stretch the readers' credulity. Richard Flanagan demonstrates his virtuosity in Wanting: A Novel. Flanagan gives us two very different stories of the nineteenth century: In Tasmania (Van Dieman's Land); an aboriginal tribe fights for its existence and one of its daughters, Mathinna, is adopted by the new Vice-Regent (Governor General) and his wife - the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane. Years later, Lady Jane implores Charles Dickens to write a defense of her husband (lost in an Artic expedition) that Dickens turns into a play where Dicken's plays the main character. In the casting and presentation of the play, Dickens meets, falls in love with, and then must deal with his marriage and his desire for the actress Ellen Ternan.
Flanagan does a magnificant job of asking the question (and answering it with his plot creations and his prose) of what is savage and uncivilized and what is cultured and civilized. The cultured Franklins, particularly Lady Jane, are enthalled by the aborigine Mathinna and tear her away from her people and her culture to live with them in Hobart (the capital), where Lady Jane embarks upon her "education". When she fails to become the cute, black, Christian child Lady Jane envisions, Mathinna is, at the end, abandoned. As the Franklins leave Tasmania (forced out by politics), they leave things worse than when they arrived. Mathinna's people are mistreated, their culture unappreciated and dismissed, with their aspirations and desires as a people demeaned and disregared by the civilizing British. If anybody had ever thought to ask, they would have discovered that neither Mathinna nor the Aborigines have seen fulfilled any of what they might have wanted.
Years later, as Dickens writes his impassioned defense of John Franklin and his Artic expedition (without any evidence accused of cannibalism), burying himself in his work to take his thoughts away from the death of his daughter Dora, he recognizes that his marriage is empty; unfulfilled and unfulfilling. He meets Ms. Ternan
while casting his play and falls in love -- but can not fully remove himself from his marriage. He loses himself more and more in his play, in his acting -- where he has written John Franklin as the conquering hero, the civilized (and civilizing) British gentleman; erudite and cultured who would certainly die honorably if the choice were between that and resorting to cannabilism to survive in the unforgiving Artic.
In the end, Flanagan has given us a terrific insight into desire -- the cost of possessing it and the cost of its lack of fulfillment. Lady Jane wants, but can not have, the conversion of Mathinna she so desparately wants. Just like she must work so hard to ensure her husband's (and thus her own) reputation. Mathinna desires a return to her people, but she has been changed and cannot go back. The result is a devastation of the individual. John Franklin wants greatness, but is defeated in politics, and ultimately is killed by his ambition. Dickens can not have his daughter back, nor can he produce (nor receive) the love and affection in his marriage he so fervently desires. Nor, once he finds love, can he have it and share it with the world.
Flanagan is incisive and powerful. He intrigues us and creates strong emotions. This is worth reading.