Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 2, 2009

Wanting (2008), by Richard Flanagan

WantingI have to admit that I’m not smart enough to make full sense of Wanting without resorting to a few  reviews, of which there are plenty because Flanagan is one of Australia’s most important writers – and deservedly on the 2009 Miles Franklin shortlist.  I didn’t always understand the intricacies of Gould’s Book of Fish, and I’m sure there must be things I missed in The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Death of a River Guide (see my review), but it didn’t matter – these books were a pleasure to read and I shall never forget them (which for me is one of the marks of great literature.)  Wanting is a great pleasure to read too, but the plot left me perplexed and not a little frustrated.

Beware: there are some minor spoilers below.

There are two parallel stories in Wanting: about the successful author Charles Dickens in England, and the Aboriginal waif Mathinna in Tasmania.  It was to the tragedy of this child’s life that I responded, and the final chapters where Mathinna slides inexorably into degradation almost made me weep.

Filthy, hungry, ridden with lice and the pox, trading her body for food and drink when she could – and raped repeatedly when she was no longer considered worth buying – Mathinna shows us a little of what it must have been like for Aboriginal women of that doomed island people.  Flanagan acknowledges that there were some among the white people who felt this tragedy – Robinson the chief Protector; the sawyer Garney Walch – even Lady Jane Franklin realised, too late, that she loved Mathinna – but none could halt the slow demise of a once thriving people.  Even where there were good intentions, (and mostly there were not) it was not possible to breach the chasm between stone age hunter-gatherers living in complex kinship systems and customary law, and a harsh 19th century penal colony originating from the industrialised society which was the most powerful empire in the world.

Source: Tasmania in Pictures, was real: the notes on Flanagan’s website tell us about her life and how her portrait came to be painted.  What Flanagan has so masterfully achieved is to bring her alive, to show her trying to deal with the contradictions of her life and to use her as a symbol of all that went so tragically wrong in Tasmania for its indigenous people.  Her earnest efforts to become literate, and to learn the quadrille as a pathway into the Franklin’s society show her efforts to adapt and to take advantage of what was offered by Lady Jane’s bizarre experiment; her  wild and joyful dancing, her skill in catching birds and insects to eat,  and her scorn for shoes show us her confusion and her desperation to maintain her culture and way of life.  Her demise shows the sad decline into alcohol induced acceptance that there was, for her,  no hope of anything better.   She died in want, but wanting nothing, because she knew she could not ever have anything other than her miserable lfie.

I could not relate in the same way to the story woven around Dickens.  The links to the theme of ‘wanting’ seems forced to me.  Lady Jane Franklin and her husband Sir John, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, took in, and then abandoned Mathinna when they were recalled to England.  Sir John set off on another polar expedition, only to be marooned on the ice and die in extremis: he was then pilloried in the press as a cannibal.  Dickens was then enlisted by Lady Jane to restore her husband’s reputation and he did this with a wildly successful play called The Frozen Deep  – dedicated to showing that an Englishman does not give into his passions as a savage does.  It was when Dickens acted in this play that he met and fell in love with the actress Ellen Ternan, for whom he was indeed to give in to his long-suppressed passions and to leave his wife, becoming a different man entirely (according to his biographers).  As Flanagan’s notes show, all this is true too, but I was uneasy with Flanagan’s adventures into the mind of the man.  Rescuing Mathinna from the obscurity of history, bringing her to our attention through a richly imagined and empathetic portrait is legitimate because she was denied this in life and is owed it.  Dickens was literate, famous and successful: he could speak for himself and he did, through his writing.  I think it’s impertinent to play about with his inner life, and it detracts to some extent from the authenticity of this novel.

This issue of contemporary writers messing about with historical figures is becoming more and more difficult to deal with – yet I loved this book!

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: Wanting
Publisher: Knopf, Random House Australia, 2008
ISBN: 9781741666557
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Readings.

Fishpond: Wanting (Knopf hardback); Wanting (Vintage softback)


  1. I saw you were reading this Lisa and have been looking forward to your review. Nice review. I too enjoyed the book too. I enjoyed meeting these various “real” people in fiction again (Dickens having appeared in several recent books such as “Jack Maggs” etc, and Franklin in “The voyage of the Narwhal”). Like you, I wasn’t sure by the end that I fully understood all the connections but a good place to start is probably the two epigrams at the beginning, one talking about ‘wanting’ in terms of desire and ambition and the other in terms of deficiency or lack. There is a lot in the book that can be teased out in terms of both these meanings, and particularly in relation to Dickens and Franklin.

    There is also a lot as you say that can be teased out in relation to conceptions regarding so called “civilised” people (aka English people in terms of this book) vs savages. Lady Franklin on p. 126: “The distance between savagery and civilisation by our control of our basest instincts”. A lot of the book is exactly about Dickens’ and Franklin’s instincts and lack of control – to the point that, for example, Mathinna is degraded as a result of such instincts, as is Catherine. The addition of the rape is an interesting thing to think about. Perhaps he did it to make very clear this very point regarding savagery and baser instincts, and the hypocrisy (conscious or unconscious) otherwise among so-called civilised people?

    I don’t usually worry about the use of “real” people in fiction figuring that “all’s fair” in fiction (more or less) but I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were Franklin’s descendant?


  2. Hi Sue, yes, there’s heaps more to discuss! Our November book for ANZLL is to be the MF winner, and as I read it I kept wanting to make more and more notes in case it wins. (I’m moderating the discussion). If you look at Flanagan’s website for this book, you’ll see there are questions there for book groups, any of which could generate really interesting discussion about this book, and then of course there are our own doubts about using real people, and how effective the structure is, and so on. If our universities taught Australian literature (which I gather they no longer do, alas) I could see this one making its way onto the booklist before long…it could be a good one for Y12 booklists too?
    It’s not accidentally ironic, is it, that Dickens’ fiction is used to rescue Sir John’s reputation, and Flanagan uses his fiction to trash it?


  3. […] Wanting, by Richard Flanagan; […]


  4. […] PS 2.5.09 I read Wanting, loved it, and wanted it to win the Miles Franklin 09.  Here’s my review. […]


  5. […] Awards for 2009.  He’s up against some stiff competition (People of the Book, The Pages, Wanting, The Good Parents) but it’s a terrific book, so who knows? (I’m glad I don’t […]


  6. […] Wanting by Richard Flanagan […]


  7. The source you give for the watercolor of Matthina is from the weblog(s) TASMANIA in PHOTOGRAPHS (not Pictures), with this caption:

    Artist: Thomas Bock
    Warwickshire, England 1790/93 – Hobart, Tasmania 1855
    “Mathinna”, 1842, watercolour, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery



    • Thanks for this, much appreciated. I’m on holidays at the moment with limited internet access so I will fix the caption when I get back home.


  8. […] Wanting was short-listed for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award.  It was a formidable shortlist, with Murray Bail’s The Pages, Christos Tsiolkas’ polarizing The Slap, Ice by Louis Nowra, and of course Winton’s Breath.  I have read The Pages, which I enjoyed thoroughly, but have not got to Breath yet – it must be a mighty good book to have toppled Wanting.  (One gets the sense that to go up against Tim Winton in the MF is like pushing water uphill!  It also provides a stark contrast to this year’s long-list, though Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers will correct me if I’m underestimating its strength.  By the way, you can read her excellent review of Wanting here.)  […]


    • *chuckle* I’m not sure that I’m the authority you should trust about this, especially since I haven’t read all of them yet! Still, I know what you mean, last year’s list had all the big names in OzLit and while both Castro and Foster have written big, serious and fabulously interesting books for this year neither of them enjoy the same reputation as Flanagan, Nowra, Winton, or Bail. They shouldn’t, but I bet also that the judges will hesitate over choosing either of them because they know that the popular media won’t like it if they win – Sons of the Rumour and The Bath Fugues are both ‘difficult’ books (though I could argue that if a primary school teacher like me can enjoy them, then anyone who makes a bit of an effort can too). Alex Miller would have to be a serious contender, Lovesong is a gorgeous book. I haven’t read Jasper Jones, Siddon Rock, Boy on a Wire, Figurehead, or The People’s Train but are any of them in the same league as last year’s shortlist? I’m currently reading The Book of Emmett which is jolly good so far but probably not quite a winner, JJ is on my TBR and I found Parrot & Olivier at the library, but no kindly publisher has whisked copies of any the rest of them into my letterbox so I’m going to wait to see who makes the shortlist before I part with my hard-earned cash!


  9. […] ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  10. […] Wanting by Richard Flanagan, see my review […]


  11. […] appropriation of indigenous land and the British Occupation of Ireland.  Richard Flanagan’s Wanting is another that has shaped my knowledge of the Black history of colonial Tasmania, as has Rohan […]


  12. […] Clapping (1997); Gould’s Book of Fish (2001); The Unknown Terrorist (2006); the exquisite Wanting (2008); his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and First Person […]


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