It is one of the most often heard pieces of advice when it comes to writing: ‘write what you know’. I’ve read the first three novels by Richard Flanagan and enjoyed them all. I particularly loved Gould’s Book of Fish. It is obvious that he and Tasmanian history go together like cheese and crackers. For this reason, I skipped The Unknown Terrorist, its departure from his previous style and genre lessoning my interest, along with quite mixed reviews. So I came to Wanting – with its mix of Tasmania and the life of Charles Dickens – as a Flanagan fan and expecting good things. And for the most part I was not disappointed. I found the scenes centering on Tasmania and the tale of the aboriginal girl Mathinna the most successful; the early Dickens scenes didn’t quite match up – but only just. Once Flanagan got in full stride, I found Dickens’ nascent love for Ellen Ternan, and his acquiescing to his desires, very satisfying.
Flanagan certainly sets himself a real task. The story is about that most basic of human drivers – wanting – and its hold over all of us. There is much talk of what it means to be savage – is it the native or the one who gives in to their own hunger, giving free reign to their basest desires? The ‘savage’ line of inquiry is one of the links between the Tasmania and its Governor, Sir John Franklin, with the polar exploration of the Europeans, one of which, under the leadership of Sir John, ends with questions back in England of whether the stricken explorers had turned on each other, relying on cannibalism – and thus, savagery – to survive. Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane, requests the help of Dickens to restore her husband’s public image. He does so through a rebuke of the cannibalism theory, subsequently acting in a play his friend Wilkie Collins writes, called The Frozen Deep.
There is ‘wanting’ everywhere. There is the desire of the white settlers to be rid of the aboriginals who have plagued their expanding settlements. They are rounded-up and shipped off to Flinders Island in Bass Straight under the misguided ‘protection’ of Rev. George Augustus Robinson, (a story that Mark Twain wrote about in his visit to Australia, captured in The Wayward Tourist, which I reviewed just a week or so ago). With them is the young girl Mathinna who is ‘adopted’ by the visiting Governor, Sir John, and his wife, Lady Jane. This adoption is their ‘scientific experiment’, to see if a savage can be tamed and schooled as an Englishwomen would be. For the pompous Lady Jane, it is her chance at motherhood for she is barren. It is an opportunity she welcomes at first, but when it matters most, she fails both herself and Mathinna miserably.
Meanwhile, in London, Dickens is ruminating on his apathy toward women, his wife in particular. He is searching for something and becoming restless. The question is: what is the price of wanting? And: can he pay the price?
The ineffectual Sir John, at first a distant figure in Mathinna’s life, suddenly warms to her presence and begins to enjoy the girl’s company. Whilst this relationship is burgeoning, Lady Jane requests her sister in London to send to them a ‘glyptotech’ – a building for housing sculpture – as well as casts of the Elgin marbles and other famous sculptures no less. It is a poignant moment, for she writes: ‘the island needs its own Ancients and Mythology’, just as they have overseen the removal of the last aboriginals from Tasmania. The sheer poverty and arrogance of the situation is laid bare. Sir John begins to spend more and more time with Mathinna, neglecting his Governorship, and comes to love the girl. However, when the social climbers in Hobart engineer change by having Sir John recalled to London, he changes tack and begins to blame Mathinna for his own failings. A visit from a white landowner, Mr Kerr, who has taken action into his own hands in eradicating the natives, transforms Sir John even further, as he comes to admire the man’s violence. Sir John now wishes to return to polar exploration, “the only emptiness he knew greater than himself.” He ships off Mathinna to an orphanage where her treatment is terrible and she retreats into herself. Lady Jane visits, essentially to remove Mathinna and take her home, but at the moment when motherhood cries out to her most, she feels most unable to heed its call. It is heartbreaking stuff, and expertly crafted by Flanagan.
We are also witness to Dickens’ growing feelings for Ellen, one of the actresses in his play. The play becomes life and we find, through illness, Ellen play Dickens’ love interest in the play. They begin to drift off the script as they express their feelings for each other on stage. It is a wonderful construct by Flanagan and we are left with Dickens’ final realisation:
… Dickens knew he loved her. He could no longer discipline his undisciplined heart. And he, a man who had spent a life believing that giving in to desire was the mark of the savage, realised he could no longer deny wanting.
I know others have found the foray into the world of Dickens an oddity and less successful than the Australian side of things. Is it evidence that a writer should stick to their bread and butter best material or setting? To write ‘what they know’? (It seems as though the same setting has not dented Tim Winton’s success, though I wonder how long he can continue to write from this same place). For Flanagan, the Dickens foray seems a stretch at first, but I found myself happily leaving questions of linkages behind and enjoying the fraught inner machinations of Dickens, as he finds his whole world changing.
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.)
One of the things that first struck me about Wanting was the restraint that seemed evident in the writing. The poetry and lyricism were less obvious. However, I found these signatures of Flanagan’s style coming to the fore as the book matured, and there are passages of immense beauty. And immense tragedy too, for ‘wanting’ changes everyone – from the fickle Sir John, the hollow Lady Jane, the lovesick Dickens, and lastly, and most terrifyingly, Mathinna and the last remaining aboriginals, who are eventually brought back to a shanty town near Hobart, but who have lost everything. Flanagan captures their demise eloquently and hauntingly.
So should writer’s stick to ‘writing what they know’? Quite apart from the fact that it’s of course entirely up to them (and their publishers no doubt!), the evidence is mixed. We have The Unknown Terrorist – which was a big departure in style and genre, a book that satisfied some new readers whilst befuddling existing ones. And then we have Wanting, perhaps a perfect attempt at departure – a fusion of the old and the new, and thus a fine balancing act. For me, Flanagan balances things just fine, and his writing is at its lyrical, evocative and powerful best. I can’t wait to see where he takes himself – and us – next.
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.