Posts Tagged ‘Wanting’

Yesterday I popped into the Mitchell Library to see the truly wonderful One Hundred exhibition, celebrating one hundred years of the library in one hundred objects.  The exhibit displays books, diaries, letters, maps, paintings, etchings, drawings, photos, and other objects d’art. 

For book lovers there are, naturally, numerous highlights.  There is the ‘pitch’ letter that Miles Franklin wrote to Angus and Robertson along with her manuscript for My Brilliant Career – which was rejected!  The letter is fascinating; self-deprecating and unsure – she calls her story “My Brilliant(?) Career”.  The letter was subsequently annotated by George Robertson, who noted the decision to reject the manuscript was taken whilst he was away! 

There is the journal of George Augustus Robinson, otherwise known as The Conciliator, whom Richard Flanagan fictionalises as The Protector in his novel Wanting (which was ironically my last read & review).  There is an early draft of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, written in very attractive longhand.  There is Patrick White’s Nobel Prize diploma and medal.  There is Donald Horne’s personal copy of The Lucky Country and Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner which was originally Six Pickles before she added a seventh and renamed it.  There is Banjo Patterson’s original Man from Snowy River, which can also be heard spoken by Jack Thompson, and Hnery Lawson’s While the Billy Boils

Architecture is also represented, with Joern Utzon’s original 1962 sketches for the Sydney Opera House and Glenn Murcutt’s drawings for his famed Magney House, amongst others.

This being Australia, there are the journals of several explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt – the inspiration for Patrick White’s Voss – gold explorer Harold Lasseter’s diary, found on his person after his death, and the journals of Wentworth and Lawson detailing their expedition across the Blue Mountains. 

There is John Gould’s The Birds of Australia, 1840-48, a mammoth tome of some 600 hand-coloured lithographs – no wonder it took so long to produce! – in which the larrikin kookaburra is known rather plainly as the Fawn-breasted Kingfisher

But some of the older exhibits yield real fascination – take for instance a letter to Giuliano de Medici by Andrea Corsalii written in c.1516, in which there is the first known drawing of the Southern Cross constellation by a European.  And the diary of Archibald Barwick, a WWI digger, who served Gallipoli and the Western Front, who writes on the 25th of April 1915: “Bullets hurt when they hit you”; he also talks of fear, of the thought of wanting out of it all but not wanting to leave your ‘mates’ behind. 

There is Sir Joseph Banks’ Endeavour journal, 1768-1771, a journal of the First Fleet, and early letters home – by Arthur Phillip and convict Mary Reibey – to England from the settlement at Port Jackson, which became Sydney, although as records show, Phillip was going to call it Albion, before Sydney was chosen.  Also present are some very interesting artefacts dealing with aboriginal issues, including a painted proclamation in Tasmania from around 1830 that tried to depict the sought after equal treatment of black and whites – and the punishment for killing – not through the usual dense words, but through pictures. 

The list goes on.  Indeed, the exhibition is so extensive that to take it in in one visit was too much.  But that’s fine with me – it means I have the perfect excuse to go back and see it again.  It’s free too, so there’s really no excuse for not seeing a magnificent exposition of unique items that display the history of Australia, in all of its forms, both triumphant and tragic. 

The only drawback is the website, which gives you a taste of the exhibit, but is very slow to navigate – you need to scroll (s-l-o-w-l-y) through all objects to get to one you want more information on, and when you return to this menu after looking at one object, you have to start from scratch again – very annoying!  There should be a page from which all items readily accessible.  What’s worse is there’s hardly any information on the items themselves, just a very short 10-20-odd second sound-bite – some of which seemed to have been cut off mid-stream – it’s not nearly enough and poorly done.  Of course, the real pleasure is seeing them with your own eyes, though for interstate and overseas visitors, the website should be better. 

The Dilettante’s Rating:

Exhibition: 5/5

Website: 1/5


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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


ISBN: 9781741666687

252 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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A couple of spoiler-free sentences, randomly chosen from my current read: Wanting by Richard Flanagan, p2:

“Though he was weaning them off their native diet of berries and plants and shellfish and game, and onto flour and sugar and tea, their health seemed in no way comparable to what it had been.  And the more they took to English blankets and heavy English clothes, abandoning their licentious nakedness, the more they coughed and spluttered and died.” 

It’s an opening that describes a part of Tasmanian history that Mark Twain wrote about in The Wayward Tourist, and which I explored just last week: see my review.  How’s that for a coincidence?!

What are you reading?

The D!

PS: Teaser Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by shouldbereading.

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