Richard Flanagan’s historical novel Wanting begins in the early 1830’s, when George Augustus Robbins, the Protector, takes up the task of bringing the aboriginal peoples of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) within the sheltering confines of civilization. Much to Robbins’s chagrin, his charges begin to die, despite the benefits of English clothes, English food, and English houses. He tends to them as best he can but retains the suspicion that they are dying as a direct act of rebellion against his regime, and he is deeply frustrated by his inability to keep his charges alive. After each man or woman dies, he carries out a crude postmortem to determine the cause of death, but he is not trained as a medical man and, indeed, is barely educated at all. He worries about retaining his position.
In 1851, Charles Dickens is addressing supporters of the General Theatrical Fund. He is interrupted when his friend John Forster brings the news that Dickens’s infant daughter, Dora, has died suddenly. The Dickens family is distraught, and Charles’s relationship with his wife Catherine begins to deteriorate.
In 1836, Sir John Franklin, leader of two expeditions to the Arctic, is appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Dieman’s Land and sails to Australia accompanied by his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, to take up the post. The Protector is glad when Sir John and his energetic wife pay a visit to his model community. He is less pleased when Lady Jane announces her intention of adopting an Aboriginal child and educating it, though he offers to select an appropriate child. However, Lady Jane has already chosen Leda, originally called Mathinna, the daughter of a chief and one of the few strong, healthy children remaining. The Protector is unhappy about this, given that Mathinna is a headstrong child, but he is forced to acquiesce, though he drags his feet about sending the child to the Franklins.
In 1854, Lady Jane Franklin seeks help from Charles Dickens. John Rae’s expedition to the Arctic has brought back news of her husband, who vanished in the mid-1840’s. Rae’s Inuit informants confirm that the expedition’s members are all dead, and Rae finds evidence that they turned to cannibalism before dying. Lady Jane is willing to accept that her husband is dead but refuses to accept the possibility of cannibalism, and she enlists Dickens to refute that claim. Dickens writes an article for Household Words that refutes Rae’s report, allowing Sir John a noble death, and Lady Jane finally puts on mourning for her husband.
Rae’s discoveries and her own meeting with Dickens reawaken Lady Jane’s memories of her time in Australia with Sir John. These memories focus on her relationship with Mathinna, whom she attempted to educate according to modern Western principles, and on her attempts to civilize Van Dieman’s Land generally. Lady Jane is represented as the energetic partner in the Franklin marriage. She married Franklin, a much older man, as a means of bettering herself and rapidly discovered that he was extremely dull. She threw herself into a wide variety of projects, including encouraging Sir John to make his two famous Arctic expeditions. She believed that his post as lieutenant-governor of Van Dieman’s Land would provide her with an opportunity to improve people’s lives. However, the local administrators were reluctant to adopt the measures she proposed through Sir John, and they viewed the Franklins with the greatest suspicion. Instead, Lady Jane, and then Sir John, devoted all their civilizing efforts into transforming Mathinna into a little English girl, much to the horror of the local European population.
Dickens’s relationship with his wife has deteriorated since the death of Dora. Affected by the story of the lost polar sailor, Lord Franklin, he eagerly takes up the suggestion by Wilkie Collins that Dickens’s next theatrical extravaganza should be set in the Arctic. Collins writes a play, The Frozen Deep, and Dickens throws himself wholeheartedly into the project, overseeing all aspects of the play’s production as well as taking on the major role of Richard Wardour. Wardour is a polar explorer who loves a woman but nobly sacrifices himself in order to allow her to marry the man she loves, a fellow explorer and rival. The uncertain relationship among the central...
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