Wanting by Richard Flanagan

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Richard Flanagan has been on my radar screen for ages, but for one reason or another, I just hadn’t read any of his books. I chose this one for convenience — it was available at the public library and a good size to travel with — so I don’t know how it ranks among his other books. ┬áIt has left me wanting to read others.

It is unusual in its approach of telling two barely intersecting stories based on actual people. One is Charles Dickens in the throes of falling out of love with his wife and in love with a young woman named Ellen Ternan to whom he remained faithful for the remainder of his life. The other story centers on an Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane when they assume the governorship of Van Diemen’s Land in 1839.

The first extended section of the book describes the Presbyterian minister’s “benevolent” work as “Protector” of the defeated Aboriginal population of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) just as the Franklins arrive. Subject to the civilizing food and clothing pressed upon them, they die in droves. And one little girl, chosen for her liveliness to be adopted to by the Franklins suffers most of all. It’s a heartbreaking story, most of all for the innocent child, but Flanagan manages to make you have a bit of sympathy for both the wretched Franklins, awful though they were.

Long after the governorship has ended and Sir John has died a well-deserved death in the Arctic, Lady Jane has tea with Charles Dickens in hopes of enlisting him to counteract the negative publicity created by speculation that cannabalism was involved in the unsuccessful end of the Arctic expedition. He obliged by working with Wilkie Collins (yes, author of The Lady in White and The Moonstone) to create and act in a play called The Frozen Deep. It was great fun to learn about Dickens’ life, his friends, and great love for Ellen Ternan.

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