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Cannibalised Girlhood in Richard Miller Flanagan’s ‘Wanting’

Cannibalised Girlhood in Richard Miller Flanagan’s ‘Wanting’
© Photograph by Vicente Concha

In her article ‘Australia’s Other History Wars’, Kate Mitchell remarks that “in recent decades, both novelists and historians have returned obsessively to the story of the European ‘settlement’ of Australia” (Mitchell 2010: 254). One such novel is Richard Miller Flanagan’s ‘Wanting’ (2008), which provides a sympathetic and provocative retelling of the colonial history of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Richard Miller Flanagan uses the theme of cannibalism insistently throughout the text, particularly in connection to the employment of Mathinna, an Aboriginal orphan girl, to comment on and critique the British Empire’s treatment and exploitation of the land and its people. Richard Miller Flanagan’s evocation of cannibalism to describe British imperialism in Australia is consonant with critics’ general association of the practices of imperialistic expansion and cannibalism.

According to Peter Hulme in the introduction to ‘Cannibalism and the Colonial World’, for example, “imperialism is itself a form of cannibalism” and “the association between cannibalism and Western imperialism is impossible to ignore” (Hulme 1998: 5, 7). Although much of Richard Miller Flanagan’s novel focuses on Mathinna and her relationship with Sir John Franklin and his wife, another strand is devoted to Charles John Huffam Dickens’ life in London. While the Victorian author’s connection to Australian Aboriginal history may at first seem tenuous, I argue that Richard Miller Flanagan’s inclusion of Charles John Huffam Dickens helps strengthen and consolidate the text’s core criticism of the “catastrophe of colonisation” (Flanagan 2008: 256). However, this portrayal of Charles John Huffam Dickens is ambivalent, an ambivalence that reveals Richard Miller Flanagan’s own cannibalism of Charles John Huffam Dickens and points to the contemporary writer’s simultaneous desires to appropriate and to destroy the Victorian influence within his work.

In ‘Wanting’, the extended metaphor for the cannibalistic relationship between the Empire and the colony rests primarily in the story of the seven-year-old Mathinna, the Aboriginal girl adopted by the Franklins. Richard Miller Flanagan’s use of an orphan, who often represents “a vital strain” in novels (Auerbach 1975: 395), is a homage to the Victorian novel in general and to Charles John Huffam Dickens in particular. According to Laura Peters, “the Victorian culture perceived the orphan as a scapegoat – a promise and a threat, a poison and a cure” (Peters 2000: 2). A “stock character” (Letissier 2004: 77), the orphan “exercised a particular fascination for Dickens, who could hardly present a child without depriving it of one or both parents” (Tomalin 1990: 47). The orphan also fits Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben’s analysis in ‘Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma’, which suggests that “neo-Victorian novels prefer to particularise trauma by depicting specific victims, with the particular example standing for a whole class or people” (Kohlke and Gutleben 2010b: 29). In ‘Wanting’, the orphaned Mathinna is a victim of colonialism and cannibalism, and she is used to representing Aborigines as a whole. Similarly, the Franklins, whose Englishness is repeatedly emphasised throughout the text, come to represent the Empire.

In this light, Mathinna’s adoption by the couple, which is a kind of social, educational, and religious “experiment” or “project” (Flanagan 2008: 69, 118, 128, 130, 136), is a metaphor for Britain’s attempt to bring “civilisation” to the Tasmanian colony. The couple’s adoption of the native girl reflects the colonialists’ view that the Aborigines’ capacity for civilisation might be improved through “education and paternal guidance” (Turnbull 2001: 6). Lady Jane espouses this philosophy and believes that she and her husband can provide Mathinna with the “most modern education” (Flanagan 2008: 121). As in many of the Empire’s colonial efforts, in which the British forced their interests and institutions upon local populations in the belief that doing so was a necessary condition for their improvement, Lady Franklin adopts the girl without her consent as a means of saving her from her perceived backwardness.

Through this representation of the child’s forced adoption, Richard Miller Flanagan also evokes the history of the colonisers’ removal and relocation of indigenous children, a highly traumatic experience for the children involved. Mathinna’s encounter with her adoptive parents, then, sheds light on Aboriginal children’s experience with the English colonisers. In its use of a relatively unknown historical figure as one of the main characters, ‘Wanting’ is also in line with Victorian studies’ shift of focus in the late 1960s and early 1970s from the “grand historical narratives of wars, prime ministers, governments and economic change” to “the fragmentary records of ‘ordinary’ individuals and their ‘experience’ of historical change” (Maidment 2005: 153), and thus must be considered a deliberate act of postcolonial revisionism on the part of Richard Miller Flanagan.

In ‘Wanting’, Mathinna’s body is often fetishised. In fact, the impetus behind the novel can be found in her naked feet: “[Richard Miller] Flanagan first came across her in a Hobart Museum where he was shown an unusual watercolour portrait of the girl wearing a red dress. The curator then pulled up the frame to reveal that the picture had been cropped, explaining that Mathinna’s bare feet embarrassed her adoptive parents, who were the island’s governor and his socially ambitious wife. Mathinna’s refusal to wear shoes betrayed her savage provenance, so they cut her off at the ankles.” (Holt 2009)

The phrase “cut her off at the ankles” is chilling. Richard Miller Flanagan explains that “I thought there was this large story of love and its denial in those feet that had been framed out of the picture. I knew what the book was at that moment, I knew exactly what the emotion was” (qtd. in Holt 2009). While the girl’s adoptive parents regarded her naked feet as repulsive and wished to hide them in the painting, the contemporary author finds them creatively inspiring and, in ‘Wanting’, refers to Mathinna’s feet regularly, even obsessively. The repeated appearance of Mathinna’s feet inevitably draws the readers’ attention and to a certain extent makes them feel complicit in and guilty about engaging in the colonial gaze. Simultaneously, the cropped feet provide a metaphor for the historically marginalised, who are often deliberately “cropped” from official narratives; Mathinna, of whose life we only know the “barest” details (Flanagan 2008: 255), is such a subject. Thus, her feet can be viewed as a metonym for the silenced subject as a whole.

In ‘Wanting’, Richard Miller Flanagan appropriates not only Mathinna’s feet but her entire body. Both Lady Jane and Sir John desire the girl’s body, a desire that is expressed in terms of cannibalism. Before the adoption, the childless Lady Jane’s longing to have children is triggered by the sight of Mathinna with a large white kangaroo skin over her shoulder, dancing (see Flanagan 2008: 50). One aspect of Mathinna that particularly appeals to Lady Jane is the child’s body, which strikes her almost as if it was “think[ing]” (Flanagan 2008: 53), and she remarks, “you almost wish to hold the little wild beast and pet her” (Flanagan 2008: 51). Lady Jane’s racism is obvious here since she sees the black girl as a wild animal having the propensity to be domesticated, yet she is also driven by a motherly instinct to care for and protect the girl. This ambiguity highlights a certain cognitive dissonance that the coloniser is not entirely able to maintain: while she may see Mathinna as less than human, on some fundamental and instinctual level she still reacts to the girl’s humanity.

However, Richard Miller Flanagan makes clear that, despite Lady Jane’s maternal instincts, there is something cannibalistic about her relationship with Mathinna. This element is particularly evident in a dining scene in which Lady Jane proposes to the Protector, George Augustus Robinson, that she and her husband adopt the Aboriginal girl. The cosy interior of the dinner party is contrasted with what is happening outside. While Lady Jane is speaking, beyond the walls a “seemingly infinite population of half-starved curs was yelping” (Flanagan 2008: 69), echoing her own animalistic hunger and yearning. The Protector is uncomfortable with Lady Jane’s suggestion, not having expected her request: “As a further course of roast black cygnets was served, Lady Jane announced she wished to adopt a native child, as though it were the final item to be ordered off a long menu” (Flanagan 2008: 69). The association of Mathinna with food is not subtle here. She is discussed over the dinner table, and Lady Jane is presented as a kind of cannibalistic connoisseur choosing a prospective daughter. The inanimate pronoun “it” suggests that, to the English adults, Mathinna is genderless and not quite human. “[A] further course of roast black cygnet” adds more significance to the scene, the word “black” describing both the food and the Aboriginal girl. Black swans are native to Australia, and George Augustus Robinson links the child with the fauna of her country. This association can also be seen in Mathinna’s kangaroo-skin garb, an image that the author returns to in the dinner scene, where Lady Jane stresses that she specifically wants the child she had earlier “watched dancing in the white kangaroo skin” (Flanagan 2008: 70). George Augustus Robinson may be suggesting that the whiteness of the animal skin contributes to Lady Jane’s attraction to the girl. The use of the animal skin again suggests that Lady Jane does not view Mathinna as fully human.

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