MELISSA ASHLEY The Birdman’s Wife. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
Melissa Ashley’s debut novel brings to life the remarkable Elizabeth Gould – watercolourist and wife of the famous ornithologist.
Make no mistake: despite its gentlewomanly veneer, redolent of spring gardens and gentle watercolours, this is a book that is red in tooth and claw. It is a book of death as much as of life; it considers what we have done – and by implication, are doing – to the natural world in this era that is now called the Anthropocene.
The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a novel that tells the story of the wife of the more famous ornithologist John Gould. Meticulously researched and staying close to the known historical facts, it tells, in first person, Elizabeth’s story from the day she met her future husband to the day she died after giving birth to her eighth child at the age of 37. It includes a detailed account of the two years John and Elizabeth Gould spent in the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales from 1838 to 1840.
The Goulds have a particular place in the hearts of even mildly twitchy Australians. Their lavish seven-volume Birds of Australia, featuring scientific text accompanied by hand-coloured lithographic prints, brought our birdlife to the international stage. The Gould League (which is still going) was joined by thousands of Australian school children in the 20th century. Our colourful Gouldian finch, native to the Top End, now teetering on the edge of threatened conservation status, was named after Elizabeth.
Our own era is one of more troubled stories than earlier drives to ‘discover’, admire, name and classify the natural world. The beauty of Melissa Ashley’s book is that it manages to ‘stay with the trouble’ (to borrow a phrase from thinker Donna Haraway) without sinking under the weight of it.
There are various sources of trouble. Elizabeth was a talented artist who worked hard and long on the prints that brought her husband fame and consequence but was never adequately recognised for her efforts. John Gould’s work spread the word about the wondrous birdlife of the world, but for the 19th-century ornithologist, to know a bird was to kill it. Behind the delightful prints and paintings lay piles and piles of corpses. The shearing shed of a property in New South Wales, where the Goulds set up a temporary processing station for dead birds and other animals, soon resembles an ‘abattoir’:
John and his party had trapped and shot wallabies, kangaroos, sugar gliders, quolls, wombats, echidnas and koalas. Hessian sacks had been spread across the floorboards to capture the visceral waste. Few creatures were spared my husband’s ambitions; he had instructed his collectors to pack the brace bags until they were full.
Other layers of death, dispossession, exploitation and misery are visible: the chained convicts and drunken ticket-of-leave men seen at the docks in Hobarton; domestic maids devoted to their mistress’s children using up time that could have been spent caring for their own; and the Australian ‘natives’ barely remarked upon, but a poignant presence nevertheless.
This is the troubled lens through which we must – if we are interested in the truth – view the Gouldian story of scientific discovery and colonial adventure. Ashley’s achievement is to allow us to see all of this while keeping the focus firmly on one woman’s achievements in the midst of both the social constraints foisted on her and the bountiful possibilities available to her.
In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Ashley explains that she has rejected another possible reading of Elizabeth’s life: as ardent slave of her husband, sacrificing her very life to his needs and ambitions through continuous childbearing and the tasks of the dutiful elf in her husband’s workshop. Instead, Ashley paints a portrait of a far more interesting woman: one fascinated by art and science well before she met her husband, one whose marriage enabled her to stretch her life’s experiences well beyond those of comparable gentlewomen of the age.
We see Elizabeth Gould in amiable conversation with the young Charles Darwin, not long back from his voyage on the Beagle. Later, we see her make careful drawings and paintings of the Galapagos finches that would play an important role in Darwin’s theories of evolution. When her son wees on the floor, she does not remonstrate but reflects on the uses of urine as fixative for pigments.
Hers is a world infused with the teeming abundance and variety of the natural world that was quickly revealing itself through a combination of colonial adventure and scientific inquiry. It is true that this world is mostly available to her in dead, stuffed and mounted form, but the living version is always there in her imagination. Through her painting and printmaking, they are brought back to life.
Socially, she might have been known as wife, but the reality of her life revolved around her work. It is Ashley’s interest in every detail of this work that holds the ship of her novel steady, that shows how a wife might become, in her own right, a vital contributor to the explosion of scientific knowledge that occurred in her era.
How do you catch a royal albatross? How do you separate the meat of a tiny finch from its skin and feathers and rearrange it later to evoke its living self? How do you create the illusion of shimmering feathers on a flat image? Blow the yolk out of an egg with a straw without breakage? Paint straight onto the surface of a lithographic stone without smudging it? These activities account for the larger part of Elizabeth Gould’s waking life; they are what honed her mind and sensibility:
It was a kind of marvelling, because in trying to replicate a bird’s form with my brush, I came to admire and to know it. I painted and I studied and, in this constant striving, became me.
But the grief, the haunting, while never overwhelming the story, are never far from the surface. Two of Elizabeth’s children die in infancy. She mourns for contact with the three children she leaves behind in the care of her mother and cousin for the duration of her voyage to Australia in the company of John and her eldest son. She notices the deaths, the piles of bodies, that accrue in the name of science.
She repeats a story learned in childhood of a pelican mother who struck down her twin children for their ungratefulness. Mortified, the pelican pecks at her own breast, making it bleed so that it might provide food for her babies, bring them back to life. But they remain dead, and the white breast of the pelican is stained with blood.
How does Elizabeth live with her grief? She rises from her bed, and returns to her work.
Melissa Ashley The Birdman’s Wife Affirm Press 2016 HB 400pp $32.99
Tracy Sorensen is a writer and filmmaker. She lived in Newtown in the 1990s but is now in Bathurst, where the landscape was over-cleared a long time ago and consequently there are not enough birds for a decent dawn chorus. You can visit her website here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.