The Birdman's Wife
by Melissa Ashley
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Pub Date 01 Oct 2016 | Archive Date 01 Sep 2016
A woman overshadowed by history steps back into the light . . .
Artist Elizabeth Gould spent her life capturing the sublime beauty of birds the world had never seen before. But her legacy was eclipsed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. The Birdman’s Wife at last gives voice to a passionate and adventurous spirit who was so much more than the woman behind the man.
Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, juggling the demands of her artistic life with her roles as wife, lover, helpmate, and mother to an ever-growing brood of children. In a golden age of discovery, her artistry breathed wondrous life into countless exotic new species, including Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches.
In The Birdman’s Wife a naïve young girl who falls in love with an ambitious genius comes into her own as a woman, an artist and a bold adventurer who defies convention by embarking on a trailblazing expedition to the colonies to discover Australia’s ‘curious’ birdlife.
An indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman overlooked by history - until now.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 30 members
This story is about elizabeth gould inspired by a letter found tucked inside her famous husbands papers. Elizabeth follows her husband John out to van diemens land. I love reading Australian stories, plus it was based on a true story. This book was well written and i recommend there should be more books like this. Well done to the author.
A beautifully written love story that will make you cry, laugh and just hope that we could all live a life like Elizabeth Gould.
Elizabeth has met the man that she is about to marry and the man that will take her on a journey like no other. John Gould is a brilliant man that wants to bring animal life to the world, he is a world class taxidermist and he is a very intense young man that wants to conquer the world. Elizabeth & John make a perfect couple as they both are artists in a way, Elizabeth is an artist who loves to draw and sketch, she will become the other half of John's research.
They will both suffer many trying times, Elizabeth will have to go through losing some children and she will make a sacrifice for her husband that most women would never do. She will leave her children and only take her eldest with her and she will go with John to Australia and she will almost lose herself and I think that John knows that if she can't go back home he will lose her for good.
For all that Elizabeth goes through she is a brave woman that loves her children and she is trying to be herself and she stands by her husband no matter what.
I did not see the ending coming I hoped to see more of Elizabeth and to see what her children would grow up to be.
A wonderful story that will appeal to readers.
The Birdman's Wife is a beautiful piece of historical fiction which reimagines the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould who is best known for his work documenting Australia's birds.
The book follows Elizabeth into her marriage with John, through her early work, the loss of her two children and her trip with John to Australia to record Australia's bird life. This was an unconventional decision for Elizabeth as it meant leaving three of her four children behind in England during the 2 year journey. But Elizabeth was clearly unconventional, working to produce over 600 lithographs while she was also bearing and raising children in an upper class family..
This is a meticulously researched debut novel. The writing seems a little stilted at the opening of the relationship between John and Elizabeth, but then the author hits her stride and both Elizabeth and her subjects leap from the page. As the daughter of a lithographer, I enjoyed reading about the process used prior to the technology of the 20th century - incredibly difficult work which could be ruined by a fingerprint or a mistimed exhalation. I also enjoyed learning more about the research done by the Goulds and their journey through the fledgling colony. I wish there had been more mention of the Indigenous peoples, but on reflection this was probably outside of Elizabeth's experience.
This book is a tribute both to an amazing woman and Australia's bird life. I'm looking forward to reading more by Melissa Ashley.
The genuinely interesting story of artist Elizabeth Gould, this fictionalised account succeeds where many such books fail by bringing Eliza's world to life in full, vibrant colour. It is readily apparent that the book has been extraordinarily well-researched, with a fantastic level of detail. In addition, Melissa Ashley writes beautifully, bringing the sights and sounds of 1800s Australia to life and creating a very real, very believable character in her fictionalised version of Elizabeth Gould. It's fascinating stuff, shedding light on a part of history not often written about and a real-life pioneer too long overlooked.
Based on a real life and meticulouusly researched, this book conveys information about the life of illustrator Elizabeth Gould, as well as the natural history craze sweeping Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.
Elizabeth Coxen married zoologist John Gould in 1829. Not only did she give birth to eight of his children, but she was also the illustrator for many of his publications on wildlife, particularly birds, around the world. In 1838 she accompanied him on a trip to Australia, where she provided the illustrations for his monograph, The Birds of Australia. Sadly, Elizabeth died at the age of 38 and her husband’s career significanly eclipsed that of her own. This book seeks to give her her own much deserved place in history.
Melissa Ashley manages to cram so much into this book about life in London in the 1820s and 30s and travel in Australia in the late 30s, as well as details about ornithography, zoology and the specimens John and Elizabeth Gould collected and described. And yet, it never really felt like the author was info-dumping. It was more like someone really passionate about their subject getting excited and wanting to share everything they can with you.
The novel is in first person, not something I am generally a fan of, but I did like Elizabeth’s narrative voice. It felt very appropriate to the time period, and I think it worked because it did allow for the glimpse into her innermost thoughts that we don’t really get a sense of by just reading the history books. The character of John Gould got a bit overbearing at times; while it was great to see a character so passionate about his calling, he certainly did let that overpower his devotion to his wife a lot, and that made me frown.
The novel is littered with other enjoyable side characters, such as the Gould children and extended family, Lady Franklin in Tasmania, and fellow illustrator Edward Lear (I had to google him to check it was the same Edward Lear who wrote the Owl and the Pussy Cat, and what do you know, it was! He was also a scientific illustrator).
The main reason this didn’t get a higher rating than 3.5 from me is more of a preference thing than anything actually “wrong” with the book. As this is based on someone’s life, it is more of a chronicle of things they did, rather than having a “plot” so to speak, with interesting twists and turns. I do find this sort of story a bit harder to get into to, and so it meant that it was a bit of a slower read for me. However, I am sure that people who read more historical fiction than I do will not have such a problem with this.
I was reading an ARC, so there were only a few examples of the illustrations, but I believe their are quite a few more was able to find some examples online of Elizabeth’s work, and I think having those in the final product will enhance the reading experience.
(Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Shuster Australia for a free copy of this book in exchange for a review)
In London in 1828, Elizabeth Coxen meets John Gould through her brother, Charles, who is employed by Gould as a taxidermist. The emotional connection between Elizabeth and John is immediate and thus begins a loving, although often challenging, partnership that will see Elizabeth taking on the responsibilities of wife and mother as well as illustrator of John’s books on the natural world.
We share at an intimate level the usual cares of a woman juggling her art with the demands of domestic life as well as the deep heartaches suffered in her loss of her babies. When John plans a voyage to Australia to document that continent’s unique fauna, Elizabeth faces her hardest decision in leaving some of her infant children behind in England at a time when life expectancy was fragile and communication took many months.
Whether in the hub-bub of London, on the high seas, on the rough streets of Hobart or the windswept Liverpool Plains, the evocative descriptions of 19th Century life and travel can’t be faulted. Many famous individuals of the time also pass through these pages, including Charles Darwin, Edward Lear and Lady Jane Franklin, and their characters are as carefully delineated as Elizabeth’s illustrations.
It is not easy reviewing a novel that is as awe-inspiring in the quality of its narrative as watching a bird-of-paradise strut its dazzling plumage. If you are an ornithologist, twitcher or wildlife artist you will adore this book without question. For anyone else with only a mild interest in birds - and less in the skills of taxidermy or the slaughter of beautiful creatures in the name of science - there may be problems with some of the content and its lengthy detail, but there can be no disputing it is a superb imagining of the life of a woman overshadowed by male achievement and must score five stars.
The Birdman's wife
This intriguing and delightful book has stayed in my mind for weeks after completing it. I usually write reviews as I finish books. In this case I have been obsessed by the story, repeatedly thinking about Elizabeth Gould's short life and being amazed at her achievements.
Elizabeth is the wife of the naturalist and 'Birdman' John Gould who we all know in Australia from the Gould League of Bird Lovers and the wonderful prints from his books. Of course I have been rotated to learn that he was not an illustrator and many of the illustrations in his books are by his wife and other artists including the humorist and illustrator Edward Lear,
The story is told in first person by Elizabeth and the writing comes with the detail you would expect from the authentic voice of a woman who is both a highly curious artist, mother and enthusiastic collaborator with her husband and their team. The sense of the excitement shines through in the beautiful writing and depiction of an age so different from our own.
Elizabeth has the unenviable outcome of having a passionate life with John Gould: the inevitable string of children and some grief of loss along with the joy. At the same time she produces a prodigious quantity of illustrations, usually done from preserved 'skins' and taxidermied specimens and even preparing lithographic stones for printing.
We learn of the scientific methodology at this time: the killing of hundreds and hundreds of specimens, with descriptions of virtual abattoirs to process the birds and animals for preservation and later study. We can be thankful that interest in the natural world in our age can be less destructive!
Soon after finishing this book I was in a small rural town in NSW and I was incensed when I saw a truly glowingly beautiful card featuring a reproduction of a Gould yellow tailed black cockatoo. On the reverse it was attributed to John Gould. I know that he did not illustrate his books and that the Australian birds were largely illustrated by Elizabeth. She like so many women ended up little recognized, but has made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
I highly recommend this delight of a book. It was both a revelation to understand this woman's life (I know it is a novel but it is closely based on what we know of her life) and to read such a nicely written book.
Starting in the early 1800s, this book is told in first person by Elizabeth as she meets and marries John Gould who becomes a famous ornithologist during a period of intense public interest in exotic birds. Elizabeth is an amateur artist who finds herself encouraged (somewhat pushed) by her husband into drawings of bird species while also giving birth to 8 children and joining him on a 2 year trip to Australia! This was not usual for a woman of the time, and so the author became fascinated with Elizabeth and clearly did an amazing amount of research not just into the Gould's, but also their professions. While I admire her research and devotion to brining Elizabeth's story to the world, I found it a very slow book and the descriptions of the birds and the drawing techniques became very tiresome to me. I would have much preferred more images of Elizabeth's work and less descriptions.
I would recommend this book to historical fiction fans who would like to learn more about a woman who has been somewhat forgotten in the shadow of her husband, and who don't mind a slow paced book with lots of details.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Note: I got this book as a netgalley advance copy and I'm exceedingly grateful for that.
Some of the books I get as advanced reading copies are nice. Some I can't bear to finish. Some, I can't put down and I want to shout about them from the rooftops. The Birdman's Wife is one of the latter.
So while I know who the Goulds were, I have no more than a passing interest in ornithology and have never looked at their works. After reading this, I went and googled the lithographs and they are just as exquisite as the novel makes them sound. If you're not a bird-lover, this book will make you interested in them. If you are, I imagine this book will absolutely enchant you.
It's the story of Elizabeth Gould, a governess who meets and soon marries ornithologist John Gould, a curator and preserver at the Zoological Association of London. In 1830, John starts on a project to catalog and publish a collection of bird specimens from the Himalayas and Elizabeth agrees to do the illustration. After another four works (and six children, two of whom sadly don't survive), Elizabeth, John and their eldest child Henry join Elizabeth's brothers in Australia where they study and collect the local wildlife. Back in London two years (and another child) later, Elizabeth works on 'Birds of Australia', an epic work of 600 lithographic plates. This contribution to ornithology (including 328 new species) is what the Gould's are most know for. Elizabeth then unfortunately dies of childbed fever shortly after the birth of her 8th child, in 1841.
That's the basic premise of the book and outlined as such, looks stiff and boring.
Luckily, the prose is gorgeous, the flow fast paced and eager and the characters beautifully rendered. Ashley has done an amazing job of getting the reader to dive deep into Elizabeth's world - not only do you go on her journeys with her, but you do so as an intimate friend. I felt like I was immersed in her life, following along as if Elizabeth herself was talking to me over tea (or a nice port), and the tragic ending caught me a little off guard.
But it's not just a wonderfully written and easy to read story - it's a very well researched work, with impeccable science to back it up. Ashley wrote the novel for her PhD, and spent four years doing the work, including becoming a volunteer taxidermist and avid birdwatcher. Science doesn't make the book boring, instead it enriches it. I knew this was a first novel when I requested it, but Ashley writes as a master (which she indeed is, having received several awards and scholarships for her prose) and effortlessly integrates her research with her storytelling. She is currently (according to her website) researching a book on the "scandalously audacious life of a seventeenth-century French fairy tale writer" which I'm sure will be every bit as delicious as her debut.
I loved the setting of this book, early to mid 19th century Britain and Australia, and I loved even more when birds were mentioned that I knew about. I loved the diary style writing, including the daily ephemera of every day life and conversations with her husband. I loved that Ashley delves into the process of artwork, the vagaries of the muse and the excitement of new technology. I loved the dilemma of leaving her children behind, which is heartwrenching and real and beautifully written. I didn't love that the book starts when she meets Gould, as I see that as taking some of Elizabeth's extraordinary personhood away (although, it is called the Birdman's Wife, so I guess it makes sense to start when she becomes that). I didn't love that the book wasn't a million pages longer (although I see the need to keep it under 400 pages). Also, goddammit, I didn't love that she up and dies. It's actually quite devastating, which shows Ashley's skill as a writer - not only do you enter the world of the Gould's, but you become friendly with them. You forgive John his never ending drive, seeing it as passion. You think fondly of Mary and Daisy, their devotion to Elizabeth. You look forward to seeing the children blossom and grow. And you come to love Elizabeth as a cherished friend, one whose untimely passing is deeply mourned.
To write a book based so heavily in a narrow branch of natural sciences where you still fall in love with the characters is surely the sign of an accomplished and amazing author - Melissa Ashley is certainly that.
Book Review – The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley
Three and a half stars
Elizabeth Gould was a prolific illustrator of birds during the 1800s. She was married to John Gould, a famous ornithologist during the time when the general public was infatuated with information about exotic bird species.
Melissa Ashley spent years undertaking research for the novel ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ – a meticulously researched and intimate historical fiction finally giving Elizabeth Gould’s work it’s proper place in natural history.
The novel traces Elizabeth’s intense relationship with John Gould from their very first meeting. He was a driven and ambitious man and expected much from his wife. Elizabeth struggled for professional recognition and like her modern counterparts, struggled with balancing her work and family life.
‘The Birdman’s Wife’ is historical fiction and will have appeal for those interested in women’s issues, ornithology, and art.
The story covers Elizabeth’s eleven-year career, during which she accompanied her husband on an expedition to Australia, an unusual move for women of the time. Ashley paints a beautiful story and gives the reader a fascinating insight into Elizabeth’s life as a wife, mother and professional illustrator.
Although Ashley’s descriptions of bird species were poetic throughout the book, not being a bird-lover myself, I found the descriptions tedious after a while. I would much prefer to see a picture with the text. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to and felt the pace to be unnecessarily slow at times. To be fair, I had great expectations of this book and if I had come to the story without these, I suspect I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
Ashley has produced an interesting and thought-provoking read and I am sure ‘The Birdman’s wife’ will delight many readers.
Thank you again to Simon and Schuster (Australia) for providing me with an ARC and I look forward to seeing the colour end papers on the book’s release in October.
‘And anyhow, I cannot do it without you.’
Elizabeth Coxen was born on 18 July 1804 at Ramsgate in England. In January 1829 she married John Gould, a zoologist. Over a decade, she designed and completed some 650 hand-coloured lithographs of exotic bird species. Elizabeth Gould is commemorated in the name of the Gouldian finch of tropical Australia (Chloebia (Poëphila) gouldiae), but what do we know about this woman? How might her life have been lived during the nineteenth century?
‘Natural history and the associated art of taxidermy were becoming a craze.’
The novel opens with Elizabeth stepping from a carriage in Bruton Street, London in 1828 on her way to meet John Gould. Her brother, Charles, is employed by John Gould and Elizabeth has been invited to undertake some drawing for him. The beginning of what will become a great partnership.
To read this novel is to see the world through Elizabeth’s eyes: to become immersed in her life, to appreciate how she juggled family responsibilities with her artistic work in what was a golden age of natural discovery. In 1838 John and Elizabeth Gould, accompanied by their eldest son and a nephew travelled to Australia to discover the curious birdlife. Their younger children were left at home with Elizabeth’s mother. For me, this is a fascinating part of the novel. While Elizabeth is always concerned for the children she has left behind, she forms a friendship with Lady Jane Franklin in Hobart Town, and gives birth to another child (named Franklin) there.
The Goulds returned to England in 1840. To write more about this novel would introduce spoilers for those unfamiliar with the details of Elizabeth Gould’s life. I don’t wish to do that because part of the magic of this novel is the way the story unfolds. This is a beautifully written novel: it took me into the nineteenth century, into a world I can only read about.
To write this novel, Ms Ashley (herself a keen birdwatcher) undertook years of research in order to learn more about Elizabeth Gould. And, in John Gould’s letter book at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, she found a small diary covering a two-week period of Elizabeth’s life in Sydney, Newcastle and Maitland. According to Ms Ashley’s Author’s Note, this diary and a dozen letters are all that exist of Elizabeth Gould’s thoughts and experiences.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. I will be buying my own copy of the novel once it is released, as I want to see the beautiful drawings it contains in colour.
I requested this title not knowing what to expect. It turns out to be faction novel based on the life of nature artist Elizabeth Gould, and told in her own voice. Elizabeth was married to British ornithologist John Gould, and produced hundreds of scientific illustrations for his works, most of which were birds. This novel is not only thick but dense with detail, so don't start it if you're not committed. Having said that, here are all my reasons for ranking it 5 stars.
1) The cameo appearances from other famous historical figures of their time are great fun. There's Edward Lear, shown as a clever, talented young man with a flair for the comical, and Charles Darwin, a celebrated scientist recently returned from his collecting expedition on the HMS Beagle. He inspires John to want to embark on their own, once in a lifetime Australian expedition. There's Sir John Franklin, the governor of Tasmania, and his powerful and scientific wife Lady Jane, who even leads expeditions of discovery.
2) Elizabeth's voice always comes across like that of a nineteenth century woman. She notices the things they'd notice, and doesn't notice things a more modern woman might. This shows how deeply immersed in her character the twenty-first century author must have been while writing it.
3) The husband/wife partnership is interesting to read, and their essential character differences are highlighted. John is depicted with a good natured manner, yet he's still a driven fanatic, and taxing task master to his staff of helpers, including his wife. Elizabeth is kind hearted and endlessly grapples with guilt about having to kill birds and animals in the name of science. 'Few creatures were spared my husband's ambition.' She also admits that even though she's a woman of science, she still enjoys what she calls the 'myths of unenlightened men' including stories, legends, folklore and symbols.
4) It's good to learn the difficulties and expenses nineteenth century artists faced, so we can give them the respect they deserve. Elizabeth used all sorts of rare and wonderful ingredients to make her palette mixes accurate, including the imported urine of Brahmin cows which had been fed special mango leaves. Seriously!
5) The pages of notes by Melissa Ashley at the end shows how this project became her consuming passion. She was already an avid birder, but set herself the task of learning the different, complex art techniques and lithography, to help bring Elizabeth's voice to life. She even became a volunteer trainee taxidermist, to add authenticity. That's commitment!
6) I recorded heaps of quotes, but will choose to share just this one, about our passions and how the things we spend our days doing end up becoming our identity. Elizabeth said, 'I painted, I studied, and in this constant striving, became me.' Although she died sadly young, it can be argued that she'd lived a fuller life than many ladies in their eighties or nineties. Also, I've got to appreciate the way Melissa Ashley gave a voice to this remarkable lady whose name had been eclipsed by her husband's fame for over a century.
7) One of my favourite features of this book is that it helped cure my own wanderlust and discontentment. The Goulds sacrificed so much to travel to Australia, a journey many thought they were mad to undertake. Elizabeth's maternal heartstrings were torn when she had to leave her three younger children with relatives for two years, since the gruelling voyage would likely have proven too taxing for them. Yet when they arrived in Australia, their wonder and delight with the flora and fauna which is so familiar to me is described brilliantly. Nowhere else in the world is like it, and I don't have to go through all they did to appreciate it, since I'm already down here.
The chapters in the story are all named after the different birds that surround me each day. Superb fairy wrens, sulphur crested cockatoos, red wattlebirds, willy wagtails, honey eaters, zebra finches, Major Mitchell cockatoos, just to name a few. There's some touching reminders that the nation must remain poles apart from the rest of the world. On the way back, the Goulds' healthy specimens perished in transit, including kangaroos, wombats, koalas and possums, as well as birds. Once again, what a wonderful ecosystem we Aussies get to enjoy. I wouldn't have expected a novel named 'The Birdman's Wife' to give my patriotism a boost, but that's just what it did.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster (Australia) and NetGalley for my review copy.
Growing up in Australia, I have always been aware of John Gould's beautiful bird illustrations from the early days of white settlement in the 1800s. It wasn't until reading this book that I learnt that although Gould was a highly esteemed ornithologist and scientist, it was wife, Elizabeth, and other artists who drew and coloured the beautiful drawings that accompanied his descriptions.
Elizabeth Gould was indeed an interesting woman and Melissa Ashley has obviously spent a great deal of time and effort finding out as much as she could about Elizabeth's life from the scant traces that are left in libraries and museums. After meeting John Gould through her brother, a taxidermist, Elizabeth went on to marry him and employ her amateur artistic skills to become an accomplished wildlife illustrator. She travelled to Australia with him, leaving three of her young children at home for two years, to help him with collecting and documenting the unique birds and wildlife to be found there. She truly helped to make John Gould a famous name to bird lovers.
While I found the story of Elizabeth fascinating and think the author has highlighted the need for her to be recognised as a pioneer in wildlife illustration, I did find the book a bit too detailed at times. The descriptions of the collection, stuffing, anatomical details and the process involved in illustrating the birds did become somewhat repetitive and could have been trimmed back in many places. Perhaps this reflects that this novel arose from a PhD thesis where there was a scholarly focus on the preparation of the birds and the processes involved in carrying out the illustrations, but for a novel a stronger focus on the main character rather than the birds is needed. However, I am not a bird watcher and don't have a scientific interest in them so it may be that those who do will enjoy those details of the book much more. I do love the cover of the book as well as some of Elizabeth's drawings included at the end of the novel. I would recommend this book to bird lovers and also to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of interesting women who were often relegated to second place behind their husband's fame.
So I need to first get out of the way my gushing over the cover. While I'm happy to have read this book, my one regret is that I read it in digital format; as soon as next payday rolls around I'll be taking myself off to get a hardcopy of it. There are some of Elizabeth Gould's illustrations in the book and after seeing photos of it on Twitter, I really feel like I missed out. So if you're going to read this, you must get your hands on a physical copy.
The inside of the book was just as lovely as the outside. Melissa Ashley's writing is beautiful and really evoked a sense of time and place both in London and in Australia, the latter in particular. The narrative felt natural and not at all forced, and it made it easy for me to settle in and block the world out for a little while. This was an especially big thing for me, as the narrative is from a first person perspective which I sometimes find difficult to read, mostly because the voice doesn't always seem real. But this was never an issue when reading The Birdman's Wife.
I found the life of Elizabeth Gould completely fascinating and she truly was an admirable woman. She was an ar tist, wife, mother, and convention breaker in a time when her expected place was in the home. Although this is a fictionalised account, it doesn't change the fact that it's a real shame that Elizabeth is less well-known than her husband. While it was quite fortunate that she married a man who recognised that she had talent and he enabled her to put that talent to use, the reality was that they were a team and without her artwork and dedication he may not have been successful as he was.
The book gets quite detailed in relation to the collection and taxidermy of the birds, which I personally found interesting, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea. I actually thought it provided a great contrast between Elizabeth and John: she taking the less destructive route of recording the birds (that being said, her drawings were largely based on specimens collected by John); while he was the embodiment of the typical Georgian/Victorian attitude towards conservation, i.e., they hadn't given it a lot of thought at that point - at least not to the extent that we think about it today. That's not to say that he killed needlessly, but he certainly had more of a focus on collecting than observing.
I had a great time reading this book. Not only was it a pleasure to read, but it catered to my love of nature and my growing interest in natural history. The Birdman's Wife is probably the worst nightmare for the little birds I share my home with, but I really enjoyed learning about taxidermy practices, as well as Elizabeth's own methods for painting (particularly the mixing of colours). It's also worth reading the author's note at the end, as Ashley tells the story of how her book came about and the things she did as part of her research, including spending some time as a trainee taxidermist to learn all the ins and outs of the occupation. It really was just as interesting as the book itself.
Many of us know something of English ornithologist, John Gould (1804–81), most famous for his collaboration with Charles Darwin and his pioneering study of Australian birdlife. Rather less is known of Gould’s wife and collaborator, Elizabeth (1804–41), a successful artist and scientist in her own right, who created many of the scientific illustrations that accompany Gould’s writings.
In The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press, Oct. 2016), Melissa Ashley offers a fictional (though thoroughly researched) portrait of Elizabeth’s life, including the two-year scientific expedition she and her husband undertook to the then newly-colonised Australia. It’s a beautifully-written and finely detailed account that explores how Elizabeth managed the often conflicting roles of artist, scientist, wife and mother.
I love tales of exploration and adventure, particularly those with women at the helm. Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2012) is one of my all-time favourites, and I’m currently enjoying Stef Penney’s Under a Pole Star (2016). So I was very keen to read The Birdman’s Wife, not only for the fact that Elizabeth Gould was a real scientist, artist and pioneer but also for the opportunity to hear her story as told by a promising debut novelist.
I’m so ridiculously behind with my reviews that it’s beyond a joke, and I should really be playing catch-up, but I finished The Birdman’s Wife a few days ago, and I couldn’t wait to gush about it and recommend that you all get your hands on a copy, ASAP.
Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I dabble, and rarely have I read a novel so diligently researched as The Birdman’s Wife. From the processes of taxidermy and the fiddly business of mixing paints, to the conditions of life aboard a ship bound for the colonies, to the details of a woman’s confinement after giving birth, Ashley is incredibly thorough. In fact, if I have any criticism of The Birdman’s Wife, it’s that the details occasionally overwhelm. However, these details are so thoughtful (and often surprising) that it’s hard to begrudge Ashley her slight diversions and indulgences.
More than that, The Birdman’s Wife is exquisitely written. Ashley’s prose is immersive and compelling, giving vivid life to her characters and their world. As the title suggests, Elizabeth is at the centre of the story: a woman who is expected to support her ambitious husband (and does), while also enjoying a successful career and being a mother to the Goulds’ ever-expanding brood of children (she gives birth to eight, though not all survive). Ashley delves deep into Elizabeth’s scientific curiosity and her creativity life, while also having her question the sacrifices she and her colleagues make in the name of discovery. I particularly enjoyed Ashley’s depiction of Elizabeth as a woman working in a male-dominated field without becoming ‘one of the boys’. Rather, Elizabeth embraces her femininity and uses it to become a better scientist and artist. For example, John is into taxidermy in a BIG way, and the reader gets the impression that, while he labours in the name of science, he is also a hunter collecting trophies. (Is there a greater symbol of masculine conquest and colonialism than an animal stuffed and mounted?) Elizabeth, while not squeamish about all the killing, is uncomfortable with it, and as her skills develop, she finds she can more accurately capture a species when drawing from life rather than her husband’s specimens. For her, her work is about observation and discovery rather than ownership and conquest. She’s also a woman who likes to dress up on occasion and delights in domesticity. She relishes her role as a mother and struggles, as many modern women do, to balance her working and family life.
The minor characters are equally well-rounded, especially John Gould who is at once both admirable and brilliant, but also single-minded and (let’s face it) a bit of an asshat. In early colonial days, Australia was a brutal, unforgiving place. To a) survive it and b) get your name in the history books, you had to be pretty bloody ruthless. But Ashley takes care to show us why Elizabeth loves John and why their marriage is a success.
While I was excited to learn more about Elizabeth and her story, I was a little hesitant about the subject of her work (the fact that I loved this book as much as I did is something of a miracle). Okay *deep breath* here’s the thing: I’m terrified of birds. Especially dead ones. And The Birdman’s Wife is full of them. When I was eight or so, my family stayed with friends on a farm near Peterborough, SA. We drove around to visit some of the ruins in the area, including the remains of an old church. Being a little kid, I was eager to explore and ran inside. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I found myself surrounded by countless dead birds in varying stages of decay. They’d flown in through gaps in the roof and become trapped, and the floor was carpeted with them. It was like something out of Barbara Baynton. John Gould would have been delighted. I, on the other hand, never quite recovered.
However, while I struggled with some of Ashley’s more vivid descriptions of the taxidermy process (and, ye gods, is she a stickler for detail!), I was ultimately grateful for her candour. There’s a tendency to romanticise the European/British exploration and settlement of Australia. Certainly, when I was at school, the narrative we were taught was that of brave male adventurers and scientists questing boldly into the unknown. Explorers and settlers’ horrific treatment of indigenous Australians, the appalling conditions convicts endured and the disastrous effects of introducing foreign species of native flora and fauna were rather glossed over. Women didn’t even get a look in. I was well into my twenties before I ever heard of Lady Jane Franklin (and was absolutely thrilled to see Ashley give her a substantial role in The Birdman’s Wife). So it was refreshing to read a story that didn’t shy away from the cost of Gould’s discoveries and to have that story narrated from one of the marginalised voices we so rarely hear from.
It’s clear that The Birdman’s Wife is a labour of love, executed with an unusual level of care and detail. In this, The Birdman’s Wife somewhat reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013): both are debut novels that began as creative writing PhD projects, and both authors harness the dedication and depth of research that a PhD demands to offer a more complex and nuanced view of women who have traditionally been simplified and sidelined by history. Both Kent and Ashley’s enthusiasm for their subjects radiates from the page. I believe this, in part, is what makes Burial Rites such a captivating read, and I hope Ashley’s novel goes on to enjoy similar success.
A suburb story of Elizabeth Gould, the wife of Australian ornithologist, John Gould, and the illustrator of his books. The detail may be too much for some readers, but as a bird watcher myself (in a very small way, but married to a man for whom it is a passion!) and as a lover of Australia and its amazing wildlife, this made it more fascinating for me. The vignettes of other scientists of the time were well done and added to the pleasure. 4.5 stars.
I found this book fascinating even though my knowledge of birds is very limited!
Elizabeth Coxen was born in 1804 and became the wife of John Gould, a famous English ornithologist and bird artist. The novel is well researched and gives us a clear understanding of the difficulties of being an artist, wife, and mother in those times. The sacrifices she made- moving to Australia to help her husband, leaving behind her three youngest children- were enormous. Her artistic talents were obviously outstanding but always in the shadow of her husband.
Melissa Ashley written a tribute to an amazing woman in this detailed and thoughtful novel.
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