Melissa Ashley’s book The Birdman’s Wife has been on my mind for quite a while as a candidate for both Book Snap Sunday and the Gaia Reading challenge. The novel is a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabeth Gould, the wife of taxidermist and naturalist John Gould. While John garnered most of the attention for his beautifully illustrated books of wildlife, it was definitely a partnership with his wife Elizabeth, as Ashley’s book makes abundantly clear.
The Birdman’s Wife is a love story. Firstly it is the story of a wonderful partnership between two people, John and Elizabeth, who were “compatible in every aspect”. It is also the story of a woman with a great passion for art and nature, and her struggle to balance her life as an artist with her other great love, her children.
“Love is like collecting…the care, the attention, the stopping of nothing to attain one’s desire. They have rather more than less in common.”
Sadly Elizabeth’s life ended shortly after the birth of her last child at the age of 37. After eight pregnancies Elizabeth tells John “I cannot ever repeat this,” but it is too late. Her life is cut short, exhausted by “the toll that bearing a child exacted.” An all too common fate for women of this time.
Artists and nature lovers will appreciate the wonderful detail that Ashley provides both about the specimens and Elizabeth’s painstaking endeavour to depict them as accurately as she can, striving to achieve exactly the right colours and present them in their own natural environment. As Elizabeth reflects, “We had taken its life, so I had best ensure that the exchange was not in vain.”
This conflict between the necessity to take life in order to advance scientific knowledge and record and preserve new species weaves a thread through the narrative. For Elizabeth to sketch and paint wildlife species, they first had to be collected, killed, stuffed and preserved. Most of the live specimens that the Goulds collected in Australia never made it back to England alive, despite their best intentions.
“was it me…who was more disturbed by the bloodshed of collecting?… I shared the thrill of seeing these creatures in the wild, but I was finding it harder to marry my joy…with acceptance of their fates…destined to join John’s growing collection.”
“The number of animals whose lives we and others would sacrifice in the service of science was unaccountable…it was we who wielded the power to decide whether a creature…lived or died.”
The Birdman’s Wife is a beautifully presented book. Each chapter is named after one of the birds that Elizabeth illustrated and her iconic illustration of the superb lyrebird, which became the emblem for John and Elizabeth’s book, is featured both on the front cover and opposite the title page. The book is pictured above with a copy of John Gould’s The Birds of Australia which I found in the USQ library, open of course to the page featuring the superb lyrebird. Interestingly, this edition of Gould’s book, published in 1973, contains this quote by John Gould.
“It may be possible–and indeed it is most likely that flocks of Parakeets no longer fly over the houses and chase each other in the streets of Hobart Town and Adelaide, that no longer does the noble Bustard stalk over the flats of the Upper Hunter nor the Emus feed and breed on the Liverpool plains as they did at that time; and if this be so, surely the Australians should at once bestir themselves to render protection to those and many other native birds; otherwise very many of them…will soon become extinct.”
Nothing more to be said really.