Melissa Ashley’s imaginative historical novel repositions Elizabeth Gould as the artistic talent behind her much more famous husband, John
Phil Brown “Books” QWeekend, 1 October, 2016
John Gould is revered as the nation’s father of ornithology and his seven-volume book The Birds of Australia (1840-1848), with its gorgeous illustrations, is considered an almost sacred text.
But it was his wife Elizabeth who did much of the work, according to Brisbane author Melissa Ashley, who has brought her to the forefront in The Birdman’s Wife, a fascinating historical novel.
“It was while I was reading a biography of John Gould that I discovered Elizabeth Gould,” Ashley explains. “She was his wife and primary artist for the first 11 years of his business.
“She was a shadowy, somewhat enigmatic figure, and the more I learnt about her, the more interested I became.”
It helps that Ashley, a 43-year-old mother of two, shares a love of birds and saw in the relationship between the Goulds a similarity with her own life, as she explains in an author’s note in the book. “Elizabeth and John Gould’s intense creative relationship intrigued me from the very beginning because it reflected a similar coupling in my own life as a writer,” Ashley writes. “My love of birds was first inspired by my love for a poet, and his poem about a black-faced cuckoo shrike.”
The poem, written by her former partner, Queensland-born poet, editor and arts administrator/educator Brett Dionysius, made it clear to Ashley that she knew little about Australian birds and spurred her on to want to know more. So she became interested and now describes herself as an “avid birder.”
Since becoming one she has read widely on the subject and such reading will always lead to John Gould, the English zoologist who came to Australia in 1838 on the Parsee with wife Elizabeth and son Henry.
In Australia for under two years, the couple worked at identifying and illustrating the country’s rich birdlife. While we hear a lot about Gould there is little written about his wife, and that got Ashley’s attention.
“She had such an important role and they worked so closely together,” Ashley points out.
“In the first book they put out, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains (1830-1832), she signed as the artist on all of the plates.
“In other books it’s a co-signature. John wasn’t an artist in the way Elizabeth was and he would have made rough sketches to begin with, which she would have completed. We don’t know how much about her because it’s his name that was on the front of the books and he seemed happy to take the credit.”
Ashley’s portrayal of him in the book is, however, warm and largely sympathetic. Still, she wanted to reclaim a proper place for Elizabeth Gould and does that in the most engaging way.
The woman that emerges from her narrative is a charming, talented person who was not without her foibles.
Ashley says one of the things that intrigued her was that Elizabeth left her three small children at home in England when she sailed from her homeland in 1838.
Was she a bad mother? Clearly not, but she obviously wanted an adventure.
She had a brood of children and died at the age of 37 after giving birth to her eighth, which adds a tragic dimension to this story. It’s a love story of sorts and a bit of a history lesson about colonial Australia, where the Goulds spent time in the Tasmanian capital of Hobarton (later Hobart), the Hunter Valley and Sydney.
And it’s a story about birds, too, of course.
Ashley’s research has been thorough and allows her to flesh out her story with a sense of authority. She began the story as part of her doctorate in creative writing at the University of Queensland. It is probably not etiquette in academic circles for the book to precede the completion of her PhD, and Ashley feigns guilt about that.
Her research for the novel took her to major libraries where she could read the letters of Elizabeth Gould and see original prints. She also spent several weeks at the University of Kansas in the US, where a huge cache of Gould material is kept in the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.
In addition, Ashley learnt taxidermy at the Queensland Museum along the way, stuffing birds in the manner that John Gould would have. That, more than anything, shows how determined she was and what a labour of love working on this book must have been. And now it’s done and the world can finally meet Elizabeth Gould in the flesh – or the fictional flesh – at least.
The Birdman’s Wife
Affirm Press, October 2016