The spoiler alert in this book review is that it is based on a real-life woman: Elizabeth Gould, the wife of an eminent ornithologist / taxidermist, John Gould. If you look up John Gould, you’ll find his Wikipedia entry, which says, “A bird artist”, describing his monographs as “illustrated by plates that he produced with the assistance of his wife, Elizabeth Gould”.
Further enquiry into Elizabeth’s life yields an Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, written by A.H. Chisholm in 1944: “It would appear that the strain of motherhood, together with the executing of approximately 600 drawings for publications, had sapped her vitality.”
600 drawings? Executing? Not merely assisting? In addition to ‘motherhood’, without explanation that this meant eight births.
Too often I hear (usually from men) that women never did anything in history to write about. What they are generally referring to are those ‘great deeds’ of men who were able to dedicate their lives to and sustain an uninterrupted focus on their area of specialisation. Women’s yearnings were sidelined and their lives circumscribed by multiple childbirth.
A.H. Chisholm wrote a ‘complete’ biography of Elizabeth Gould in 1944. In contrast, Melissa Ashley has written a fictional biography, or biographical fiction, of her in The Birdman’s Wife, which revitalises Elizabeth, colouring in her passions, her struggles, her continual negotiation of the demands of being a working artist and a mother.
This beautifully written novel presents a ‘complete’ picture of a family unit—that one man’s crowning achievements were in fact a family enterprise. John Gould may have been able to strut about like a peacock, but his ‘story’ his more complete when put in context alongside the female of his species, their young, and the materials from which he made his nest.
Early in the novel, approaching her first childbirth, Elizabeth muses:
“I would line the nest for our future collaborations. I was made for foraging. I would gather reeds and sticks, bits of straw and cobweb, mosses and grasses, insect wings and shell particles, torn petals and seed husks, all of which I would weave and press into place. My role for now was to assemble a dwelling in which we might raise our complementary talents. What did it matter if I were the nest-based hen, while John flared his pretty peacock’s tail strutting about Regent’s Park?”
As a work of historical fiction, The Birdman’s Wife does not attempt to make Elizabeth a ‘feisty heroine’ anachronistically questioning the gender inequalities of the day. Instead, her voice feels authentic, and Elizabeth wants to be able to raise a family, make a home, and to draw. But she is conscious that she has ambitions, pushing gently against the gender norms. “By my works, I stood apart. As did Lady Franklin… a woman who, like me, was not following the path society had set out for her, but rather forging her own way.”
Statements by her husband, such as “I have a bird-sketcher of my very own. Trained, talented. And she costs nothing at all” do not have the same effect on her that they would on a modern-day woman. She does not see herself as on a par with Edward Lear, whom her husband employs, rather she is excited at the opportunity for professional development by working alongside the noted lithographer.
Ashley has done Elizabeth Gould a great service for imagining her life within the parameters of what would have been possible in her circumscribed life of multiple childbirth and limited professional opportunities. It is because of these parameters that the reader perceives how incredible it was for Elizabeth to venture with her husband to Australia, making personal sacrifices in leaving the children behind.
This sacrifice is a constant sore spot for Elizabeth, as preoccupied as she is with sketching birds in Australia, bearing more children, raising her eldest, and making friends with Lady Franklin. On more than one occasion she questions: “Did obtaining the one set of observances, for the betterment of natural history, justify the negligence of the everyday milestones reached by my own children?”
This conflict is at the heart of women’s stories, whether historical or contemporary fiction.
“It was an exciting thought that the hen had never been drawn by an illustrator. As if the beauty of the male overwhelmed any interest in the mundane, domestic aspects of the species as a whole. But that was my husband, who never viewed the more spectacular sex in isolation from its mate. John wished to know the behaviour of the entire family, of the larger tribe, and how each individual’s role played out.”
Melissa Ashley’s The Birdman’s Wife, shows how historical fiction can somehow be more ‘complete’ than a biography. As so few women’s lives, inner or outer, have been documented historically, it is critical that fiction enters the interstices of archives, to render in full colour an understanding of the past. That men’s great deeds were interdependent on the women and families around them.
My copy courtesy of Netgalley.