The Birdman’s Wife is the debut novel of Melissa Ashley, published by Affirm Press. It has arrived on the literary scene accompanied by a good deal of promotion and publicity – and for good reason. The Birdman’s Wife is a fascinating historical study, a meticulous and well-documented scientific report, an emotional story, and an engaging read.
Elizabeth Gould was a wife and mother, an artist and illustrator, a tenacious, curious, dedicated and adventurous woman. She was the Birdman’s Wife, the Birdman of course being John Gould, the famous father of ornithology, who spent much of the second half of the 1800’s collecting, displaying, cataloguing and publishing wildlife, most particularly native birdlife from the wilds of Australia. John Gould’s life and intellectual pursuits are well-documented; there are countless books by him and about him that depict his scientific endeavours. Less known is the invaluable contribution that his wife Elizabeth gave to his projects. In fact, while she was alive it seems it really was more a case of ‘their’ projects, for evidence points to Elizabeth playing a vital role in the studies they conducted.
In this novel, Melissa Ashley has pored over countless primary and secondary sources, she has travelled near and far, she has rolled up her sleeves and got her hands dirty experiencing taxonomy, she has hunted down descendants and family history, all in order to shine a spotlight on the talents and achievements of Elizabeth Gould. She has spun fiction from the base threads of fact, and what has resulted is a compelling and intriguing insight into Elizabeth’s mind, her actions, her emotions, her family life and her work.
Any book such as this automatically has a spoiler alert: any cursory internet search will reveal that Elizabeth Gould died after bearing her eighth child, at the young age of only 37. And yet this fact does not detract from the intense suspension and pace of the novel; it does not dissuade the reader from frantically turning the pages in order to discover what happens next. And so very much did happen in her relatively short life, and because the novel is written in such an engaging and interesting style we are immediately drawn to the voice of Elizabeth as it rises from the pages from over 150 years earlier; from the very first chapter we care deeply about this woman and her dreams, we fall in love with her, we fret with her about her children, we worry over the quality of her work, we feel her fear and trepidation as she embarks on the epic voyage that will change her life.
Elizabeth meets John Gould by chance. They marry, and discover they have much in common, including a love for animal and birdlife, and a desire to share their knowledge of creatures with others – John through his words and Elizabeth through her drawings. John skins and stuffs specimens; his wife illustrates them, capturing their essence, their colours, their peculiar poses or habits or characteristics. Her magnificent illustrations breathe life into her husband’s lifeless specimens. Together they produce definitive manuals on Australia’s birdlife after a two-year period of study here, the pair travelling (five months by sea) with their eldest son, and leaving their other children in the care of Elizabeth’s mother. She produced over 650 hand-coloured lithographs; she was asked to paint Charles Darwin’s Galapagos Finches. Nearly all of these works were signed by both her husband and herself, as was common at the time, but it was Elizabeth’s talent that really brought the beauty and uniqueness of many species to light.
Access to Elizabeth’s diary and correspondence have allowed Melissa to imagine the details and minutiae of her daily life. Her love for her children – the terrible wrench of leaving them in order to accompany her husband on his travels to the southern continent! Her feminist thoughts, bound by her Victorian constraints. Her artistic ambition, overshadowed always by her husband’s drive and reputation.
This book will appeal to artists, to environmentalists, to bird-lovers, to scientists and to taxonomists. But it also has general appeal to readers, to lovers of a good story. The writing is well-researched, concise and captivating. The story is gripping and enthralling – even though we already know the facts and the ending! Melissa achieves this by making it about the journey, not about the destination. Each new child, every fresh illustration, all of the small, quiet personal achievements, and each major scientific discovery – all are celebrated and enjoyed with equal pleasure.
And as an additional bonus, the beautifully-bound hardback is complete with full-colour endpapers of Elizabeth’s renderings.
I was fortunate to hear Melissa speak at the Queensland Museum & Sciencentre about her research and her forays into the (smelly) world of taxonomy, about her tantalising glimpse of Elizabeth the woman and how she set about discovering the whole of her life story in technicolour. It is clear that Melissa harbours a great love and respect for the bird world, and for those who had the opportunity years ago to make startling discoveries and world-first observations. It is also clear that she has managed to unveil the story behind one of the great and intrepid female characters of history. Surely the phrase ‘behind every great man stands an even greater woman’ must have been coined about Elizabeth Gould. I have seldom found history to be so absorbing and so thrilling, and yet so familiar and so relevant.