Spectrum October 14, 2016
The birds came first. Melissa Ashley was a twitcher before she decided to write The Birdman’s Wife, a historical novel that brings Elizabeth Gould out of the shadow of her husband John, Australia’s most celebrated ornithologist.
A New Zealander, Ashley, 43, came to Australia aged eight with her parents as the eldest of four children. As an adult living in inner-city Brisbane, she worked in disability care, helping deaf people talk on the phone before technology took over that role. She first became interested in birds when her poet partner wrote a poem about a black-faced cuckoo shrike. Ashley had also published a collection of poems, A Hospital For Dolls, in 2003 and decided that in order to share her partner’s other enthusiasm, she would join a birdwatching group.
The Birds of Australia, Mitchell Library. Photo by Edwina Pickles
“I seemed to spend all my time focusing my binoculars,” she says of her amateur beginnings. But she caught the bug and was soon going out with more seasoned watchers to count waterfowl as part of a data-gathering project and spending holidays interstate to spot highly prized species, including going to Far North Queensland and paying a guide to find a golden bowerbird in its natural habitat. “I became obsessed with my bird list to the point of competing with my partner.” Even her four-year-old daughter shared her interest: “She made herself wings and ran around the house flapping her arms.”
After the poet flew the nest, Ashley remained a committed birder (her website is called Satin Bowerbird). Her favourite species are the fairy wren she sees frequently in her backyard, featured in an exquisite painting by Elizabeth Gould on the cover of her novel, and the royal albatross – a scene-stealing presence in an entirely imagined episode in the book, but which Ashley has yet to see for herself.
As a self-confessed research nerd Ashley is happiest fossicking about in archives and says she enjoyed writing the scenes on board the ship that brings the Goulds to Australia because she loved learning the nautical terminology.
“It was The Birdman, Isabella Tree’s biography of John Gould that drew me to Elizabeth,” she says. “She made her such an enigma. I wondered how it felt to be pregnant every nine months, to lose two children, to leave family behind to join her husband’s expedition to Australia, to develop her skill as an artist and become such an essential part of Gould’s fame and success while being so under-acknowledged.”
Elizabeth Gould designed and completed 650 superb hand-coloured lithographs of the world’s most beautiful bird species, including Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches, before dying at the age of just 37. As well as being her husband’s secret weapon, she became close friends with Lady Jane Franklin, another woman remarkable for her curiosity and initiative in the Victorian era, as wife of the Governor of Tasmania. And she formed a professional friendship with the eccentric artist Edward Lear, who joined the Goulds for seven years due to his impecunious circumstances. “He was an ally to Elizabeth in that he teased John slightly about being a bit of a miser and very demanding.”
These secondary characters act as a foil to John Gould, who comes across as relentlessly energetic, ambitious and entrepreneurial. In real life, he was no match for his his wife’s artistic skill, despite his fame for the book Birds of Australia. Ashley says she too lacks drawing ability.
Not to be deterred, Ashley took up a dare from an unusual source, a volunteer taxidermy group member at the Queensland Museum. In order to fully appreciate Elizabeth Gould’s talents for making dead, stuffed specimens come alive on the page, Ashley learned the basics of the craft. “I needed to look at plumage, beaks, claws,” she says.
It was a fitting decision, given that Elizabeth’s brother Charles worked for John Gould as a taxidermist and introduced the couple. John Gould employed a team of so called-stuffers; Ashley joined the volunteers’ circle for a year. “It was terrible to start with, my fingers bled from the sewing. It’s quite a business, you get the specimens out of a giant freezer and use scalpels to cut them open to and remove the innards, including removing the meat out of the wings, which is very fiddly, and then you fill the body cavity with Dacron and cotton wool before stitching them up to be wrapped in gauze like a shroud.
“The best part was the stories the others told about the dangers involved in collecting fresh specimens of roadkill. One volunteer had almost fallen into the carcass of a rotting humpback whale. Another had given her med-student daughter a taxidermied rat she had dressed in a tiny coat and equipped with a doll-sized stethoscope. It was like a sewing circle although the smell was pretty terrible and made me retch.”
Fortunately, she was not faced with the task of stuffing an albatross. “The scene in which the albatross is captured is a turning point for Elizabeth as a character, when she questions the killing of all those birds and ultimately accepts it. But I could not let the albatross be killed; it felt taboo. And although Elizabeth made 10 plates of seabirds, she never did an albatross.”
Thanks to a serendipitous connection with a fellow volunteer, Ashley met a descendant of Elizabeth Gould’s nephew and was shown precious photographs of the homestead where Elizabeth stayed with her brother, who had come out to Australia as a pastoralist. These leads whetted her appetite for further scholarly research.
Writing the novel as part of a PhD at the University of Queensland meant Ashley was able to deepen her investigation and speculation over four years during which she wrote five drafts of the manuscript. It was as a member of a scholarly nature-themed reading group that she met fellow novelist Inga Simpson, who would become a mentor. “She took me under her wing,” says Ashley, seemingly unaware of the pun. She was also inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things, about a heroine of great scientific curiosity, which she read halfway through writing The Birdman’s Wife.
As part of her research Ashley was lucky to have access to unpublished memoirs by Elizabeth and John’s daughter, the marvellously named Eliza Muskett Moon, held in the world’s biggest Gould collection at the University of Kansas.
At Sydney’s Mitchell Library she was able to view the so-called “pattern plates” or templates that Elizabeth painted as a guide for the colourists her husband employed. After making a case to the special collections department, she was eventually given permission to look at the precious originals of Elizabeth’s diary, which were brought up from a natural-disaster-resistant safe.
“It was only eight pages and it was buried deep inside a cache of John Gould’s letters as if it had no significance in its own right. In fact it was indexed under his name,” says Ashley of the journal that Elizabeth wrote documenting her impressions of a two-week visit to Sydney, Newcastle and Maitland. As diary keeping was a popular occupation for a woman of her rank, one can only assume that Elizabeth wrote similar accounts of her travels to Tasmania, where she spent a year, and her time in the Upper Hunter Valley staying with her brother, but they have not survived. Only a dozen of her letters exist, while her husband’s correspondence runs to many thousands of letters.
Ashley’s achievement is even more impressive given that she is a single mother with two children, one of whom is losing her eyesight. “Thank goodness for audio books,” she says. Ashley has not written a poem for 13 years. “It’s as if I grew out of it,” she says, with a laugh that she quickly stifles as if to say such a thing were indecent.
She is already at work on her next novel, also a work of historical fiction, this time about a 17th-century aristocratic French woman who wrote fairytales pre-dating her well-known compatriot Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.
“Once again I can immerse myself in research,” she says, acknowledging that “it may be a form of procrastination”. And again, she has chosen as her subject a woman written out of the history books. “That is my lifelong passion. I’ve tried writing contemporary fiction but I feel lost when it comes to writing about today. I seem to relate more to the past, but still want to address issues that are relevant today.”
The Birdman’s Wife is published by Affirm Press at $32.99.
And another thing: Ashley participated in a competitive “twitchathon” searching for 200 birds across Brisbane but was disqualified for getting a speeding ticket.