Taking Five with Melissa Ashley

Melissa Ashley’s meticulous attention to detail is on show in her first novel, The Birdman’s Wife, which explores the life and relationships of artist Elizabeth Gould. AWM intern TJ Wilkshire spent some time with Melissa to discuss birds, art, poetry, and secret women’s history.

melissa ashely
Photo credit: Vicki Lambert

Your debut novel tells the story of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould, the famous ornithologist. Can you tell us what inspired you and how that spark of inspiration drove you to write an entire novel?

It was a bit of a long and convoluted path, with a number of interests that pulled together, until the point of writing Elizabeth’s story became almost inevitable. Elizabeth and John Gould’s intense creative relationship intrigued me from the very beginning, not least because it reflected a similar relationship in my own life as a writer. My love of birds was first inspired by my love for a poet, and his poem about a black-faced cuckoo shrike. An aspiring writer myself, I had never heard of this common bird, and its enigmatic presence in the poem sparked in me a desire to learn all about the birds that sang and preened in my Brisbane backyard. Curiosity is a powerful motivator and, during the next decade and a half, my interest in Australia’s birds steadily increased until I began birdwatching in earnest.

Tied to my hobby was a fascination for antique etchings and prints of birds; I loved the illustrations’ awkward grace. In 2004, the discovery of a cache of 56 paintings of Australian birds and plants by George Raper, a midshipman and navigator on the First Fleet, seized my imagination. The watercolour paintings were uncovered in England during an inventory of the estate of Lord Moreton, the Earl of Ducie. Intrigued by the illustration of a laughing kookaburra, one of the evaluators brought the buried collection to light. Once part of Sir Joseph Banks’ First Fleet materials, the collection had passed into the Ducie family and lain untouched for two hundred years. This was a truly astounding find. Although Raper’s paintings were naïve, his attention to the details and colours of the birds’ wings and feathers was extraordinary. By this time my birdwatching had intensified into a near obsession, and I began to travel great distances to encounter new species, which I would excitedly add to my ‘life list’, a record of birds seen for the very first time. My fellow poet, now a birdwatcher too, and I drove to Queensland’s far western mulga region, explored the Mallee in South Australia, endured the rough currents of the Southern Ocean, peering through binoculars and camera lenses to chase the intense experience of sighting a new species. The excitement of this pursuit led to me wonder what it might have felt like for George Raper and his fellow First Fleet bird enthusiasts’ when they encountered Australia’s unique birds, so utterly different to the species of Britain and Europe, for the first time.

The appeal of delving into Elizabeth Gould’s forgotten history, for me, was intimately connected to the thrill of twitching never-before-seen birds, although it had a rather more prosaic beginning. One summer afternoon, my birding partner rescued an Indian ringneck parrot perched on the net of a tennis court. He phoned, full of excitement, asking me to find a book about caring for parrots and to buy a cage to house it. A friend loaned me a book about caring for parrots, along with a biography of John Gould by Isabella Tree. In Tree’s fascinating biography, I discovered Elizabeth Gould, who played a fundamental role in the creation of John Gould’s publishing empire.

In her decade-long career, Elizabeth designed and completed some 650 hand-coloured lithographs of the world’s most beautiful bird species. Her ability to manage a demanding artistic career capturing the sublime beauty of hundreds of exotic birds for her husband’s celebrated collections, including illustrating Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches; to care for an ever-growing brood of children; and defy convention to join John on a two-year expedition to the Australian colonies, intrigued me enough to take up the thread of her thinly sketched character and follow wherever it led.  I thought that readers might find her story as interesting as I did, and enrolled in a creative writing PhD in order to be given the financial support, time and guidance by the expert staff at the University of Queensland’s School of Communication and Arts, to hone and develop the project.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing processes? How did you move from writing poetry to writing a full novel? Was it harder than you expected? Previously to this novel you wrote poetry. Has poetry informed the kind of language you have written in your novel?

My writing process is very slow. I hope it speeds up in my next novel, a work of historical fiction also. I would say getting started with the real narrative, the fictional voice, of Elizabeth Gould, as opposed to cataloguing and presenting the material in a more biographical way, was the most challenging aspect of writing the novel. I was very concerned about being faithful to the historical and archival record of Elizabeth’s life. I over-compensated, in a way, with my fear that I would not seem authentic in my knowledge about Australian birds, the places I set the novel in, the time and environment, the cultural setting. I’m a researcher by training and there is nothing more that I love than digging into files and archives. For Elizabeth’s story that meant 1830s London and Australia; ornithology, zoological illustration, voyages, childbearing and rearing practices. I’d outlined the plot but there comes a point when a writer begins to feel an itch to start the first scene of the first chapter. I came to a stage where I felt that I had spent enough time with printed books. I felt that I needed to get out into the field, to go birdwatching, to learn bird-stuffing, to handle archival materials that Elizabeth Gould made herself. These more tactile and adventurous experiences really helped me to make that jump from the biographical Elizabeth, to imagining her emotional journey, her personal experiences and challenges, as the narrator of The Birdman’s Wife.

Just to add to that, I’m a fiction writer, not a scientist or historian, so these evocative ‘field’ experiences really helped to unlock my imagination.

When you were writing about Elizabeth Gould, did you start to form a relationship with her? Did you get to know her like a friend during your research of her? When the novel was finally finished, how did you then separate yourself from Elizabeth to then begin the editing process?

I think I did. It might sound a little cliché, but, particularly towards the end of the book, I felt very sad about her early death. My publisher, on numerous occasions, accidentally calls me ‘Elizabeth’, which always makes me smile. I love writing about artists, it doesn’t matter what form of art, but visual art and writing has a particular appeal, and women’s hidden stories. I am also a mother, trying to juggle everyday life with kids, and keep my imagination flowing, trying to find time to write, so that was a big draw for me, in identifying with Elizabeth, who had eight children. (I only have two, and that is challenge enough!)

birdman's wifeHow did you build a novel around Elizabeth’s life? Were there certain points in her life you wanted to focus on more than others?

That’s a very pertinent question. I was really concerned about being faithful to the historical facts, the historical record of Elizabeth’s life. That said, I did not always agree with the biographical interpretation of the sort of person she was. She was often, or always, presented as John Gould’s subordinate, whether it was as his obedient and supportive wife, or as a mere ‘assistant’ to his publishing house and ornithological pursuits. The real situation was somewhat different. John and Elizabeth Gould had very separate talents and skills, and yet they came together in the wonderful hand-coloured folios they produced together. I like to think that they were more, as a couple of creatives and scientists, than they were individually. John Gould would never had embarked upon his ambitious project to illustrate the world’s most exotic and interesting birds without Elizabeth’s drawing and painting skills. He was a hopeless sketcher. So, he has a lot to thank her for.

I wanted to portray the interior, emotional aspects of Elizabeth’s life. So it was a matter of interpreting certain events and circumstances, for instance, leaving her three young children behind in order to travel to Australia to make artworks of our lovely birds, how courageous she was in doing this, but also, what a sacrifice it was for her. She really missed her children. And then there is the poignant or horrible irony even, of her unexpected death, a year and a day after her return to England to work on The Birds of Australia.

I also really wanted to focus on her development as an artist. How she grew from making almost awkward images – very meticulous but also rather stiff in composition –  of birds in her first folio, A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains, to become a fully-fledged artist, who produced iconic and extraordinary paintings and lithographs of the world’s most beautiful birds, including many wonderful images of Australia’s unique species. As science evolves, with DNA testing and research, more and more is learned about the Australian continent’s place in the evolution of the class of birds as a whole. Indeed, some of our birds exhibit behaviours, such as co-operative breeding, that are very ancient, and connected to our harsh, arid environment.

Were there any scenes of particular parts of the book that were challenging to write for any reason?

Getting started was the most difficult part of the novel. It was drafted about five times, and as it was revised for publication, what to include in the set-up of Elizabeth’s story involved much thought and experimentation. That said, the last third of the novel was relatively easy and fun to write. Once I reached a certain point, I followed where Elizabeth’s led me. In order to do this, I had to go to Hobart, where she stayed for nine months, to envision and become confident about that place to write about it with conviction. That research trip, about 18 months into the project, shifted a sort of hump, where the narrative took over the attention to biographical detail.

You can read more about Melissa Ashley and The Birdman’s Wife here.

TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.

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