The first point I noted about The Birdman’s Wife is that Elizabeth Gould, not her husband John, the famous ornithologist, painted the pictures of birds I knew and loved as a child. While Elizabeth was credited by her initials, alongside John’s, for creating over 650 hand-coloured lithographs for a number of publications, including The Birds of Australia, very little is known about the artist; she was overshadowed by her larger-than-life husband. Melissa Ashley’s task, as she says in an author’s note, is to bring to life, through fiction, what the factual accounts have overlooked.
The Birdman’s Wife is written in the first person and Elizabeth’s interior life is well, at times poignantly, expressed. Readers first meet her in 1828, at the Zoological Society in London, where John Gould has rented rooms and Elizabeth’s brother, Charles, is working for him as a stuffer. Elizabeth and John, who has invited her to sketch from his collection, immediately strike a rapport. Meeting in the workshop is significant because the narrative is full of descriptions of killing, dismembering, stuffing and displaying birds and other animals. Elizabeth mainly draws from dead ones, though the times when she does manage to sketch from life are a joy to her. Not only killing, but capturing and attempting to keep wild creatures as pets – almost all of them die – is related as a common and unquestioned practice. Though Elizabeth shows more compassion than most, these scenes reveal her as a woman of her times. Her marriage to John, however, is depicted as a genuine partnership and collaboration.
All the female characters in The Birdman’s Wife are delicately and sensitively drawn, from Elizabeth’s mother to Daisy, her first maid after she is married, to Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, who befriends Elizabeth, recognising a kindred spirit, after the Goulds arrive at Hobarton. At the end of Elizabeth’s life – she died aged 37, of puerperal fever after the birth of her eighth child – she comes to realise what being an artist has meant to her, in lyrical passages that combine her love of nature and keen observance of bird life with the special place she has created for herself. “I painted and I studied and, in this constant striving, became me.”
Elizabeth’s curiosity about the natural world links her, across more than a century, to Meridian Wallace, the main female character in The Atomic Weight of Love, who goes bird-watching on her own and is not the slightest bit interested in playing with dolls. Meridian is a brilliant student who falls in love with a physics lecturer 20 years her senior, marries and then follows him to Los Alamos, postponing, then finally abandoning her graduate studies in ornithology. In the middle decades of the 20th century, Meridian is not forced to endure successive pregnancies – she never has children of her own – but she submits to the husband with whose intellect she first fell in love.
During decades of frustration and regret, Meridian does not abandon scientific study, but faithfully observes and records an extended family of crows. Her description of a crow funeral is particularly moving. Both authors are skilled at depicting their protagonists as many-layered, complex women, whose thirst for knowledge, and for the creative expression of that knowledge, survive against overwhelming odds.
John Gould is sufficiently present in Ashley’s novel, a believable mixture of qualities, beside whom Alden Whetstone in Elizabeth J. Church’s novel seems an enigmatic character. Whetstone is invited to work on the Manhattan Project, then stays on at Los Alamos after the war. Of necessity, his work is secret, but his change from the scientist who delighted in teaching and sharing his ideas, to a grumpy, punitive husband, is harder to fathom.
Meridian finally finds fulfilment in helping young women realise their potential. The Atomic Weight of Love spans tumultuous decades – Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement – but the author glosses over the many changes these events brought to people’s lives, not only those people who were involved in them directly.
Both novels contain many fine descriptions of the natural world, and are beautifully produced. The Birdman’s Wife is a delight to handle, a hardback with the endpapers displaying some of Elizabeth Gould’s finest work.
Dorothy Johnston’s latest novel is Through a Camel’s Eye.