Review

James Cowan reviews The Birdman’s Wife

Most of us have enjoyed ornithological art-works as objects of great beauty. They speak to us out of the rich world of birds, and imply their intricate lives as a part of the miracle of nature.

Melissa Ashley has sought to bring this world to life in her first novel, itself an object of great beauty. The life of Elizabeth Gould, the wife of John Gould, celebrated author of Birds of Australia, is explored in detail – she, as a fine illustrative artist in her own right.

We enter her world, one largely ignored by past historians who regarded her husband as the great luminary of his profession. What we do learn, however, is that Eliza was as much a part of the process as John Gould himself.  She was a team player, and a worthy one at that.

Eliza’s life in London, her early childbearing, her absolute devotion to her husband and his endeavors, are rendered in loving detail. We learn so much about the taxidermist’s craft as the author takes us on a journey into this little-known world of stuffing and illustrating birds, all in the name of natural science. Ashley paints it as a triumphant world, at least from the point of view of naturalists themselves, dedicated as they were upon establishing their scientific careers.

The difficulty of leaving her numerous children behind (except for one son, who accompanied them) in order to make the long and hazardous sea voyage to Tasmania is presented to us as a defining moment in the ornithological history of Australia, something that few of us would disagree with. That Australian bird life was brought to the attention of England and the world in the mid-1840s as a landmark event, the author never lets us forget.

Eliza’s story, which is a lonely one punctuated by her husband’s occasional return from expeditions into the hinterland to collect birds, or to Adelaide to join Captain Charles Sturt on one of his ill-fated journeys, reminds us that men of science in the nineteenth century were often obsessive individuals with little regard for their families. Children and wives were no more than social appendages, not people in their own right.

The character of Eliza Gould strikes us one of simple courage married to an utter devotion to her husband. He is handsome beyond words, so Eliza tells us, who seemingly always puts his work before his family, to which she rarely objects. It strikes an odd chord nearly two centuries later to think that men were often so predictably chauvinistic in their behavior.

Aside from drawing every dead bird that he laid before her, Eliza is also expected to give birth to eight children without recourse to abstinence or contraception. John does suggest a contraceptive device to her at one point in the book, but clearly it did not work!

The novel asks us to consider what we think about the craft of taxidermy, however, and how men like John Gould dismissed the death of so many birds in the name of science as being of less importance. Eliza also asks this question of herself on one occasion, but for some reason she fails to confront her husband about the issue. It might have lead to an interesting conversation about our willingness to use creaturely nature for our ends, had she done so.

The truth is that nineteenth-century scientists, with their mania for positing systems, genera, and categories (Darwin included) as a depiction of reality, has lead to cultural carelessness with regard to our fellow creatures sharing the same planet. Of course, this is seeing it through the lens of a later age, but it needs to be addressed as part of our understanding – or lack of – regard for sentient creatures themselves.

Ashley has written a book of careful and detailed research. It is amazing what she has uncovered in her bid to bring the world of ornithology and taxidermy to our attention. The streets of London are also beautifully described, so too daily events in the Tasmanian colony. It brings to mind the descriptions of Sydney Town that Patrick White did so very well in his novel Voss, itself an important observation of early colonial life in Australia.

 

The Birdman’s Wife is a well-written novel that reveals a great respect for the act of life-painting and taxidermy. Melissa Ashley has brought her own appreciation of birds to the page, and so vividly, in a cool and clearly rendered prose.  We are left in no doubt about their beauty, or their preciousness as a species.

Eliza Gould, too, strikes us as a woman of grave, if unreflective repute. To rectify our view of history, as Ashley has done through her story, nonetheless helps us to understand how such women have contributed more than their fair share to scientific inquiry over the centuries (witness: Eve Curie). This alone is an important observation, and we must be thankful to the author for alerting us to it.

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a testament to the courage of such women against all odds.

James Cowan

Author of A Mapmaker’s Dream and Desert Father.

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