Title: The Birdman’s Wife
Author: Melissa Ashley
Genre: Fiction (historical)
Release Date: 1st October, 2016
“Artist Elizabeth Gould spent her life capturing the sublime beauty of birds the world had never seen before. But her legacy was eclipsed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. The Birdman’s Wife at last gives voice to a passionate and adventurous spirit who was so much more than the woman behind the man.
Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, juggling the demands of her artistic life with her roles as wife, lover, helpmate, and mother to an ever-growing brood of children. In a golden age of discovery, her artistry breathed wondrous life into countless exotic new species, including Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches.
In The Birdman’s Wife a naïve young girl who falls in love with an ambitious genius comes into her own as a woman, an artist and a bold adventurer who defies convention by embarking on a trailblazing expedition to the colonies to discover Australia’s ‘curious’ birdlife.” (Simon & Schuster)
So I need to first get out of the way my gushing over the cover. While I’m happy to have read this book, my one regret is that I read it in digital format; as soon as next payday rolls around I’ll be taking myself off to get a hardcopy of it. There are some of Elizabeth Gould’s illustrations in the book and after seeing photos of it on Twitter, I really feel like I missed out. So if you’re going to read this, you must get your hands on a physical copy.
The inside of the book was just as lovely as the outside. Melissa Ashley’s writing is beautiful and really evoked a sense of time and place both in London and in Australia, the latter in particular:
“I recall the Australian eucalypts stretching their coppery limbs towards the sun, the cedars boasting girths the width of a coach. I remember the parrots of that great continent, painted every hue of the rainbow, whole clouds squawking past, and a sky so huge you could see it curve at the edges.”
The narrative felt natural and not at all forced, and it made it easy for me to settle in and block the world out for a little while. This was an especially big thing for me, as the narrative is from a first person perspective which I sometimes find difficult to read, mostly because the voice doesn’t always seem real. But this was never an issue when reading The Birdman’s Wife.
I found the life of Elizabeth Gould completely fascinating and she truly was an admirable woman. She was an artist, wife, mother, and convention breaker in a time when her expected place was in the home. Although this is a fictionalised account, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a real shame that Elizabeth is less well-known than her husband. While it was quite fortunate that she married a man who recognised that she had talent and he enabled her to put that talent to use, the reality was that they were a team and without her artwork and dedication he may not have been successful as he was.
The book gets quite detailed in relation to the collection and taxidermy of the birds, which I personally found interesting, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I actually thought it provided a great contrast between Elizabeth and John: she taking the less destructive route of recording the birds through art (that being said, her drawings were largely based on specimens collected by John); while he was the embodiment of the typical Georgian/Victorian attitude towards conservation, i.e., they hadn’t given it a lot of thought at that point – at least not to the extent that we think about it today. That’s not to say that he killed needlessly, but he certainly had more of a focus on collecting than observing.
I had a great time reading this book. Not only was it a pleasure to read, but it catered to my love of nature and my growing interest in natural history. The Birdman’s Wife is probably the worst nightmare for the little birds I share my home with, but I really enjoyed learning about taxidermy practices, as well as Elizabeth’s own methods for painting (particularly the mixing of colours). It’s also worth reading the author’s note at the end, as Ashley tells the story of how her book came about and the things she did as part of her research, including spending some time as a trainee taxidermist to learn all the ins and outs of the occupation. It really was just as interesting as the book itself.