June 29th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY John Setka, for all his faults, is the perfect scapegoat

FIGHTING FUND NCC president Patrick J. Byrne outlines the goals for 2019

SPECIAL FEATURE Author Rod Dreher brings St Benedict to bear on our decline and fall

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One million protest China's attack on Hong Kong's freedom

GENDER POLITICS Vatican issues document on gender ideology

POLITICS AND SOCIETY New secularist strategies to bury Christianity

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 4: Ancient Jewish view of the cosmos

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal: An account from the live streaming

BANKING FEATURE Greed works ... at least for a while and for a few

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 2: What feminism should be

IDEOLOGY WARS Roger Scruton and the Tories: a sorry tale

MUSIC Melodic abundance: John, Paul, Duke and Antonio

CINEMA The End: Staging the apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Scenes from Dante's Inferno

BOOK REVIEW Mrs Gould: she who drew the pictures



NATIONAL AFFAIRS A Q&A to clarify issues in Cardinal Pell's appeal

HUMOUR A Western flop lob-story and that

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Mrs Gould: she who drew the pictures

News Weekly, June 29, 2019


by Melissa Ashley

Affirm Press, South Melbourne
Paperback: 384 pages
Price: AUD$17.99

Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel

As a child in primary school, my peers and I joined the Gould League, a not-for-profit organisation whose aims were to increase awareness of and preserve bird species. The league was named after John Gould, a famous 19th-century British ornithologist, who visited Australia in the 1830s.

Although Gould’s contribution to the study and classification of birds – particularly Australian species – has been noted and celebrated, the seminal role his wife Elizabeth played has been largely forgotten. This is despite the fact that she drew approximately 650 illustrations of birds that were published in Gould’s ornithological works.

Academic and emerging author Melissa Ashley fills this historical void in her first novel, which has already received several literary awards, including the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) Booksellers’ Choice Award, and a Queensland Literary Award.

The Birdman’s Wife had its genesis in Ashley’s interest in bird watching, and a doctoral project on Elizabeth Gould, which she later used as the basis for her novel. To gain insight into the Goulds’ work, Ashley volunteered as a taxidermist with the Queensland Museum, which is where the novel itself begins.

When readers first meet Gould, he is a taxidermist with a studio in Bruton Street, London. Ashley writes from the perspective of Elizabeth, who is introduced to John Gould in 1828 by her brother Charles Coxen, who assists Gould with his taxidermy work.

Having developed proficiency in drawing, initially through sketching botanical specimens, Elizabeth is initially employed by Gould in sketching some of the taxidermied birds. Elizabeth and Gould form an attachment to each other and marry. Reflecting the historical evidence, Ashley depicts their marriage as a happy union, and they work collaboratively in producing a number of volumes.

Although Gould was to receive all the accolades for his published works, Ashley indicates that a crucial factor in his success were the coloured illustrations of birds that his published volumes contained, many of which were produced by Elizabeth. It is thus not surprising that, throughout the novel, Ashley makes extensive references to the processes of drawing the specimens, and creating the intricate plates used to print each copy of the drawings.

Ashley has John Gould, for example, acknowledge to Charles Darwin that illustrating the volumes of his work was Elizabeth’s idea, as was the suggestion that they travel to Australia to record the birdlife there.

Although Gould was a renowned ornithologist – prior to his Australian expedition he had already published a number of volumes on the birdlife of Europe – it was the publication of his multi-volume set Birds of Australia that gained him significant acclaim, and fortune. His work as a taxidermist, and his ornithological publications, responded to – and need to be understood in the context – of a fascination with natural history in the 19th century, which discoveries of new lands and species fed into.

Ashley’s portrait of Elizabeth as a meti­culous analyser of the specimens she draws is balanced against her responsibilities as a mother. She had at least eight pregnancies, with most of her children surviving childhood. However, Ashley’s portrait of her is of a woman ahead of her time, who had to negotiate societal constraints. In doing so, she gained not only the respect of her husband, but other members of his circle, such as Edward Lear, another illustrator of John Gould’s works, and Lady Franklin, the wife of the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, who befriended Elizabeth during the Goulds’ sojourn in Australia.

The Birdman’s Wife is an enjoyable read. Although it is ultimately impossible to determine the extent to which Ashley’s characterisation of Elizabeth is authentic, given the paucity of surviving written evidence about her, it is nevertheless a realistic one, as is Ashley’s recreation of early 19th-century British and colonial society. However, at times, particularly in latter sections of the novel, there is the sense that the narrative could have been more concise.

One of the most moving and evocative passages in the work is the final chapter, describing Elizabeth’s final illness after the birth of her last child, which, as a moving and evocative piece of literary prose compares favourably with other Australian writing, such as the description of Richard Mahoney’s mental breakdown in Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

On balance, this is therefore a novel worth reading and well deserves the literary awards it has received.

Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.


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