‘Grab your book, blanket and beanie – we’re hibernating with books this winter!’
In my day job as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria, I’m part of a working group behind the Warm Winter Read, a campaign designed to encourage readers to develop a daily reading habit by tracking the days they read over June and July 2022.
We have eight high-profile Victorian author-ambassadors supporting the campaign, each of whom has recommended four books for your consideration. We’ve put these recommendations, together with the author’s latest book, on to bookmarks. Our author-ambassadors are:
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Claire G Coleman
Among them, they have recommended 32 books across all genres, most by Victorian authors. Maxine and Claire recommended each other’s books, while Emma Viskic takes the prize for being the most recommended author. The bookmarks are available for free at your local library. Collect the set!
The campaign is being rolled out in nearly all of Victoria’s library services. You can register online via the Beanstack app and use the app to track your reading. Once you create an account here, you can log your daily reading, participate in optional challenges and share book reviews. Challenges include things like: read outside your home; read aloud to a pet, person or plant; and talk about what you’re reading in person or online. Get rewarded with cute badges, designed by my talented library colleagues.
Or visit your local library and pick up a paper form: a drawing of books on shelves that you can also use to track your reading.
No prizes, because after all, reading is it’s own reward.
This time around, I’m in a chairing role. My sessions are as follows:
Epic Fiction We love reading it but what compels an author to take on the challenging task of writing it? Find out from two award-winning writers at the top of their game. Steven Conte (The Tolstoy Estate) and Jock Serong (The Burning Island) in conversation with Angela Savage. Full $20, Conc. $18 Sat 18 June, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm The Chamber, Williamstown Town Hall Tickets here.
I’m a huge fan of Jock Serong’s writing and both Preservation and The Burning Island are cracker reads, set in eighteen and nineteenth century Australia respectively. Steven Conte is new to me as an author. The Tolstoy Estate is his second novel in 15 years, following on from his award-winning debut The Zookeeper’s War. Set during the disastrous German invasion of Russia in 1941 and narrated primarily from the point of view of a German military surgeon, The Tolstoy Estate is an epic read about war, politics, literature and love. I’m greatly looking forward to talking with Jock and Steven about their outstanding novels.
Questions Raised By Quolls A nature writer reflects on fatherhood and conservation in an uncertain world. Harry Saddler in conversation with Angela Savage Sat 18 June, 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm Committee Room, Williamstown Town Hall Full $20, Conc $18, Early $15 Buy tickets here.
Questions Raised by Quolls was one of my favourite non-fiction reads of 2021, inspiring a #LiteraryCritter and ultimately leading to an amazing bird watching visit to the Werribee Treatment Plant with author Harry Sadler. I’m looking forward to asking Harry all the questions raised by quolls when we get together next weekend.
All the following events are on Sunday 29 May in the evocatively named Heroes Lounge at the St Kilda Army & Navy Club, 88 Acland St, St Kilda.
In a series of interviews called Crime on the Couch, I will be interviewing crime writers Robert Gott and Vikki Petraitis:
2.45-3.15PM Robert Gott 3.30-4.00PM Vikki Petraitis
Robert Gott is the author of eight novels. They are all set in the 1940s. What he does essentially is sit at home and make shit up. This is the meaning of fiction. He was born in Maryborough in Queensland and, as always, he would like you to take this into consideration and perhaps admire this courageous admission.
Vikki Petraitis is a true crime author of so many books, she’s lost count. She’s also tried her hand at podcasting and to her surprise, had about a bajillion downloads. Her debut novel, The Unbelieved, won the inaugural Allen & Unwin Crime Prize, will be released in August 2022.
Following the Crime on the Couch sessions is the Sisters in Crime Dicks vs Dames debate on the topic, ‘The female of the species is deadlier than the male’. I will be chairing/wrangling the Affirmative team of Dicks, Robert Gott, RWR McDonald and Hugh McInlay, and the Negative team of Dames, Vikki Petraitis, Narelle M Harris and Leigh Redhead.
Join from 4:30pm for drinks at the Heroes Lounge upstairs at the St Kilda RSL (St Kilda Army & Navy Club) for this witty and humorous debate – who is the deadliest of the human species, male or female?
I am delighted, excited and also a little hesitant to say that I have been invited back to Adelaide for Writers Week in 2022 to chair a couple of panels. Delighted because Adelaide Writers Week is a wonderful cultural event, guaranteed to feature outstanding authors in engaging discussions. Excited because of the panels I will be chairing, the friends I hope to catch up with, the new authors whose work I will learn about, and the visiting literary luminaries I hope to meet. And hesitant because if the last two years have taught me anything it’s that “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” (to quote Robbie Burns). As the entire festival takes place outdoors at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, it is probably more Covid-safe than most. And besides, “hope springs eternal” (to quote Alexander Pope) and so lay schemes I will.
My first panel The Centred Victim takes place on Mon 7 March 12PM on the West Stage. Here is the program blurb:
Turning the crime genre on its head, Jacqueline Bublitz’s Before You Knew My Name and Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s The Newcomer both centre the victim in their stories of violent death and the investigations that follow. The haunting, strangely joyous Before You Knew My Name tells of Alice Lee arriving in New York with just a camera and hope, destined to be a Jane Doe one month later. The Newcomer, which fictionalises an infamous 2002 murder on Norfolk Island, is a smart, provocative portrait of prejudice, violence and grief.
Having recently finished The Newcomer and started Before You Knew My Name, I am so looking forward to speaking with Jacqueline and Laura about these brilliant books and their themes.
My second panel is A Bloody Good Rant with Thomas Keneally on Tues 8 March at 3.45PM on the East Stage. Here’s the blurb for that one:
For over fifty years, Tom Keneally has been writing about everything that makes us tick – and the contentious, disputed land that is ‘Australia’. In his new collection of thought-pieces, he moves seamlessly between deep questions of our past and moments of private revelation. A Bloody Good Rant is exactly what it says it is – a bit of ratbaggery, some judicious hindsight, and a generous serve of wisdom. The author of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler’sArk and CorporalHitler’sPistol gets a few things off his chest.
A bloody good rant with the legendary Tom Keneally – how much fun will that be!
I’m planning to hang around in Adelaide for long enough to attend sessions with one of my literary heroes, Isabel Allende, and with Anthony Doerr, whose novel All The Light We Cannot See, I absolutely loved. In between, I aim to listen to a range of awesome authors, both known and new to me.
Normally at this time of year I post a ‘Top Reads’ or ‘Book Bingo’ type list. But this time around, inspired by my partner, Andrew Nette, who blogs at Pulp Curry, I’m extending this list to cultural highlights of 2021.
In another year characterised by successive, extended lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts have provided a lifeline. Australia’s current political leaders seem not only indifferent, but actively hostile towards the arts, which have not received rescue packages on par with other industries, despite being harder hit, and despite being what many of us turn to during tough times. In whatever forms — literature, music, film, visual art, gaming — the arts have provided escape, solace and resonance. For my 16 year old daughter, it was the soundtrack to ‘Moulin Rouge’ that kept her buoyant during the darkest times — and being able to see the live show when it opened in Melbourne in November was definitely a cultural highlight of our year. But I am getting ahead of myself.
New books I read at least 42 books in 2021. I say at least because I changed the method I used to record my reading mid-year and I think a few titles fell through the cracks. More than half of the books on my list were released in 2021, over 80% were by Australian authors and over 60% were written by women. No surprise, then, that my highlights are books by Australian women. Emily Bitto’s Wild Abandon (Allen & Unwin, 2021) stands out as a lush read, the first book I’ve read in a while that required me to consult a dictionary (which I loved!). Both the language and the story — a cautionary tale of excess involving a legal menagerie of exotic animals — are utterly engrossing. Charlotte McConaghy’s debut Migrations was one of my favourite reads of 2020, and her second novel, Once There Were Wolves (Penguin, 2021), is a worthy successor. Premised on a plan to ‘re-wild’ the Scottish Highlands with grey wolves, the novel is a captivating thriller-cum-love story. Yuwaalaraay writer Nardi Simpson’s powerful, lyrical, generous debut novel, Song of the Crocodile (Hachette, 2020) was one of the first books I read in 2021 and it has stayed with me all year, as has a comment Nardi made in an interview: ‘We are the in and the out breath, nature and people. We are intrinsically linked’.
I made a few Literary Critters as a show of gratitude to each of these authors.
My top crime pick for 2021 is Debra Oswald’s The Family Doctor (Allen & Unwin, 2021), a novel very much for our times, a thriller with a moral dilemma at its heart about women, violence and justice. Read more top crime read recommendations from the Sisters in Crime here.
Older books Of fiction released prior to 2021, a highlight was The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm Press, 2016; my review). Given my love of birds, and a long-time interest in John Gould’s work, I can’t believe I was so late to the party on this wonderfully imagined life of painter Elizabeth Gould. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Allen & Unwin, 2015) is another novel that has been on my TBR for some time, which shares the same premise as Once There Were Wolves, but is a very different and outstanding read. And I finally got around to reading Carrie Tiffany’s award-winning debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (Pan Macmillan, 2005), which I loved as a reader and found inspiring as a writer.
Non-fiction I read nine non-fiction books (more or less) in 2021 and they were all very good. My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett (Ultimo Press, 2021) is a captivating, generous memoir that grants rare insight into living with mental illness. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Penguin, 2015) spoke to my grief following the deaths of both my parents in 2020. Questions Raised by Quolls by Harry Sadler (Affirm Press, 2021) looks at conservation and extinction in the context of climate change, while allowing for hope. Lapsed by Monica Dux (HarperCollins, 2021) resonated strongly with me as a post-Catholic raising a secular child. And Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving Was Isn’t Ours by Sarah Sentilles (Text, 2021) is a devastating, but deeply rewarding account of becoming a mother through foster care, which poses questions about what it means to love any child. Sarah’s extraordinary compassion makes me feel honoured to share the planet with her.
A couple more Literary Critters were inspired by this reading.
Short stories I read five short story collections this year. Among my favourite stories were Tony Birch’s darkly comic and delightful ‘Starman’ in Dark As Last Night (UQP, 2021), and two poignant and compassionate stories with a great sense of voice, ‘A Little Bit of Scrapbooking’ in Margaret Hickey’s Rural Dreams (Midnight Sun, 2021), and ‘Hush’ in David Guterson’s Problems With People (Penguin, 2015).
Film I owe most of what I watch on film to my partner, Andrew, who sources amazing material for us — it’s like having my own streaming service (Nette-Flix, anyone?). This year, we watched a lot of American noir from the 1950s and 60s, which he wrote about here. My personal favourite among these was City of Fear (1959). Another highlight was A Bullet for the General, a 1966 Italian Zapata Western film, with a strong anti-capitalist vibe. Speaking of Westerns, The Naked Spur (1953), directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell, is a tightly scripted, beautifully shot film that plays out like a psychological thriller.
While the pandemic limited access to cinemas for most of the year, I managed to see Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story just after Christmas. As someone who loves the original 1961 film, I was skeptical about the remake. Minor misgivings about tweaks to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics notwithstanding, the new film is a triumph. Spielberg manages a fresh take on a well-known story and the casting is perfection.
Television TV streaming this year was mostly about comfort viewing with my daughter. Our favourites included Schmigadoon, an affectionate, spot-on spoof of musicals, with an outstandingly talented cast including Aaron Tveit (who won this year’s Tony Award as Christian in the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge) and Ariana DeBose (who plays Anita in Spielberg’s West Side Story). We are also loving Brooklyn 99, which only gets better as the seasons progress. Other viewing highlights include re-watching the 1992 Australian true crime miniseries Phoenix, which manages to feel relevant 20 years on; and the 2018 Australian series, Mr Inbetween, which, as Andrew notes, ‘seamlessly combines pitch black noir, with sharp social observation, moments of real poignancy, and laugh out loud comedy.’
Exhibitions Despite successive lockdowns, I managed to see some outstanding exhibitions in 2021. Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians at the National Museum in Canberra, explored views from the ship and shore on the 250th anniversary of the 1770 journey of the Endeavour, and provided vivid, often devastating insight into its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Treasures of the Natural World at Melbourne Museum (until 16 Jan 2022) showcases items on loan from the Natural History Museum, London, and is curated with a sense of fun and wonder. And Rising: A Miracle Constantly Repeated by Patricia Piccinini (currently showing) is a provocative and life-affirming exhibition that blurs the boundaries between nature and technology, animal and human.
What were the cultural highlights of 2021 for you?
And here’s wishing us all a happy, healthy and creative new year in 2022.
During most of the six months since I last posted to this blog, I’ve been doing what sociologist Corey Keyes calls languishing. The uncertainty caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic was exacerbated in my hometown of Melbourne, where we achieved the dubious honour of World’s Most Locked Down City. That happened sometime in October, I think. Hard to say, as time seemed to fold in on itself.
In the wake of a cascade of cancellations caused by Melbourne’s fifth and sixth lockdowns — the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, (live events) cancelled the night before it was due to open; Melbourne Writers Festival, cancelled as late as it could be; even Terror Australis in Tasmania, falling foul of a rare snap lockdown in that state — I couldn’t bring myself to plan anything for months. It was all too demoralising.
And then I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccination benchmarks in my home state of Victoria, a prerequisite for ending lockdown, were achieved ahead of schedule. Venues started planning to re-open. Tickets for live shows went on sale.
I admit, I went a bit crazy. I organised trips to regional Victoria, bought tickets to live shows, booked restaurants, arranged catch ups with friends and family.
In the interim, a few fun things happened. One of my Melbourne Writers Festival panels, ‘Cautionary Tales’ with Debra Oswald and JP (Josh) Pomare, was recorded as a podcast. As a fan of Josh’s work, and with Debra’s novel, The Family Doctor, being my top crime reads of 2021, I was delighted to have the chance to talk with both writers about their work. You can listen to the podcast here.
Secondly, in the lead up to the (online) Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, I was among some Sisters in Crime and Brothers-in-Law interviewed for Arts Hub by Thuy On for the article, Why Australian crime writers are killing it. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Guest of Honour, Dr Garry Disher, for TAF2021, which involved delving into his riveting PhD exegesis, ‘The Search for a True Home: A Critical Review of Recent Australian Rural Noir’. I also got to interview JP Pomare about choice of place in his body of work; it was my third interview with Josh for the year — and a sign of how interesting an interviewee he is that we never seemed to go over the same ground.
Also in November, I had the great honour of launching my dear friend Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel 7 1/2 for Readings. Although the event was online — Melbourne only just re-emerging from our sixth lockdown — Christos and I got to sit side by side at his place for the interview, which made it special.
And finally, in the lead up to Christmas, I received news that a short story anthology to which I am a contributor will be published by Fremantle Press in 2022. The contributors, who go by the nickname, ‘The Kelly Gang’, include Robbie Arnott, Alice Bishop, Zoe Bradley, Sam Carmody, Jake Cashion, Lorin Clarke, Claire Coleman, Laura Elvery, Kirsten Krauth, Matt Neal, Bram Presser, Mirandi Riwoe, Jock Serong (co-ed.), Mark Smith (co-ed.), Neil White (co-ed.), Gina Williams AM and Michelle Wright. After 2020, when I thought I might never write again, editors Jock, Mark and Neil gave me then greatest possible incentive with this opportunity to be published alongside so many writers I admire (among whom I count several personal friends). I look forward to being able to release more details about the project in the new year.
While the COVID-19 pandemic keeps proving time and time again that ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’ as Robert Burns would say, and the situation in states outside Victoria notwithstanding, the easing of restrictions here dares me to believe that the Yarra Valley Writers Festival will go ahead in person this year and that I will be there in beautiful Warburton to celebrate.
First up, on Sunday 18 July at 10.00am-11.00am, I’ll be facilitating the panel, ‘Crime, Resilience and Dislocation’ with Mark Brandi, Garry Disher & Jock Serong. Never mind that all three are wonderful writers and thoughtful interviewees: might this not be the handsomest crime panel ever assembled?! Venue is the Alpine Retreat Hotel. Bookings here.
For my second session at Yarra Valley Writers Festival, also on Sunday 18 July, 1.00PM-2.00PM, I have the honour of interviewing three extraordinary women about three very different, inspiring collaborative projects in a session called ‘Collaboration or Bust’, Leah Kaminsky, Suzanne Phoenix and Lia Hills. Bookings here. Venue is the apparently delightful Warburton RSL.
Incidentally, Suzanne is the photographer responsible for my author headshot, and I had the privilege of being of her collaborative project, Artists in Residence (blogged here).
I can’t wait to interview these writers and artists. And the whole program looks wonderful.
Nearly 10 years ago, I was contacted by a stamp collector, who’d found a letter to my father, Haydn, from his father, Les, among a bulk lot of first day covers bought at auction. I wrote about this extraordinary story here. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, but don’t believe them: today I received a second letter to my father from his father, again, thanks to the kindness of a stamp collector and a unique quirk on Les’s part.
As a child, I wrote a tribute to my grandfather that began, “My grandfather collects things.” Among his collections were chord charts, National Geographic, thundereggs and first day covers — envelopes commemorating the release of new stamps. Les would occasionally purchase an official first day cover, but more often send a stamped envelope addressed to his son Haydn with ‘First Day Cover’ penned on the front in his exquisite handwriting. Most of these first day covers contained blank paper, artifacts rather than correspondence. But every now and then my grandfather would enclose a letter to my father. His quirk was to include instructions about when the letter was to be opened. In this latest case, the letter was written and the first day cover issued on 1 October 1937. My grandfather had written on the top of the envelope ‘To be opened on 1st Oct 1952’.
Why my grandfather did this, I’ll never know. It used to drive my own father, Haydn, crazy: ‘My father did this to me all my life,’ he told me back in 2012 when the first letter came to light, ‘post-dated mail by many years, then refused to let me open it on the date.’
The instructions caught the attention of the stamp collector, in this case, Marilyn Warner, who contacted me through Facebook. She told me that she had spent years looking for my father, Haydn, recently finding his death notice, which led her to me. Here’s the story in her words:
“[M]any, many years ago I purchased a lot at a stamp auction [of] letters from the 1870s in England. Amongst them I discovered a small pack of first day covers that someone had lovingly sent to their son over many years. There was also a letter…from your Grandfather to your father when he was 2 years old. There is such love that I could never sell them or throw them away. I am one of those people who treasure memories, letters, notes, cards, etc, and I thought one day I will find Haydn. I was so sad to see his death notice, but then I saw he had 3 children and I found you… I thought you and your brothers might love to have a treasure that your Grandfather wrote, and also the first day covers as they are all written by his hand.”
Marilyn’s gesture is all the more generous when you consider that first day covers are much more valuable to stamp collectors when they are unopened.
The letter is, indeed, a treasure. It opens with Les saying, “I have been winding your trains and toys for you, and I am penning these few lines to you during a moment[‘]s respite.” He refers to a newspaper article, glued to the letter, about the stamps featured on this particular first day cover (‘Commemorating the Sesqui-Centenary of New South Wales’) and notes that he is “at present attached” to Prahran Post Office. He explains how he “met & married your dear mother at Cairns whilst on exchange [as a postman] there. She loves you better, I think, than life itself.”
The rest of the letter is worth citing in full for what it reveals about the times:
“Sesqui-Centenary means the 150th year. I hope & pray that you will be spared to celebrate Australia’s 200th Birthday [sic.]. God willing, you will only be 65 when the year 2000 comes around. What a day that will be! And what changes you will see in this world of ours. At present there are wars and rumours of war. Spain has an internal conflict: the rebels being aided — ’tis said by — Italy & Germany. Italy conquered Abbysinnia [sic.] recently. Japan has attacked China. God only knows what the future holds. My only wish is that you keep safe to enjoy life to the full. I am at present a SIGNALMAN [in red above: ‘Australian Military Forces’] in the 3rd Div Signals Corps. Not that I have any love of war, but think it is foolish for us to be unprepared and untrained in the event of a National emergency. Cheerio! old chap; I do hope you like reading these letters in the future as much as I enjoy writing them. Love from your affectionate Daddy.”
The letter gives me a vivid image of my grandfather, no doubt wearing his characteristic suit and tie, glancing up as he writes of his hopes and fears for his infant son who plays with wind-up trains at his feet. How far away the year 2000 feels in 1937 — and how close the threat of war.
Born in 1906, my grandfather clearly didn’t expect to see in the new millennium himself; he died in 1984 at the age of 77 at the (then) home ground of his beloved Fitzroy Football Club (which I wrote about here). But thanks to Marilyn’s kindness, I know how happy Les would’ve been that Haydn made it all the way to 2020, and that he did indeed enjoy life to the full.
The collection of covers addressed to my father in my grandfather’s hand and gifted to me by Marilyn span the years between 1937, when my father was two years old and living at 48 Lang St in South Yarra, to 1963, when my father left the family home at what was then 87 Mimosa Rd, Carnegie, to travel overseas for the first time. In between, the first day covers tell me that the family moved to 14 Leila St, Prahran in 1938. Haydn worked for Bain & Co Chemists at 123 Fitzroy St, St Kilda (not far from where he ended up living in the 1990s) from 1953 to 1955 or ’56, doing a stint as a gunner in Port Fairy in February 1955. By 1957, Haydn had qualified as a pharmacist, Les adding the post-nominal letters Ph C, MPS to his title. That year, he worked at Brunswick & Coburg Dispensaries at 30A Victoria St, West Brunswick (close to where I live now) before moving to Dear’s Pharmacy in the Market Buildings on Commercial Rd in South Yarra in 1958, where he worked until 1963.
It seems poetic that the bulk of these envelopes contain blank pages. These were years my father spent dutifully meeting expectations — such as studying pharmacy. His first overseas trip in 1963 was life-changing, taking him to exotic destinations such as Egypt, Yugoslavia and Tahiti, and allowing him a taste of independence that would ultimately see him live a long, rich and full life.
But once in a while there are love letters from a father to a son, precious in their sincerity, but also vulnerable: mail could get lost and never reach the intended recipient. The war did take my grandfather away, and his absence was a source of lifelong grief and regret for my father.
My father loved me and my brothers deeply and wrote beautiful, affirming letters to us all our lives. Although he didn’t live to read the love letter from his father dated 1st October 1937, I think he knew how much his father loved him. And in his own parenting, he did his father proud.
A few months after our father Haydn died, my brother Julian came across a shoe box among Dad’s things labelled ‘Europe 1963’. Inside were boxes of slides taken on the first of what would be many overseas trips Haydn would make during his lifetime: on this occasion, he travelled from Melbourne by boat on the SS Flavia to Europe via Egypt, touring the continent by car, before flying to New York and on to Tahiti.
Among boxes of slides showing Haydn partying, playing deck tennis and seeing the sights was a collection of images I’d never seen before of my parents with me as a baby. I was born in the analogue era, when taking photos was still a big deal. We had a camera–my father would’ve sold Kodak Instamatics along with film and flash cubes in his capacity as a pharmacist–but almost all the early photos of me are black and white. Until Julian unearthed the box of slides, I’d never seen a colour photo of me as a baby with my father.
And what a photo–such joy! Even peering at the tiny transparent rectangle, I knew it was a beautiful image. Julian subsequently managed to digitise the slide into the image above. It feels like a gift twice over: a moment of love shared by my father from beyond the grave, made possible by a labour of love on the part of my brother.
I assumed the photo was taken in Broken Hill, NSW, as there were other images among the slides that clearly date back to a visit my parents made there when I was six months old. My mother’s father, Mervyn Whelan, was stationed in Broken Hill as a policeman, living there with my grandmother, Olga, and at least their two youngest children, my aunt Dominica, who was around 13 years old at the time, and my uncle Michael, who would’ve been ten or so. There are other (black and white) photos of me with the four of them, and this shot with my mother on the edge of a lake.
On reflection, I wonder if the photo of me and Dad was taken a little earlier (I have less hair!), possibly in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens.
In truth, the location is not as important to me as the emotion in this photo. The laughter on my face, revealing a dimple in my pudgy left cheek. My father’s matching smile. The way he is holding me, which seems designed for my comfort and not his. I love the lustre of his hair and his chic white polo knit.
And the photo of me with Mum by the lake has always been a favourite. She looks so young and beautiful.
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.
The book I reviewed in my previous Tweeters post, Budgerigar by Sarah Harris and Don Baker, led me to The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, an imagined account of the life of painter Elizabeth Gould, spouse of famous birdman John Gould. In a chapter entitled ‘The Goulded cage’, Harris and Baker briefly describe the specimen collecting (read, ‘shooting and stuffing’) journey made by John and Elizabeth Gould and their entourage to Australia. Departing in 1838, they left behind the youngest three of their four surviving children, had a son, Franklin Tasman, born in 1839 in Van Dieman’s Land, and returned to London in 1840. Of the menagerie of live birds and animals that accompanied them on the voyage home, only a pair of budgerigars–which Elizabeth painted from life–survived. Indeed, as Harris and Baker note, ‘these birds…survived the journey to England longer than Eliza herself.’
Published in 2016, The Birdman’s Wife had been on my radar for some time–I was a member of The Gould League of birdlovers as a child–and to be honest, I’m not sure why it took me so long to getting around to reading it: I absolutely loved this book.
Narrated in the first person from Elizabeth’s point of view, the story opens in 1828, when she first meets John Gould through her brother Charles, hired as a stuffer in Gould’s taxidermy business. Impressed with her artistic skills, John invites Elizabeth to draw for him and soon, as Elizabeth puts it:
…it was clear that Mr Gould’s feeling for me had grown; I imagined it as a thick-shelled egg he held warm between his stockinged feet like an Emperor penguin. As for me, Mr Gould eased himself under the carapace of my heart.
Married in 1829, Elizabeth continues to paint birds for her husband, the Curator and Preserver of Birds at the Zoological Society, at one stage working alongside Edward Lear, who was a great admirer of hers. Between 1830 and their departure for Australia in 1838, Elizabeth gives birth to six children, two of whom die shortly after their births.
Each chapter is named for a different bird painted by Elizabeth. Indeed, when I could drag myself away from the story, I’d look up the images referred to in the book, which added to my admiration for this extraordinary woman.
Elizabeth Gould’s painting of budgerigars
Though I more or less knew what happened to Elizabeth before I read The Birdman’s Wife, the story lost none of its poignancy nor urgency for me. Ashley’s evocation of Elizabeth’s voice is skillful and believable; despite being described as ‘a woman ahead of her time’, Elizabeth’s narrative felt genuine and without anachronism. She is portrayed as a woman who hungers physically as well as intellectually, finding as much pleasure in her husband and children as she does in her work. The world building is seamlessly done, and I particularly enjoyed the account of the Goulds’ time in what was then Van Dieman’s Land, now Tasmania.
Winner of the Australian Booksellers Association Booksellers Choice Award and a Queensland Literary Award, and shortlisted for several other major awards, The Birdman’s Wife is a fascinating story, beautifully told, of a talented woman who neither received just recognition nor lived as long as she might have had she been born in a different time.