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.
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.