The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

‘And anyhow, I cannot do it without you.’

Elizabeth Coxen was born on 18 July 1804 at Ramsgate in England.  In January 1829 she married John Gould, a zoologist.  Over a decade, she designed and completed some 650 hand-coloured lithographs of exotic bird species.   Elizabeth Gould is commemorated in the name of the Gouldian finch of tropical Australia (Chloebia (Poëphila) gouldiae), but what do we know about this woman?  How might her life have been lived during the nineteenth century?

‘Natural history and the associated art of taxidermy were becoming a craze.’

The novel opens with Elizabeth stepping from a carriage in Bruton Street, London in 1828 on her way to meet John Gould.  Her brother, Charles, is employed by John Gould and Elizabeth has been invited to undertake some drawing for him.  The beginning of what will become a great partnership.

To read this novel is to see the world through Elizabeth’s eyes: to become immersed in her life, to appreciate how she juggled family responsibilities with her artistic work in what was a golden age of natural discovery.  In 1838 John and Elizabeth Gould, accompanied by their eldest son and a nephew travelled to Australia to discover the curious birdlife.  Their younger children were left at home with Elizabeth’s mother.  For me, this is a fascinating part of the novel.  While Elizabeth is always concerned for the children she has left behind, she forms a friendship with Lady Jane Franklin in Hobart Town, and gives birth to another child (named Franklin) there.

The Goulds returned to England in 1840.  To write more about this novel would introduce spoilers for those unfamiliar with the details of Elizabeth Gould’s life.  I don’t wish to do that because part of the magic of this novel is the way the story unfolds.  This is a beautifully written novel: it took me into the nineteenth century, into a world I can only read about.

To write this novel, Ms Ashley (herself a keen birdwatcher) undertook years of research in order to learn more about Elizabeth Gould.  And, in John Gould’s letter book at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, she found a small diary covering a two-week period of Elizabeth’s life in Sydney, Newcastle and Maitland.  According to Ms Ashley’s Author’s Note, this diary and a dozen letters are all that exist of Elizabeth Gould’s thoughts and experiences.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. I will be buying my own copy of the novel once it is released, as I want to see the beautiful drawings it contains in colour.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith




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