26 October 2016
Most enjoyable. (Don't be put off by the "ew!" remarks.) A wonderfully detailed, and obviously well-researched fictional auto-biography of Elizabeth Gould. In her Author’s Note, Ashley says:
“Virginia Woolf observed that ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.’”
In the early 1800s, when John Gould was establishing himself as a zoologist and taxidermist, taxidermy had become something of a popular do-it-yourself craft.
“In penny shops you could purchase a pamphlet with precise instructions on how to stuff a bird or vole or ferret, to preserve a sea sponge or cut and polish a beach-combed fossil . . . There were recipes for cooking a batch of arsenical soap over the fire and for pot-stirring a mound of gum Arabic and candy sugar into fixing glue. Windowsills and hearths were suggested as niches for drying.”
And we think we're clever, collecting rocks and shells, eh? Actually, these days we’re not supposed to take things from beaches and national parks, but I digress.
Charles Coxen worked for Gould, and entertained his sister Elizabeth with wild tales.
“Several summers ago a whale calf beached itself in an estuary. Mr Gould shocked all the taxidermists of London by dissecting the rotting carcass right where it lay, in front of a crowd. His assistant claimed he took a coach back to his rooms with rings from the whale’s aorta slung around his neck like horse-yokes.”
Elizabeth meets John, who comes across as a wonderful fellow—intelligent, handsome, kind—but completely fixated on whatever his current project is. He is also one of those people who imagines those around him will be equally dedicated, which can be charming but exasperating to family and friends.
It’s a painstaking, time-consuming passion—hunting, classifying, preparing and stuffing animals. There is considerable detail about how the meat is removed from an animal and the skin preserved for taxidermy. There is also a bit about how bones are separated and packed in a box to be sent around the world with instructions about how to recreate the skeleton.
It’s obviously the only way one would ship a dinosaur, and after all, they’re just big birds, so it makes sense, doesn’t it?
Back to the story. They fall in love, marry and when he discovers Elizabeth’s sketches shows serious artistic talent, he pounces on her to learn more and begin illustrating his bird books. He also pounces on her literally, producing 8 children, 6 of whom survive. They seem happy enough, but she has a hard time meeting the deadlines for illustrations to go in the next publications.
Painting has its own challenges, whether it’s grinding metals, such as gold and copper, to dust to add sheen, or using special colours.
“For the yellow I used an Indian pigment made by feeding Brahmin cows the leaves of mango trees, then intensifying the colour of the animal’s urine by adding chemicals.”
Note, that she didn’t do that mixing, but when a toddler son piddles on the floor, she says:
“If I had a dropper, I could have siphoned it up, I thought. The strawcoloured liquid was a highly effective fixative for grinding pigment, and boys’ urine was still sold by art suppliers for such a purpose – with a different name, of course.”
They meet with Charles Darwin and other scientists, but it’s their young artist friend, Edward Lear (he of the Owl and the Pussycatand other nonsense rhymes and limericks), who is the greatest help and ally to Elizabeth.
“Rather than making things easier, our success had made everyone’s workload heavier as we raced to meet our subscribers’ demands. To ease the tension, Lear drew caricatures of my husband and composed riddles that made me splutter with laughter. Of course I knew that John worked twice as hard as any one of us, but sometimes in his single-minded obsession to complete a project he forgot that we were not all able to work from dusk until dawn as he did.”
John wears Lear down so that he’s ready to leave London. Then to top it off (after six pregnancies and countless late nights drawing), John carts her off to Australia for two years to research, stuff and draw the birdlife. Their seven-year old son goes, too, while the other three tots stay home with granny in England. She is persuaded, because her brother Charles (who introduced them) and her brother Stephen have both settled in the colony.
I cannot imagine how terrifying that would be, no matter how intellectually stimulating the reason for going. News and letters took months to travel on ships, and children succumbed to many childhood diseases we don’t face today. We are spoiled with instant messages and video chats.
But to be fair, the voyage around the world certainly was stimulating. They lived in Hobart, “Hobarton”, where they became friends with the Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane, who comes across as a real character, wearing men’s workboots to hike around and work outdoors. The Goulds even name a subsequent child for them, Franklin.
There are harrowing stories of the sea voyage and various tragedies, but there are some delightful ones about finding and drawing the birds in their natural habitat. I liked the one about the bowerbird, and the author has chosen one of Gould's illustrations to feature on her own website. It is also in my Goodreads review.
This is a wonderful account of a woman ground down by the difficulties of life in the early 1800s and the demands of her career and family. It is also a great depiction in general of London and Australia at that time, when so many people lived such hard, short lives.
Interestingly, there was then a real appreciation for the natural world, art, science, and culture. It’s a pity that, although life is easier for many people today, we don't appear to hold those things in such high regard.
Thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster (Affirm Press) for a preview copy from which I’ve quoted.