The birdman’s wife – Melissa Ashley

John Gould is famous for his love of birds and for the beautiful drawings that graced his folios. But his wife, Elizabeth, was the skilled artist, behind much of his success. This exquisite historical novel tells her story. Filled with minute details on matters of ornithology and taxidermy, the author takes her reader back to the nineteenth century, a time of exploration and science, but also a time when medicine still involved potions, leeches and superstition. Women were not expected to excel at non-domestic skills but John’s success and prosperity allowed Eliza the time to pursue her talent. Indeed, her talents contributed greatly to that success.
The novel begins in London, moves to Australia, and then back to London. There is not much of a storyline here. It’s the vivid description of birds, fauna and artistry that carries the book along. The narrating of several pregnancies helps to anchor the book’s heroine in the earthiness of life. She is strong but she is not superhuman. She supports her husband dutifully but, when required, challenges him in the very areas of his technical expertise.
The writing is beautifully evocative, especially in the closing pages. There is much to learn here.
Some readers, accustomed to novels that build suspense through conflict and danger, will no doubt lose patience with this book but it is well worth persevering.
Anyone interested in bird-watching must read this book; anyone with even a passing interest will surely find it fascinating.