Bringing history alive takes something very special and it is clear that Melissa Ashley has that skill. In ‘The Birdman’s Wife‘, she has blended her thorough enquiry into the life of the artist, Elizabeth Gould, with a creative realisation of how the main events in her life unfolded.
Until this work, far more people have heard about John Gould, Elizabeth’s husband for his art and science as a zoologist, mainly through his well-known book, ‘The Birds of Australia’, originally published in 1848. However, Elizabeth’s life was to change on being introduced to him by her brother:
“I still found it hard to believe that on the strength of my brother’s mention of my passion for sketching and painting, Mr Gould had insisted we meet, inviting me to his rooms to make him a drawing.” (quoted from Ashley, chapter 1)
Six children and hours of painstaking contribution as a natural history artist to her husband’s work later, Elizabeth’s short life was over, aged 37 years.
As you can see from the short quote from ‘The Birdman’s Wife’ above, Ashley has captured both the social stance of the nineteenth century woman and her use of language is pitch-perfect for the historical period.
This book is worth a read if you’re interested in a lively account of life in Sydney, NSW in 1848. Kiera Lindsey presents the story of Mary Ann Gill whose failed elopement with James Butler Kinchela was a public scandal of the times. Her research into the case is presented in a deft combination of factual biography and dramatic action.
Harriet Blaxland was the eldest child of John Blaxland, who arrived as one of the first free settlers of substance in the colony of Sydney in 1806. On a whim, she accepted the invitation to live with her aunt in Calcutta. By sixteen, she was married to Alexander Macdonald Ritchie, partner in one of the richest mercantile agencies in India, and living in Agra with views of the ruins of the Taj Mahal from her veranda. Bankruptcy and the death of her husband brought Harriet back to Sydney in 1827. Eight years later, she married Sir James Dowling, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. His death prompted her to return to England at the age of forty-seven. Prompted by reading her unpublished memoir, I’ve been exploring her life further with a view to writing both a fictional account and a short biography.
Dowling, H. Memoir of the Early Life of Harriott Mary Dowling Nee Blaxland: Or Sketches of India and Australia in Old Times. Typescript copy, held with Dowling family papers 1767-1905, held at State Library of New South Wales (Mitchell Library), Sydney, DLMSQ 305, Item 5, 1875.