AUTHOR OF THE MONTH: Melissa Ashley
What at first began as research for a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Gould has now eventuated into your debut novel, The Birdman’s Wife. What sparked your initial interest in Elizabeth Gould and at what point of your research did you decide to start writing her story as a work of historical fiction?
It all started when I fell in love with a poet, and with his poem about a bird. We became avid birdwatchers together. Writers, too. When he rescued a ringneck parrot and we adopted it as a pet, a friend gave me a book about caring for birds and a biography about John Gould, the famous ‘father’ of Australian ornithology. That was how I discovered that his wife, Elizabeth, created the beautiful images of birds he wrote about in his exquisitely illustrated folios. She was portrayed as such a shadowy figure yet her work as an artist was so key to his fame and the history of birds that I became enthralled with her. I began researching Elizabeth’s life in earnest and the more I learned about her, the more determined I became to uncover her story.
I’ve always loved stories about women who are overlooked by history, and I find creative artistic relationships fascinating – Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – so Elizabeth and John Gould’s intimate creative relationship added an extra spark of interest. Elizabeth Gould was such an intriguing enigma that I became convinced that she would be the ideal protagonist for an historical novel so I made her the subject of my PhD. Her story became a labour of love and my first novel.
What was the most difficult aspect of transferring your research into fictional format?
I would say taking the leap to write it as fiction. I’m a researcher by training and I love nothing more than digging into files and archives. For Elizabeth’s story that meant 1830s London and Australia; ornithology, zoological illustration, voyages of exploration, even childbearing practices. I’d outlined the plot but there comes a point when you feel an itch to start the first scene of the first chapter. I came to a stage where I felt I had spent enough time with printed books. I needed to follow in the footsteps of my heroine and get out into the field, go birdwatching, learn about the mysteries of taxidermy and, ideally, to handle archival materials that Elizabeth Gould created herself, which I was finally able to do at the State Library of NSW. The discovery of her letter book in John Gould’s papers helped me to make that jump from the biographical Elizabeth to imagining her emotional journey, her personal experiences and challenges, as the narrator of The Birdman’s Wife.
What character traits are going to endear Elizabeth to the reader?
Elizabeth was such an extraordinary person. She was a naïve young when she fell in love with a passionate and ambitious genius but she came into her own as a woman, an artist and a mother. She was fierce and loyal, a loving mother and a loving partner. She was a talented artist with an artist’s flair not only for the visual but what lies beneath. She loved poetry and literature and the symbolism of birds rather than just the science behind them. She was clever and witty, and her strength of character showed in her ability to get on with life for the sake of her family after the heartbreak of losing two of her children. Elizabeth’s experiences as a working mother will certainly resonate with many modern readers and her extraordinary achievements, her warmth and humour, her loving nature, her willingness to take risks and defy convention, so unusual for a woman of her time, make her an irresistible and exciting character for a novel.
What was your biggest challenge in writing The Birdman’s Wife?
I think the biggest challenge, and in a way the most rewarding, was finally finding Elizabeth’s ‘voice’. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the first draft that she began to take over the narration. And, from that point onwards, she was there with me as I wrote. One of the most valuable points of inspiration was the letters I discovered in my research that she wrote while in Australia and a small diary, both of which gave me a window into her personality. It took time for me to get to know Elizabeth, and to find her real voice. But, once that came together, I felt a renewed confidence in telling her story. And I began to feel I knew her and I became even more determined to do her story justice.
What kind of research was involved in the planning of the novel?
First I plumbed the depths of library archives in Australia and the US for Gouldian materials: letters, manuscripts, lithographs, and I read dozens of biographies and books. In order to understand all that I could of the life and times of the Goulds, and to recreate their experiences, I also went birdwatching in remote places in Australia and spent a year at the Queensland Museum, on volunteer day, learning about the scientific process of preparing birdskins, a sort of taxidermy, for their collection. Which I think speaks volumes for the breadth of my commitment to the project! My fellow volunteers were enthusiastic and generous with their time. Indeed, one of the volunteers introduced me to a descendent of Elizabeth Gould who lived in Brisbane, Bruce Crawford. Bruce, who sadly passed away recently, and his wife opened their home, hearts and Gouldian treasures to me. And they were wonderfully supportive of my mission to bring Elizabeth’s life and her achievements to light.
Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research process?
That Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Louisa, who was only six months when her parents sailed to Australia, came close to dying about a year into the Goulds’ trip. As there were sometimes six month gaps between writing a letter in London and receiving it in Australia, the agony of waiting for news of whether their daughter had taken a turn for better or worse must have been unbearable. Also, for a modern-day reader the Goulds’ decision to send their four- year- old son to boarding school while they were in the colonies seems hard to imagine, even cruel, but it was a common practice in those days. Another surprise was that Edward Lear, one of the greatest zoological illustrators of the nineteenth century, taught Elizabeth about lithography. Elizabeth also painted the famous ‘Galapagos finches’ that aided Charles Darwin in formulating the theory of evolution. The list of surprises is endless, really.
What’s next for you?
I am immersed in late 17th century Paris, in the salons of the female aristocrats who invented the literary fairy tale. They also contributed to the development of the novel and travel memoir but their achievements were written out of the literary canon, ridiculed and mocked even, during Enlightenment. There’s murder, affairs, intrigue aplenty in their stories. And, as with Elizabeth’s story, I’m pursuing my passion for uncovering women’s hidden creative and artistic lives.
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About the Author:
Melissa Ashley is a writer, poet, birder and academic who tutors in poetry and creative writing at the University of Queensland. She has published a collection of poems, The Hospital for Dolls, short stories, essays and articles. What started out as research for a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Gould became a labour of love and Melissa’s first novel, The Birdman’s Wife, the subject of a hotly contested publishing auction. Inspired by her heroine, she studied taxidermy as a volunteer at the Queensland Museum as part of her research. Melissa lives in Brisbane.
The Birdman’s Wife
A woman overshadowed by history steps back into the light . . .
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.
Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, juggling the demands of her artistic life with her roles as wife, lover, helpmate, and mother to an ever-growing brood of children. In a golden age of discovery, her artistry breathed wondrous life into countless exotic new species, including Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches.
In The Birdman’s Wife a naïve young girl who falls in love with an ambitious genius comes into her own as a woman, an artist and a bold adventurer who defies convention by embarking on a trailblazing expedition to the colonies to discover Australia’s ‘curious’ birdlife.
An indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman overlooked by history – until now.
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