Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work At 72 by Molly Peacock

The known facts of Mary Delany’s life (1700–1788) are the intriguing structure on which Molly Peacock constructs her book. Witty, talented and beautiful, Mary was the daughter of a minor branch of a powerful English family. Married off at 17 to a drunken 61-year-old squire (who one is somewhat relieved to hear may have been impotent) to improve the family fortunes, and widowed at 25 with a small annual income, Mary began to experiment with a life of independence.

She was an excellent correspondent, especially to her sister Anne, and many of her letters have survived, to give us a glimpse of how a woman of her times and independent inclina- tions lived. She knew Jonathon Swift and Handel (she was an excellent musician) and generally socialised with all the right people, frequented court occasions and often danced until two-ish in the morning. She fell in love in her forties, married again, and then at the age of 72 after her second husband died, produced an astounding body of work of over 985 botanically correct cut-out paper flower illustrations.

Molly Peacock has been deeply inspired by Mary’s life and late blossoming – the way she explores parallels with her own life is both personal, and a kind of everywoman examina- tion of creativity, love, friendship and the ev- eryday – socialising, clothing, daily routines. The author is also a poet and so finds the delicate detail and passion in Mrs D’s oeuvre, resonating with the sensuality of Georgia O’Keefe’s sensual watercolours of flowers, a resonance that flows through the book as a subtext of female sexuality and desire, intertwined with the creativity underlying the narratives of layered lives. Sometimes this lay- ering is curiously dislocating – the eighteenth century is a long way from the twenty-first, but ultimately it’s disarming.