The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

The Birdman’s Wife is a novel that will appeal to bird fanciers and devotees of John Gould’s monographs. The story is told from the perspective of Gould’s wife, Elizabeth, and begins in 1828 when she is twenty-four, and meets Gould for the first time. At this stage Gould is working as a taxidermist, though once the couple marries, he decides to specialise in the classification of species.

Ashley has painstakingly researched Elizabeth’s life and world, and this is evident in her detailed narrative. She has also brought to the forefront Elizabeth’s art, and the essential but largely unrecognised role Elizabeth played in her husband’s success. Bringing a modern, feminist perspective to her examination of Elizabeth’s life, Ashley explores the conflict Elizabeth feels in attempting to balance the roles of mother, wife and artist. This is most evident when John asks Elizabeth to come with him to Australia in 1838 to document species in the new land. She is torn between the needs of her children, the two youngest of whom would remain at home in England, and the exciting opportunity for her husband. She chooses to go for the two years, but is constantly aware of her distance from her two girls; a distance made even more fraught when she receives a letter from home telling of her youngest daughter’s illness.

Ashley has created a beautifully written book, and I had no trouble believing it was narrated by a figure from the 1800s. It is a wonderful, fictional biography of an exceptional woman whose life is best summarised by Ashley’s own words: My husband loved me and had done well for us. We might make something of our union. And so I came to my decision: to keep his house, to be mother to his children. To sketch the feathered tribes that obsessed his mind.

Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.