Monday, 29 April 2019

The Birdman's Wife - Melissa Ashley (2016)

Rating: Admirable

The Birdman's Wife is a novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, a talented artist who married the Victorian era English ornithologist John Gould. As with many talented women Elizabeth became eclipsed by her husband, even though she was the exceptional artist and, if the novel is to be believed, he 'merely' caught, killed and then stuffed the birds that she rendered alive again via her beautiful paintings. I knew nothing of either Goulds, but now thanks to Ashley's beautiful prose and detailed narrative, I feel much more intimately knowledgeable regarding this husband and wife team. The novel also illuminates the particular world view of Victorian era naturalists and scientists in general; that the natural world could be, and must be, categorized into endless classifications. Therefore the novel can at times be a distressing exploration of the Victorian propensity to destroy and interfere with the natural world for the sake of their demanding curiosity.

As with many of the book club novels I would never have chosen The Birdman's Wife to read of my own volition and within this context it unfortunately failed to win me over. Although Ashley's prose is particularly beautiful and it is essentially quite well written the endless descriptions of painting techniques and stuffing birds caused me to, at times, to lapse into a state of of delirious boredom. Although Elizabeth and John Gould led fairly interesting lives relative to many who lived in the mid 1800's, they did not lead dramatic lives. There was the tragedy of Elizabeth's babies who died before their time (in the end she had eight children!) and her own early demise due to childbirth, but other than that there is not much in the way of narrative tension. There are some parts in which Elizabeth is upset over her relegation to being merely John's talented wife, however if Ashley's depiction is to be believed she was no trailblazing feminist. Ultimately The Birdman's Wife is the perfect novel for a particular kind of reader and that is absolutely fine, it was just not 'my kind' of novel, one that kept me awake...

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