The Birdman’s wife is the author, Melissa Ahsley’s, debut novel. It was the creative component of her PhD and I would have loved to read her exegesis. The novel achieves what the author wanted to achieve – that is – give an unknown historical figure her rightful place in history. All Australian children of at least my age know John Gould. We learnt about him in Social Studies as the man who documented Australia’s bird life in the 1830’s. Many of us (including myself ) was a member of the Gould League.
Never had we heard of Elizabeth Gould who drew the wonderful lithographs that accompany the scientific documentation of the birds. Indeed, many examples are found in the hard cover version of this book that did not accompany the kindle version and they showed she was a wonderful painter of birds.
So having accomplished her aim what was the book like to read? I had no problem reading the book. At times I felt the detail given about the birds was too wordy and only of interest to an ornithologist and likewise with taxidermy descriptions – but that was her life and she described it well. Indeed the author immersed herself in taxidermy so she had a good working knowledge enabling her to write from the perspective of one who did it.
The first chapter did nothing to make the book appeal to me. It read like a romance novel, and this style could appeal to many – just not me. Elizabeth, was very much a woman of her day doing her husband’s bidding and having multiple children whilst keeping to his demand for art. The author created a vision of a woman who was passive aggressive who quietly resented her husband’s demands. She left all but one of her children in England whilst she travelled to Australia for two years painting birds. There were some dramatic points – one with an albatross whilst on board ship which gave tension and relief to the reader. The author had little to go on in regard to character so Elizabeth was largely fictionalised. I had some problem with the style of writing and I think it was this that led me to question some of the facts written by the author. I found my self saying “I don’t know if that is true,” doing some research of my own leading me to discover that it was indeed correct. I did not catch the author out on any of her research which must have been vast. The last chapter covering Elizabeth’s death was beautifully written.
We read this book for my book club and it created a mixed reaction with some rating it highly at 10 and others on the low side at 3. Would I recommend this book? Although it wasn’t a book that I loved I was glad that I had read it and learnt about a woman that history had forgotten. Elizabeth acted as the narrator telling her life story and like any biography at times there seemed to be more telling than showing. I would recommend it to those that are interested in birds, early Australian history, natural sciences, the London scientific societies, taxidermy, Edward Lear and women’s role in history. This story is possibly unusual of her time for she followed her husband’s career which forced her to give up her own role as mother. At the very least, should you read it, you will come away from it whether you rate it highly or not, with knowledge that you are glad you now have. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s note at the end.