The Birdman’s Wife is a beautiful piece of historical fiction which reimagines the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould who is best known for his work documenting Australia’s birds.
The book follows Elizabeth into her marriage with John, through her early work, the loss of her two children and her trip with John to Australia to record Australia’s bird life. This was an unconventional decision for Elizabeth as it meant leaving three of her four children behind in England during the 2 year journey. But Elizabeth was clearly unconventional, working to produce over 600 lithographs while she was also bearing and raising children in an upper class family.
This is a meticulously researched debut novel. The writing seems a little stilted at the opening of the relationship between John and Elizabeth, but then the author hits her stride and both Elizabeth and her subjects leap from the page. As the daughter of a lithographer, I enjoyed reading about the process used prior to the technology of the 20th century – incredibly difficult work which could be ruined by a fingerprint or a mistimed exhalation. I also enjoyed learning more about the research done by the Goulds and their journey through the fledgling colony. I wish there had been more mention of the Indigenous peoples, but on reflection this was probably outside of Elizabeth’s experience.
This book is a tribute both to an amazing woman and Australia’s bird life. I’m looking forward to reading more by Melissa Ashley.
4 out of 5 encounters with Prince Albert.