“Anyhow, I couldn’t do it without you.” // Review of “The Birdman’s Wife” by Melissa Ashley #aww2016

Title: The Birdman’s Wife
Author: Melissa Ashley
Genre: Historical fiction
Date Read: 23/08/2016 – 08/09/2016
Rating: ★★★


Based on a real life and meticulouusly researched, this book conveys information about the life of illustrator Elizabeth Gould, as well as the natural history craze sweeping Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.

Elizabeth Coxen married zoologist John Gould in 1829. Not only did she give birth to eight of his children, but she was also the illustrator for many of his publications on wildlife, particularly birds, around the world. In 1838 she accompanied him on a trip to Australia, where she provided the illustrations for his monograph, The Birds of Australia. Sadly, Elizabeth died at the age of 38 and her husband’s career significanly eclipsed that of her own. This book seeks to give her her own much deserved place in history.

Melissa Ashley manages to cram so much into this book about life in London in the 1820s and 30s and travel in Australia in the late 30s, as well as details about ornithography, zoology and the specimens John and Elizabeth Gould collected and described. And yet, it never really felt like the author was info-dumping. It was more like someone really passionate about their subject getting excited and wanting to share everything they can with you.

The novel is in first person, not something I am generally a fan of, but I did like Elizabeth’s narrative voice. It felt very appropriate to the time period, and I think it worked because it did allow for the glimpse into her innermost thoughts that we don’t really get a sense of by just reading the history books. The character of John Gould got a bit overbearing at times; while it was great to see a character so passionate about his calling, he certainly did let that overpower his devotion to his wife a lot, and that made me frown.

The novel is littered with other enjoyable side characters, such as the Gould children and extended family, Lady Franklin in Tasmania, and fellow illustrator Edward Lear (I had to google him to check it was the same Edward Lear who wrote the Owl and the Pussy Cat, and what do you know, it was! He was also a scientific illustrator).

The main reason this didn’t get a higher rating than 3.5 from me is more of a preference thing than anything actually “wrong” with the book. As this is based on someone’s life, it is more of a chronicle of things they did, rather than having a “plot” so to speak, with interesting twists and turns. I do find this sort of story a bit harder to get into to, and so it meant that it was a bit of a slower read for me. However, I am sure that people who read more historical fiction than I do will not have such a problem with this.

I was reading an ARC, so there were only a few examples of the illustrations, but I believe their are quite a few more was able to find some examples online of Elizabeth’s work, and I think having those in the final product will enhance the reading experience.

(Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Shuster Australia for a free copy of this book in exchange for a review)

(This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016. Click here for more information).

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