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The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72
By Molly Peacock
McClelland & Stewart, 416 pages, $30
THIS rich and poetic hybrid biography follows the life of a remarkable 18th-century Englishwoman, while touching gently on other ideas — the consolations of creativity, the nature of art, and the unexpected gifts of age.
Toronto-based poet Molly Peacock recreates the world of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, who was born in 1700 and grew up along with her century, encountering many of its leading lights. Mrs. D., as Peacock sometimes calls her, knew the composer Handel, the painter Hogarth and the satirist Jonathan Swift. She was courted by the radical theologian John Wesley and became fast friends with the Duchess of Portland, a prodigious collector and patron.
Delany's own achievement rests in her Botanica Delanica, 985 scientifically accurate flower illustrations now held in the British Museum.
They are astoundingly beautiful and meticulously constructed from cut and pasted pieces of painted paper, often hundreds of snipped shards in one work. This "new way of imitating flowers," as Mrs. Delany modestly described it, was an extraordinary precursor to the mixed-media collage.
Even more extraordinary is the fact Mrs. D. found this art at the late blooming age of 72. As Peacock rightly points out, "it gives a person hope."
Though Peacock's research is thorough, she writes not as a conventional biographer but as an affectionate fellow traveller. Peacock finds in her subject's crowded life some parallels with her own. Delany, who was unwillingly married off at age 16 to a drunken 61-year-old squire, later flouted family wishes by making a middle-aged love match. She started creating her flowers as an antidote to grief after the death of her second husband.
Peacock is also ensconced in a happy second marriage, and she too has found meaning and solace in creation, producing five books of poetry, a memoir, and now this highly personal biography.
Each chronological chapter begins with the representation of a flower, which Peacock applies to a stage of Delany's life, from the furled bud to the autumnal Winter Cherry, which reveals its beauty only in decay. Some of the floral metaphors are apt, but Peacock is prone to overwriting, a hazard when poets turn to prose.
Mixing up the ordinary and the extraordinary, Peacock is as fascinated with her subject's daily domestic round as with her glamorous public life. She is also awed by Delany's prodigious output.
Delany's letter writing alone runs to six large volumes, and Peacock's quotations from these long, detailed missives suggest what we have lost, not just in a way of writing but in a way of thinking, with the decline of handwritten correspondence.
Parts of the book feel speculative, but Peacock candidly admits that something of Mrs. D.'s life — or anyone's life — remains beyond reach. According to Peacock, biography must accept that a subject's life might have been as "incongruous, ambiguous, inconsistent and paradoxical as our own."
Mrs. Delany was an unusual woman, and The Paper Garden is an unusual work, part chronological biography, part emotional and artistic autobiography, part meditation on the reach and power of the imagination.
Teeming with life — and gorgeous colour illustrations — it will appeal to those interested in art and craft, women's history, the 18th century and, of course, anyone looking to redefine "creative retirement."
Alison Gillmor writes on pop culture for the Free Press. She is relieved she has a few more years to produce her masterwork.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.