This has recently become one of my very favourite books. I received it from the publishers about six weeks ago and I have read it, and re-read it, since then. It now resides on my bedside table and I frequently take it up when insomnia strikes. It is simply one of the most well written and engaging books on Mrs Delany I have ever read. But it is so much more than that…but before I get carried away in my enthusiasm, let’s first deal with the basics.
In this book, Molly Peacock, the esteemed poet (shown above)has written a very detailed, readable and affectionate biography of that most accomplished woman, Mrs Delany. You will recall that last year I wrote about Mrs Delany, her accomplishments and her legacy to us of her copious and fabulously detailed correspondence, a boon for anyone studying domestic life of the 18th century, here
Mrs Delany is of course, now best remembered for her paper mosaiks of horticultural subjects. These amazingly accurate and detailed paper collages, now kept in the British Museum, were the work of her old age. She began making them when she was 72 and planned to complete 1000 of them. Sadly, her eyesight failed her and she put aside her work in 1783 having completed 985 of these astoundingly beautiful and accurate pieces of work.
The book is an exploration and appreciation of Mrs Delany’s life in Georgian England and Ireland. We learn all about her two marriages, the first an arranged loveless thing; the second, to Dean Swift’s friend, Dr Patrick Delany, below, which was a happier, fulfilling and companiable relationship. And then the years of her long widowhood and how her artistic gifts enabled her to live a life that was, despite the absence of her beloved Dr Delany, fulfilled and satisfying.
Molly Peacock has a immediacy in her writing so that in her company we swiftly and seamlessly time travel to the 18th century,taking in delicious details of coronations, the perils of 18th century travel,the world of the Bluestockings, and the last , productive years of the life of Patrick Delany’s widow, sympathetically befriended by George III and his wife Queen Charlotte.
But the book is also part memoir, a journey into Molly Peacock’s own life, both professional and personal. We learn of its parallels with Mrs Delany’s and how Molly’s fascination with these bewitching images has shaped the course of her life since she discovered them in the 1980s. More importantly, perhaps, she reveals to us how researching these images has affected her own attitude to life, her family, work and art. Without intending to sound too sentimental ( for this book most certainly is not prissy or sentimental at all) it is one of the most uplifting books I’ve read in years. Positive and creative. Attitudes that both Mrs Delany and Molly seem to share, and which ought to be examples to us all. To be frank I’m reminded of Miss Bates’s excellent attitude to life, as Jane Austen portrayed in Emma.If only she had had some artistic talent and a comfortabel pension….then she would not have been overlooked or patronised by anyone in Highbury society, and even our heroine might have paid her more due.
In less talented hands this could have been a disjointed, difficult book to read. But we travel effortlessly between detailed appreciations of the paper mosaiks, on to reminisces of Molly’s life, family and her journeyings(both mental and physical ); then to the minutiae of life in 18th century England and Ireland on to philosophical musings on the nature of modern life and contentment. It is an entirely satisfying and stimulating experience.
The book is also beautifully produced, reproducing 35 of Mrs Delany’s marvelous mosaiks in full colour. Link Beatrix Potter’s perfectly proportioned books, it sits perfectly in the hand and is very tactile: even the hard cover has been embossed poppy in its corner.(see above) I have adored living with this book it.
The publishers were kind enough to send me a copy, for it has already ben published in the U.S.A. but I had already ordered my own and it will be delivered when the book is published in the UK in July. As I am sure you will love this book I’m putting the publishers copy into the pile for the next Austen Only Annual Give Away in October. In the meantime,if you can’t wait for that, I urge you to buy it and savour every beautifully written word.