It’s funny how it all unfolds. I was as busy as a scalded cat, driving our ailing ancient cat to the vet, then picking up a friend’s ancient ailing dog to take him to the vet, and I heard an interview on RN that wasn’t a repeat or about sport (mute). The segment was underway, a woman, articulate and sure, who’d written a novel. As it unfolded, I realised I’d seen the cover, flashed at me from an internet sidebar, a beautiful pale, duck-egg panel and cobalt plumage of small Blue Warblers.
As the interview unfolded, I remembered having seen some John Gould’s drawings in Hobart, many, many, many years ago. Like William Buelow Gould’s drawings of fish, they were enticing, as the Imperial eye grappled with the exotic colonial forms which defied easy rendering. For the artist, the challenge was to look and look more closely, not assuming anything, not overlaying the known or presumed.
And then that evening, Melissa Ashley turned up on the HNSA Facebook page. I downloaded a sample of the novel and by 3AM purchased the rest of it.
So I’m delighted to host an interview with Melissa which I hope contains some pithy and probing questions, as, like Elizabeth Gould, we look ever-closer at her novel and grip of craft.
Greg: What was the first whiff you had of this project as a novel?
Melissa: It all started when I fell in love with a poet, and with his poem about a bird. We became avid birdwatchers together. Writers, too. When he rescued a ringneck parrot and we adopted it as a pet, a friend gave me a book about birds and a biography about John Gould, the famous ‘father’ of Australian ornithology. That was how I discovered that his wife, Elizabeth, created the beautiful images of birds he wrote about in his exquisitely illustrated folios. She was portrayed as such a shadowy figure yet her work as an artist was so key to his fame and the history of birds that I became enthralled with her. I began researching Elizabeth’s life in earnest and the more I learned about her, the more determined I became to uncover her story.
I’ve always loved stories about women who are overlooked by history, and I find creative artistic relationships fascinating – Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – so Elizabeth and John Gould’s intimate creative relationship added an extra spark of interest. Elizabeth Gould was such an intriguing enigma that I became convinced that she would be the ideal protagonist for an historical novel so I made her the subject of my PhD. Her story became a labour of love and my first novel.
Greg: What background do you bring to the text? – I’m thinking the knowledge of the major areas of art/drawing/taxidermy
Melissa: I bring the background of a writer and researcher, mostly. During research, I become a little obsessed with the subject material, which is only natural, and it gives me the drive to go on. To write Elizabeth Gould’s story, I intensified my interest in birdwatching; I explored published historical and biographical materials about the discovery of Australia’s birds, Charles Darwin, Edward Lear, lithography, taxidermy, the Zoological Society, women’s lives during the period, and of course, the archives of John and Elizabeth Gould. I learned taxidermy, and took trips to places the Goulds had visited in Australia, most fruitfully, Hobart. I have loved the mythology, folklore, superstitious, religious, literary, artistic and poetic aspects of our relationships with birds for as long as I can remember, and I suppose I brought some of this knowledge to the book.
Greg: We are some pages into the novel before the “I” narrator is named as Elizabeth Coxen, and, as such, female. Whilst there were hints to the “I” gender, removal of gloves and bonnet, poor needlework, admiring the breadth of the work boy’s shoulders, it felt like we spiralled to the “her”, through the bonnet, the needle work, the objectifying eye, to her name. I wonder if this reflected your process to arrive at your character?
Melissa: I have never noticed this at all. Thank you for pointing it out. It was a long process finding Elizabeth’s voice. I had to throw off my own limited knowledge, or cultural prejudices about Georgian/Victorian women as domesticated and polite, etc. Connected to this, I also had to get under the skin of representations of Elizabeth Gould from biographers and scholars who tended to depict her along the same lines, in order to render her, or bring her alive as a character the contemporary reader can relate to. But it was also very important to me to write a narrator that embodied her historical era. I didn’t want to project a contemporary voice onto her.
Greg: I wonder how much you relied on the fact you are female, that your name is on the novel’s cover, for there to be a natural assumption that the “I” of the narrative was also female. What different moves do you think a male writer would have had to make in those first pages to establish this fact? Would a male have been accepted doing it the way you have or would that be considered cultural appropriation? Even a letdown, a source of inauthenticity, when the “I” was revealed as female.
Melissa: This, again, is a question I have not really considered. Personally, if you want to bring up gender, it is probably no coincidence that as a woman I am interested in uncovering the stories of women who have contributed to our culture in some way but been forgotten or erased by history.
I would hesitate to generalise about the ability of a male writer to authentically present a woman’s experience. I do not think this is cultural appropriation at all. This is what writers do. I’m aware of the debates, but I come out on the side of the author, who has a particular skill in telling stories, to go ahead and do that. An excellent, authentic voice that speaks to zeitgeist, or even better, transcends it to become a classic, will be remembered and read. At least one hopes.
Greg: I enjoyed Elizabeth’s objectification of John. It flies in the face of other representations of women without agency, desire or lust, especially of that era, as insightful as ‘Chloe liked Olivia’. It also seemed an obvious consequence for a woman so attuned to active looking, seeing and representing. Was it hard to maintain a balance, without this becoming apocryphal?
Melissa: I would have to say that in any good writing, characters need to be complex and believable. I’m not quite sure what you mean about a balance. I suppose, for me, I was trying to imagine Elizabeth’s attraction to her future husband when she was a young, unmarried woman. There is one letter, written by Elizabeth to her mother when she was about 24, which reveals that she had a passionate nature, loved literature and poetry; that she was a little ‘different’ to her peers, as many creative people are, and this helped me to shape her character and her character’s eye, if you like.
Greg: You have used some textual traditions of the setting’s epoch – for example, some speech attributes are rendered as, “asked John” rather than a more modern, “John said.” And you have also avoided contractions, although using ‘I’m’, rendering ‘I could not’ completely.
Whilst reaching for authenticity, I wonder how much you considered a modern reader? What were the limits of mimicking the conventions of the time with the consideration that writing of that time would, to some degree, be off-putting to a modern, distracted, reader?
Melissa: This is a very fine balance and I think the medium was settled through many, many drafts and revisions, to get the tone of the voice just right. I had to produce a voice that read as appropriate and believable according to Elizabeth’s time, but to also draw in the contemporary reader. I read Middlemarch and Bleak House, and other 19th century classics, which helped me, in particular, with writing dialogue.
Greg: What moments of the research stand out as great discoveries?
Melissa: There were a few wonderful moments. I discovered, going through an archive at the Spencer Library in Kansas, that Elizabeth Gould’s son, Charles Gould, wrote a history called ‘mythical monsters’ in which he argued that it was only a matter of time before scientists discovered that krakens, hydras, cockatrices and so on would be discovered to actually exist. It really tickled me.
Another ‘discovery’ happened when I was learning taxidermy at the Queensland Museum. A fellow taxidermy volunteer – much of the work of preparing scientific skins for the museum’s collection is carried out by volunteers – introduced me to a descendant of Elizabeth Gould, who lived right under my nose in my home town, Brisbane. She knew his wife through her bookclub. I met Bruce Crawford and other descendants of the Coxen family (Elizabeth’s maiden name) several times during my research. They were very supportive of my project of bringing Elizabeth out from behind the shadow of John Gould. Sadly, Bruce Crawford recently passed away, but quite a few members of his family attended my book launch in Brisbane, which was very special to me.
Greg: Will you ever write a male “I”?
Melissa: I imagine so. I am very interested in women’s stories, women’s consciousness, experiences, interiority, histories, and will remain so, that doesn’t preclude me from using a male narrator or POV.
Greg: What are you working on now?
Melissa: I’m working on another historical novel, set in Paris in 1699, based around the literary salons run by women writers at the time. My subject is Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a writer of travel manuscripts, novels, histories and fairy tales. She lived rather a scandalous life, so I’m having a lot of fun learning about her. I’ve done quite a bit of preliminary research – in fact, I first came across her more than five years ago, while doing my masters degree in fairy tales – but don’t yet feel ready to start writing. A trip to Paris may be in order! 😉
Greg: I’ll meet you in a Bistro for an Absinthe on the Left Bank to see how you’re going. Well, it’s been lovely to hear about some elements of craft, and some of the discoveries you made. The Birdman’s Wife is not only a beautifully written novel but a lovely object. And, most of all, the world is richer to have finally such an exotic, hand-coloured lithograph of Elizabeth Gould.
Dr Melissa Ashley is a fiction writer, poet and academic who teaches creative writing workshops at the University of Queensland. Melissa is the author of the historical fiction, The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press, 2016), about the incredible life of the nineteenth-century illustrator, Elizabeth Gould, the wife of John Gould, the ‘father’ of Australian ornithology. Melissa has published papers and articles in Hecate, Text Journal of Creative Writing, Double Dialogues, The Age (Spectrum), The Lifted Brow and others. Her current project explores the life and writing of a seventeenth-century French author of fairy tales.