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Review - Molly Peacock - The Paper Garden

For this woman, creative life was not a question of having a room of her own, but a cosmos of her own.

Observation of one thing leads to unobserved revelation of another … Direct examination leads to indirect epiphany.

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Review: Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

You must have technical skill to accomplish anything, but you also must have passion which, in an odd way, is technique forgotten. (28)

This is a biography of an artist written by a poet.   Mary Granville Pendarves Delany began life with the eighteenth century which she nearly spanned (1700-1788).  She may also have begun as the passive subject of biographical research, but she soon steps out of the manuscripts, collages and pages and into life, effortlessly traversing intervening centuries as if they were a puddle to be crossed when leaving a carriage.

Delicately lift the hem of one’s silk gown a modest inch or two to avoid its being muddied, and here we are and how do you do.

Two of her most admirable and endearing qualities are a minutely observant, irrepressibly alive alertness on the one hand, and an astonishingly robust resistance to having her vivacity and tenderness ground into dust by the brutality of her era.  Her aunt, wanting only the best for her that could be expected:

… was determined to train her niece as impeccably as a gardener espaliering a fruit tree … Her aunt checked her, curbed her, restricted her, and within each limit that was set, Mary’s liveliness was distilled, then distilled again. (40-41)

The miracle of this spirited but straitened girl is that ‘She was somehow managing to hoard her rowdiness and to compost it into fuel for later adult engagement with life’ (41).

Mary’s first rude awakening, as a young girl, was to find soldiers in the bedroom she shared with her younger sister, arrived to arrest her father and his family in the middle of the night.   An imperious, fearless aunt managed to wrest the girls from the soldiers and take care of them until they could be reunited with their parents.

But it was two soldiers with guns in their hands barging toward their bedside like red exclamation points topped by gold epaulets … Love in an extremity, such as this was, an embrace in the middle of the night, surrounded by soldiers, is like a blue flame in the midst of darkness. (46-49)

In Mary’s time even the most aristocratically adorned women were often treated as chattels.   Before the age of twenty she was traded in as a highly presentable and nubile young wife for a rich drunkard more than three times her age, in exchange for resolving some financial problems for less loving relatives.   She was expected to be grateful for this excellent match which appalled and violated her at all levels. Her husband loved her in so far as he was able, but not enough to give up his suit when he realized how repugnant he was to her:

‘No one considered the sentiments of my heart.’ (77)


But Mary Granville Pendarves had a more tender, a more painfully conscious understanding of the damage that had been done to her. (93)

Her innocence is attacked but not destroyed and she finds ways to nurture it and herself through it: ‘On the beaches near the castle she searched for shells’ (90).  One night in her early twenties, her husband staggered in reeling and reeking after a binge, slurring about what a good wife she was and how he wanted to rewrite his will in her favour.   Good wife that she was, she encouraged him to go and sleep for the night instead. He never woke up, depriving her of a fortune but giving her freedom and a modest pension.

Years later she met Patrick Delany, an Irish deacon. Eventually they were able to marry and enjoyed nearly 30 years of deep happiness.

With Patrick her life metamorphosed from something brittle and sometimes desperate into an existence that was softer and more expansive … By the time she was widowed at sixty-eight, she had been loved candidly and clear-sightedly … It was not a sweeping love but a lucid love.  (10-11)

Four years after her bereavement she noticed the resemblance between a fallen geranium petal and a piece of coloured paper next to it. She picked up the paper and cut it into the shape of the geranium petal. She created not just a paper flower but a new art form, the collage, creating nearly 1,000 botanically precise, exquisitely beautiful pieces over the next decade, now safeguarded in the British Museum and still consulted for their scientific accuracy as much as their loveliness.

Peacock uses a dozen of these collages as chapter titles, illustrations and metaphors, making The Paper Garden a botanically guided walk through creativity in life and art, and the role of careful, loving observation in both: ‘Foolishly, for most of my life I separated looking and organizing from creating’ (102).

To truly listen so that one can perform, as Handel did, communicating life in a series of notes, or to imitate life in its silhouettes, following an outline minutely with scissors, is to be like a cartographer mapping a river. It requires an all-absorbing skill, and learning that skill requires an attention that moves the mapmaker, the music maker, the cutter-outer beyond the self to the focused-on thing. (50)

Not forgetting the spillover effects of intent focus on something; beyond what the noticed thing itself yields is the influence and awareness of the out-of-sight, off-stage, the thing not noticed consciously, but perhaps taken in by a relaxed, quietened, peripheral vision or sensibility.

Observation of one thing leads to unobserved revelation of another … Direct examination leads to indirect epiphany. (347-348)

Another striking aspect of this beautiful book is the candour with which the author demonstrates how subtly, profoundly and reassuringly Mary influences her, slowly dissolving her fears and vulnerability. By the time I finished, Mary had unobtrusively worked her magic on me too, and I still think of her when fears accost.

This was a woman who retained her spirit and sensitivity into old age and sought to prepare and protect younger women in handling the harshness of the age while remaining triumphantly intact; Fanny Burney writes in her memoirs of a precious meeting with her.   Yet Mary could scarcely have anticipated that hundreds of years later, despite massive strides in the emancipation of women in many places, she would continue to provide life-embracing inspiration and the sheltering wing of a role model.  I think of her as a cherished, exuberant great-aunt with whom one can drop in for tea and cake, delight and wisdom.

And as much a creative force in the art of living as of botanical collages.   Mary mastered full-spectrum living.   We say someone can ‘see the big picture’ and that often implies a capacious world or strategic view that doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae where people ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’.   To me, and manifestly in Mary, full-spectrum living encompasses the vast and the small.   She notices and anatomizes plants with scalpels and fine scissors, and yet,

For this woman, creative life was not a question of having a room of her own, but a cosmos of her own. (296)

She created, at the age of 72, a new art form.   If 72 is a mature age today, in 1772 it outstripped average life expectancy by a mile.   Another ringing, joyous chime in this book is that it is never too late to begin a life’s work.   I have given over a dozen copies of this book to friends; I hope this review will encourage you to do the same, and to begin your life’s work, if you haven’t already, whatever your age.

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To search a drawer or a pocketbook or a botanical bibliography, even to search a littered table or beneath the leaf of a geranium, means feeling for one’s conscience and one’s heart, looking for something that will complete – with a key, a tissue, a truth, a love, a victory, a seed – an instant of one’s being, or perhaps one’s whole life. In a sliver of knowledge, time is obliterated and reinstated.   A single instance, the fall of a petal, or the swirl of the paper that imitates and becomes it, flourishes an answering likeness.  (p. 360)

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