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Book review: the Birdman's Wife

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley, is semi-autobiographical, following the journey of the wife of the famous ornithologist John Gould. Meticulously detailed in its historical and scientific fact, it is as much a journey through one extraordinary women’s life as it is through the natural history of a fascinating period in time. The Goulds play a unique role in Australia’s natural history with their seminal work Birds of Australia featuring Elizabeth’s stunning hand-coloured lithographic prints. Indeed, the Top End’s own Gouldian Finch was actually named after Elizabeth.

As much as this is a celebration of the artistry of Elizabeth’s work, it is also a celebration of one women’s incredible strength, resilience, and tenacity in the face of adversity. Mother to 8 children, 2 of whom died in early infancy, The Birdman’s Wife tells Elizabeth’s story from the day she met her husband to her death and her extraordinary journey in between – across oceans, across continents and across a  deep and abiding grief that never truly leaves her.

What is most startling about this book is the light it shines on one woman’s role in bringing to life a critical part of Australia’s natural history. It was widely accepted that Elizabeth’s husband John Gould created the illustrations for Birds of Australia (and other scientific publications of his) when it was, in fact, Elizabeth who brought to life these extraordinary specimens.

Interestingly, the female characters are as delicately drawn as Elizabeth’s illustrations from Elizabeth herself, her mother, her maid and other characters she meets on her journey from Great Britain to Australian and back again.

Whether you’re a lover of nature, of art, or of a just cracking good story, this is the perfect book to curl up with. Set aside a day and let the journey begin..




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