The Birdman’s Wife

Written by Melissa Ashley
Review by Ken Methold

This is an extraordinary and a memorable book. Although it is, perhaps, aimed more at ornithologists, taxidermists, taxonomists, twitchers and nature illustrators, I found it fascinating, and I am none of these things. Author Melissa Ashley has had to face the daunting task of writing a biography about a woman whose life has been largely unrecorded. Few of her letters are extant, and her journal, such as it is, covers only a few years of her short life.

The book, therefore, published as a work of fiction, is the imagined biography of Elizabeth Gould. Born at the beginning of the 19th century, during the Regency, she became the wife of John Gould, who is immortalised by the exquisite bird books bearing his name. Copies of these books are treasured possessions in major libraries worldwide. Elizabeth died at 37, worn out after giving birth to her eighth child and years of dedicated work illustrating her taxidermist and taxonomist husband’s descriptions of the thousands of birds that he had killed and stuffed. His Birds of Australia – where the couple spent a less than comfortable two years, to say nothing of the discomforts and perils of the voyage from and back to Britain – is especially important.  Sadly, it is John Gould who is remembered for this work, as it is assumed by many people that he drew the pictures. In fact, it appears that he did not draw even one.

Ashley’s knowledge of her subject is encyclopaedic, and she writes beautifully and clearly with a great deal of love. I cannot recommend this book too highly – though, as I say, it might not appeal to all readers.