Happily, poet Molly Peacock possesses formidable biographical skills, for they are essential to the task of taking on her subject, the life and art of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany. But Peacock also brings a poet’s sensibility to The Paper Garden, which enhances its vivid appeal. With a panoply of metaphor and lyrical asides, a framework of apt and inspired quotations from artists across the ages, a host of parallels and connections to other lives (including Peacock’s own), and the designation of a single beautifully reproduced flower as a point of departure for each chapter, Peacock has created the biographical equivalent of collage. And if ever a subject called for this skill, it is Mary Delany, who, Peacock posits, invented collage 200 years before we usually reckon it, when she snipped, pasted, layered, painted, implanted, and strikingly staged her Flora Delanica, nearly 1,000 cut-flower “mosaicks” on black paper backgrounds.
That Peacock manages to balance history, biography, art, and botany—creating windows into the lives of at least four 18th-century figures as well as countless English and Irish countrysides, countrymen, gentlewomen, and not so gentle men—and does so with elegance and insight, while keeping her audience engaged in such a personal way that they may at times find the book holding up a mirror to their own inner lives, is a feat worthy of the miraculous Mrs. D. (as she is fondly referred to) herself.
Central to the story is the inciting moment in 1772 when, recently widowed for a second time, utterly bereft, and laid up in the home of her dear friend the Duchess of Portland, Mrs. Delany sat “chair-ridden” with her swollen, propped-up, gnat-bitten foot and an order not to move from the spot. A geranium was placed nearby to cheer her. Inspired by a petal fallen onto a colored piece of paper, she picked up her scissors, snipped a paper petal so exact that the Duchess feared she’d raided the plant, and with paper and paste, assembled her first flower. This was the start of a creative outpouring virtually unmatched in velocity, consistency, and intensity. Defying all the stereo-types of ripe old age, she had begun her life’s work. She was 72 years old.
How did this happen? She’d led a flurry of a life. The best of times were those with art and devoted friends and family, and the worst were years trapped in a torturous arranged marriage from age 17. A family brush with the Tower of London, friendships with Handel and Jonathan Swift, a period of courtship by Lord Baltimore, the late-in-life admiration and hospitality of George III—these were some of the highlights. And always, the creation of some sort of art was an outlet for her, a distinction, a solace, and a stay against the era’s bullying restrictions. Young Mary escaped into her arts (and letters) during her horrific marriage to an elderly, fat, snuff-taking, drunken nobleman, and after an inevitable early widowhood, she vowed never to submit to such indenture again.
Peacock details a lifelong artistic apprenticeship: silhouette-cutting, music-making, clothing design, flower embroidery, shell-arranging; correspondence with, and observation of, great artists; botanical study and collection; and gardening—until the cut flowers “[burst] from the bright spirit that wrote those volumes of letters . . . made by two hands that had seventy-two years of flexion in other crafts, and eyes that had seventy-two years of pure noticing.” Entwining the life and the art, the biography and metaphor, Peacock makes beds of similes, plumping the pillows with such historical detail as food and dress, social mores, lineages, politics. Of the plant adorning a later chapter, she writes:
The Winter Cherry is . . . a self-portrait of the artist as a single stalk of a plant, showing her at four of life’s stages: the green lantern of childhood; the fully dressed, bright orange one with slight hip loops—young womanhood; the lower lantern with part of the dress removed to show the interior of the plant—increasing maturity; and the last lantern, the heart of the aged woman. The fine ribs of the plant material make the skeleton of the former lantern into something like a ribcage, with the cherry beating inside.
Mrs. D. included in this mosaic—like a lock of real hair stored inside a locket—a part of the actual plant, which has survived.
In middle age, Mary was coaxed back into marriage, and her husband, the devoted Reverend Delany (to use modern parlance), “got” her. He did not squelch her; he admired and encouraged her. Borrowing an image that points forward to the later-to-be-emblazoned flowers, Peacock writes: “[Mary] became his brilliant focus—and he became her vista, the expansive background that his generosity of spirit provided.” Devastated at his death, she was all but unable to go on; but friendship and, eventually, art—namely, the Flora Delanica begun two years later—revived her.
Though most women of her era had few available choices (for those of her class, marriage or a position at court), Mrs. D. knew exceptional women, notably the Duchess of Portland, the richest and most purposeful woman in Britain of her time, who provided the sitting room, the inciting geranium, and the rescue from widowhood’s depression and despair. Mrs. Delany would, in a sense, return the favor 200 years later: When Ruth Hayden, her great-great-great-great-great-great-niece, accepted a commission from the press of the British Museum (which houses the collection) to write her ancestor’s biography, doing the work lifted Hayden from listlessness, depression, and a lifelong burden of undereducation. Immersing herself in the six immense volumes of collected letters and nearly 1,000 flower portraits, Hayden came into her own. Completing the project with her husband, who was in his final years, kept them close.
Well into her eighties, Mrs. Delany raced against failing eyesight and the potential dimming of other faculties to do the work. She dissected the plants in order to replicate them to the core. At a rate of up to one per day, she created detailed, anatomically correct botanical portraits, her specimens ranging from rare to commonplace. In Peacock’s view, they are deeply sensual and sexual, and “as complex as Mrs. D.’s personality,” with their “opposites of intrepidity and shyness, inspired daring and . . . deliberate anonymity.” Consisting of dozens to hundreds of painted, cut, and pasted parts, the flowers were storied marvels at the time and are no less so today. The technique is often other than it appears: cut where it seems painted, handmade where it seems real, pasted in where it looks colored directly onto the page, and almost always made of more pieces than one imagines.
Peacock imbues The Paper Garden with a love of technique, of those things that take time to evolve, and of things worth striving for and studying: “Some things take living long enough to do,” she muses. Yet for reasons mysterious or predictable, some people find ultimate expression and others (Peacock’s mother, for one) do not: “Refusing to make, she made me into a maker—into a writer. . . . [She] inched her way forward in life. . . . I had to leap.” A passage from Virginia Woolf’s 1926 diary on the final page is uncannily prescient: Woolf is sometimes haunted, she says, imagining an occasion in a woman’s life when “future shall somehow blossom out of the past. One incident—say the fall of a flower—might contain it.”
Anyone who has ever hit a lull, or a low, or faced a cultural obstacle can ride the wave of this saga. It is a story showing that profound recovery can follow profound loss, that it can take a lifetime to find one’s art, that a late bloom is possible and attainable, and that at any time in history there can be, and have been, women and artists, or both, defying all manner of pressures and norms, and leaping.
Kate Light, poet and violinist in New York, is the author, most recently, of Gravity’s Dream and the libretto to Once Upon the Wind.