The Magazine

Mrs. D.’s Gift

A second flowering in the Augustan Age.

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By KATE LIGHT
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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 laterrevived 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.