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 rib cage, 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.