the birdman’s wife
November 13, 2016 — 0:47

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian literature debut novels fiction writing  Comments: 5

My double review of the bird man’s wife by Melissa Ashley and The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church was published in the Fairfax newspapers last weekend.


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Seeing the covers together like this, it’s clear that both novels are about birds. the bird man’s wife tells the story of Elizabeth Gould, wife of John Gould, the famous ornithologist. It was in fact Elizabeth, not John, who drew and painted most of the illustrations in The Birds of Australia, and author Melissa Ashley has righted a historical wrong in bringing Elizabeth’s name, and life, out of obscurity.

As well as performing this worthwhile task, Ashley has written a fascinating and absorbing novel. Please follow the link above to read my review in its entirety.

Readers first meet Elizabeth in 1828, as a young woman in London, where she first meets her future husband, and follow her to her death,  of puerperal fever, after the birth of her eighth child, aged just thirty-seven.

Elizabeth’s life-long curiosity about the natural world links her, across more than a century, to Meridian Wallace, the main female character in The Atomic Weight of Love, who goes bird-watching on her own and is not the slightest bit interested in playing with dolls. Meridian is a brilliant student who falls in love with a physics lecturer twenty years her senior, marries and then follows him to Los Alamos, postponing, then finally abandoning her graduate studies in ornithology. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, Meridian is not forced to endure successive pregnancies – she never has children of her own – but she submits to the husband with whose intellect she first fell in love.

Both books are beautifully produced, the birdman’s wife in particular; it’s a hardback, the end papers including some of Elizabeth Gould’s finest illustrations.

  • A very interesting pair of books, and what beautiful covers!

    November 15, 2016 — 0:55
  • admin

    Thanks for your comment, Gert. Yes they are!

    November 15, 2016 — 1:49
  • Great review Dorothy – which I’ve read in full via your link. It can be tricky to write a double review, and I like how you’ve done it, particularly your neat segue from one to the other and then returning to the comparison between the two males at the end. It sounds like you’d recommend the Ashley over the Church.

    I had a little laugh at “Elizabeth’s brother, Charles, is working for him as a stuffer.” My initial reaction was that this was a typo for “staffer” (which would not have been a period-appropriate term of course) but then immediately realised you did indeed mean “stuffer”. The jobs people have!

    Oh, and I do love how Lady Jane Frankin keep popping up in 19th century stories. I think I’ve lost count of the number of places she pops up. Such an interesting and influential woman.

    November 16, 2016 — 0:11
  • admin

    Thanks, WG. Oh dear, I suppose I should have explained ‘stuffer’. It’s hard when you’ve only got 700 words for two largish novels: one reason why I think reviews such as yours are often more satisfying than newspaper ones. And yes, I would recommend the Ashley novel over the one by Elizabeth Church; not because ‘The Atomic Weight of Love’ is badly written, or the topic uninteresting. But there’s a wealth of loving care gone into ‘the birdman’s wife’ – not to mention the historical research!

    And on the subject of Lady Franklin – have you read a whole book specifically about her? I’m sure there must be some.

    November 16, 2016 — 0:51
    • Oh dear, Dorothy, I didn’t get notification that you’d responded and have just come here idly to see what your were up to and saw this response!

      I understand completely re 700 word limits and what that means – and I did work out was stuffer was pretty quickly. Sometimes I think it would be good if I were forced to limit my reviews to something a little shorter as I’m sure I try some readers’ patience, but then I always want to explore so many things.

      As for Lady Franklin. Yes, I’ve read Adrienne Eberhard’s Jane, Lady Franklin, which for some reason I didn’t write up on my blog. I thought I had. It’s a verse collection written in her voice. There are others including one I have but haven’t read, Alison Alexander’s The ambitions of Jane Franklin. It won the National Biography Award around three years ago.

      February 13, 2017 — 14:44
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