Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Paper Garden

The whole reason I started this blog was to put all my book recommendations in one place. Some books are more specific in their recommendation than others, but generally speaking, they're all books I enjoyed and would eagerly pass along to a friend. That being said, every once in a while I find a book that is so good I can't stop talking about it, and spend time actively thinking about who in my life would also enjoy it, and how their reading of it might differ from mine. It's fair to say I don't have that level of engagement with every book, so when I start matchmaking before I'm halfway through I know I've got a good one. Most recently, that book was The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Moll Peacock.

When I really love a book, I tend to get a little effusive and then stumble all over myself, so I will try to keep this orderly. Anyway, the Mrs. Delany of the subtitle is Mrs. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, born in 1700, and this book is, ostensibly, the story of her incredible artistic achievement. At 72, Mrs. Delany (Mrs. D, as Peacock calls her) looked at a fallen geranium petal and noticed that it matched a piece of coloured paper. From there, she decided to recreate the geranium out of pieces of cut paper (remember that she's 72 and there's no electricity), and the result was so exquisite that her friend initially thought Mrs. Delany had ripped apart the geranium and glued it, piece by piece, onto a sheet of paper. Mrs. Delany then went on to make 985 of these "flower mosaiks" using hand-cut paper, rudimentary glue, and paper she often coloured herself. 

Above, I said the book is ostensibly about this because, although the mosaiks are at the centre of the story, Peacock's autobiography of Mrs. Delany goes much deeper. Peacock structures the book around the flowers, and nearly ever chapter is named after one of the mosaiks, and leads with a colour photograph of the work in question. With that setup, Peacock offers a mostly linear account of Mrs. Delany's life: from girlhood and being brought up as part of the British aristocracy, to various court intrigues, to her marriage to a man older than her father, to her life as a widow, and her eventual rebellious marriage to an Irishman. Mrs. Delany was a friend of Jonathan Swift, an acquaintance of Handel, and a friend of Queen Charlotte and King George III. Her life was remarkable, and Peacock is careful to imbibe the factual details (gleaned from her letters and other, enumerated, sources) with a sense of what she would accomplish later in life, and with attention to her many and varied artistic pursuits in the meantime.

Mrs. Delany, alone, would be enough to fill a book, but Peacock goes a step further and overlay Mrs. Delany's story with her own memoir, which does the job of explaining what drew her to Mrs. Delany in the first place. This kind of story within a story brings The Paper Garden out of the realm of pure historical narrative and into a new space where we can consider what it is about historic figures that fascinates us so much. In Peacock's case, it all begins with her lifelong search for role models and her discovery of Mrs. Delany's mosaiks on display at a museum in New York. It wasn't exactly a thunderclap moment, though, and Peacock spent years thinking about Mrs. Delany before she ever really pursued her. 

Beyond the incredible and inspiring story of Mrs. Delany and Peacock's contemporary memoir, I would be remiss if I didn't mention writing itself. Any book about Mrs. Delany would be an aesthetic experience purely because the inclusion of at least some of the mosaiks would be mandatory, and they are so remarkable you can't quite believe they're real. For some writers, that level of beauty would be enough; however, Peacock is a poet, and the aesthetic experience of reading her writing adds another level of beauty onto an already lovely book. It sounds strange, but to read Peacock's writing about the sexuality of flowers or the snipping of paper is rather like looking at a painting: suddenly, words you are familiar with become beautiful because they are arranged in unexpected ways, with a cadence that lets the lines sing themselves to you. 

The Paper Garden is, in my opinion, the whole package. It's a riveting story about a woman who, against all odds, created an art form that has never been matched; it's a contemporary coming-of-age story about another fascinating woman; and it's told with language and photos that so lovely it's hard to believe they're real. Reading The Paper Garden now, while I'm in my twenties, makes me wonder if I'm working toward something (it makes me hope I am) and I can only imagine how I'll feel when I reread it in twenty years, or in forty years. In her search for a role model, Peacock found the ultimate woman to look up to, and in sharing her discovery, has shown herself to be quite a uniquely talented woman as well.

The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72
by Molly Peacock
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from Emblem edition)


  1. I like effusive and disorderly when it's fuelled by bookish passions! But that's not to say that I didn't enjoy reading your enforcedly-orderly thoughts on this one; I bought it as a gift for a writer-friend and had a bit of a pang as I packed it off. It's just beautiful, even on the outside!

  2. Oh, what a a great gift! It is lovely in all the ways a book can be (beautiful design, stunning photos, and gorgeous prose).

    I've actually seen a few copies popping in used bookstores recently, so if you feel like giving it to yourself too, it's around.


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