The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. McClelland & Stewart 2010.
The eighteenth century was an amazing time. It saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and of the American Revolution. It was the Age of Enlightenment, but it was still an era when the rich were rich and the poor were poor, and everyone knew their place. Mrs. Delany, born Mary Granville (1700-1788), bore witness to much of the century. From a minor branch of an aristocratic family, she was witty and educated, and knew many of the preeminent figures of her day, including Handel and King George III. Through her correspondence with her sister and other friends, Mrs. Delany left behind a personal record of her times. Her greatest claim to fame, however, is her artwork. Late in life, at the age of 72, she began work on the intricate paper collages that can still be seen at the British Museum. Constructed from handmade paper, her botanically correct flowers record not only the flora of British fields and gardens, but also the more exotic plants being introduced to England for the first time by botanists exploring the wide world. Over the next decade, she created an astounding 985 collages.
What a life she led! At the age of just 17, she was married off by her uncle to a drunken 60-year-old squire, with a view to improving the family fortunes. What must have seemed like a sort of death sentence suddenly became an unusual opportunity when her husband, Alexander Pendarves, died. Although she didn’t inherit his estate, she was able to claim a small pension, and at the age of 25, could move more freely in society than many married women. After turning down offers of marriage over the years, in 1743 she finally settled on Patrick Delany as her second husband. They moved to his home in Ireland, where they lived for the next 25 years. After his death in 1768, Mary was once again a widow. She began to spend time with her friend Margaret Bentinck, Dowager Duchess of Portland. It was through the Duchess, a keen collector, that Mary met Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, two well-known botanists of the time, and pursued her interest in botany, which ultimately led to her famous collages.
The Paper Garden is Molly Peacock’s creative biography of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany. Each chapter of The Paper Garden is introduced by a reproduction of one of Mrs. Delany’s flowers. Peacock places Mary’s life in context by relating information about the period and people Mary knew, and speculating on how Mary might have been feeling or thinking about matters. Peacock is a poet, and her writing is sometimes more embroidered than what might appeal to every reader. At times, I felt a bit bogged down in her storytelling. However, the amazing Mrs. Delany is sure to win your heart, and I enjoyed learning about her life.