The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

The birdman’s wife / Melissa Ashley.

(Submitted on behalf of another library staff member).

As a child in primary school I used to belong to the “Gould League” and every month we would receive a card with a coloured plate of a bird and descriptive notes by Neville Cayley.

I was fascinated with these and of course had no idea of the story behind John Gould and the role his wife played in these publications, indeed I don’t remember hearing of any information about his wife, it was all about her husband, John Gould.

So I was thrilled when I came across this book and realized that it was Elizabeth who painted these pictures that I knew and loved as a child. She had certainly been over-shadowed by her husband.

I enjoyed the fictionalised account of her life written by Melissa Ashley and also enjoyed Melissa’s own story of her painstaking research into Elizabeth’s world and life. Even going so far as to undertake a taxidermist course so as to understand how Elizabeth prepared her specimens.

This makes her descriptions of the preparations of the birds thoroughly convincing. Melissa also undertook birdwatching trips. She felt the need to get her hands dirty, to engage in investigative field research. She certainly delved into the life and work of her subject.

I was also thoroughly intrigued by the details of the ingredients and powders used to create the correct colours. I had no idea of the difficulties involved in this process. Here is an excerpt…

“..for the yellow I used an Indian pigment made by feeding Brahmin cows the leaves of mango trees, then intensifying the colour of the animal’s urine by adding chemicals….”

Not only is Elizabeth, her world and her time so skilfully drawn, all her characters are very human. Her mother, Daisy, other family members and her various maids are always there for her and give her wonderful support so she can devote her time to her paintings and travel.  I especially enjoyed the time Elizabeth spent in Australia, leaving her young children, sending her 4 year old to boarding school, traipsing through the bush in search of animals and birds, having another child and all the time painting her specimens. She just takes it all in her stride. I enjoyed meeting Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor of Van Diemen’s land, another woman before her time.

I happen to be writing this review on “International Women’s Day”, which I think is very fitting as Elizabeth was certainly a woman before her time. She died at the young age of 37 following the birth of her eighth child. She achieved so much in such a short time. I was captivated by her story, her courage, her tenacity and resilience. I am in awe of her.

I am also very impressed by the author, Melissa Ashley’s interpretation of Elizabeth’s life.

The in depth research she undertook  and her skill in reimagining Elizabeth Gould’s life.

I cannot rate this book highly enough.


This title is also available as a book club kit. The Elanora book group is reading this title this month.