Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines by Bernice Barry

Reviewed by Lyn Reilly

Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines by Bernice Barry

Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines (a biography of one of Australia’s first female botanical collectors) by Bernice Barry, 2016 Pan Macmillan Australia

The subtitle is taken from a song of Robert Burns ‘the mind that shines in ev’ry grace’

Georgiana was born in 1805, married 1829 and died in 1843. While almost half the book concerns Georgiana’s childhood and adolescence, it is pertinent to her botanical abilities in later years. Georgiana grew up loving nature. A town child from Carlisle for her first two years, she had a garden behind the house. On the other side of the street the landscape was wide and wild with a steep vista out to Solway Forth. The family moved to ‘Crosby’ on the river Eden and Cumberland bloomed every spring. Her father imported thousands of trees and plants and the little girl learned her horticultural skills from him. While she also learned the household skills expected of a lady, her growing interest in the natural world was an extension of her religious belief and love of landscape. The Lake District was the geographical centre for the new Romantic ideas in art, literature and music. Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ echoed Georgiana’s own feelings. At Gareloch she loved the plants and the wild beauty of sea and sky.

The newly married Georgiana and John Molloy arrived among the mud huts of Perth in 1829. They soon moved to the sub-colony of Augusta, where Georgiana could relate to the coastal scenery. Life was very hard as a pioneer with her husband, the Resident Administrator, absent for long periods. In the brief times of respite from physical labour, pregnancies and childbirth problems, Georgiana planted a vegetable garden for their food and became interested in the local flora. Her first surviving daughter Sabina accompanied her from the age of three.

In 1836 she received a letter from Captain James Mangles asking her to collect botanical specimens for him, as the work of previous plant collectors was unsatisfactory. Georgiana collected, pressed and learned much about the special flora where she lived. She marked plants in flower so she could find them again to collect their seeds when they were ready. She numbered the specimens and recorded them in her own duplicate collection. Her collections included seeds, fruit, leaves and flowers. Using botanical books sent to her by Mangles, her technique improved and she built her own ‘hortus siccus’ boxes for transportation. The seeds she sent to England were famous for their viability and Mangles shared them with other growers.

After a few years the family moved north to the Vasse area, where the land was more fertile for their essential food crops – but it was without the Augusta hills that Georgiana loved – and the flora was different again. There are lovely descriptions of the brick-red Kennedia marryatta and other creepers growing over her verandahs at both locations.

Real fame eluded Georgiana somewhat. While some of her specimens are still to be seen at Kew, they are held in the ‘Mangles’ collection, even though they are named as collected by her.

The author includes in her ten years of research, personal correlations between herself and her subject – both came from the UK to live in Western Australia. The book is well illustrated in B&W and colour. It contains a family tree of the Molloys and the Kennedys, and has 26 pages of endnotes and an index of the names mentioned in the text.

‘Georgiana Molloy’ gives an excellent insight into the life of a pioneer woman, but as a reader with botanical leanings, I would have liked more detail about the plants she collected.