Poet Molly Peacock lovingly channels her kindred spirit, Mary Delany, in this charming biography of the 18th-century botanical artist.
"The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72" (Bloomsbury, 396 pages, $28), Molly Peacock's intensely personal and chatty biography of 18th-century botanical artist Mary Delany, has ups and downs: lucidities and longueurs. Delany is a lively figure in it, but then, unlike the usual biographer's craft, so is Peacock.
Mary Granville started life as the daughter of minor aristocracy. Neither so secure in wealth as to be unassailable, nor so obscure as to be unnoticed, she found her life inflected by the expectations of her society.
Pressured by her family, she married, at 16, Alexander Pendarves, a drunken squire of 61, and moved into his ruined house. He died four years later, leaving her a small widow's pension -- enough for her to live in London, and to petition for a role at the Georgian court.
She never obtained it. Rather than a personal attendant to royalty, she became a superlative friend to London's musicians, writers and artists, from Handel to Hogarth, and an accomplished amateur in several arts. Her six volumes of surviving letters to her beloved sister, Anne, recount this life in great detail.
In her 40s, Mary Granville Pendarves married Dean Patrick Delany, an Irish Protestant friend of Jonathan Swift. It was a true marriage to a supportive man whose gardens and buildings served as a palette for her aesthetic inventions.
When he died, her despair left her drifting -- and then, supported as she often was by friends (this time, the Duchess of Portland, a noted botanical amateur and eccentric), she embarked on her series of cut-paper botanical images -- a medium she invented. She did nearly a thousand of them, starting at age 72, and they are preserved today in the British Museum as the "Flora Delanica." Studies and exhibitions featuring them have begun to proliferate, and their late-blooming creator is blossoming again.
Molly Peacock's account of all this, illustrated with Mary Delany's magical floral images, is liberally salted with her account of her own life as a creative woman and as a sensual wife in a second marriage. The parallels with the life of her subject are lovingly drawn, and give the account the kind of inspired-amateur air that Mary Delany's arts had in their day.
We forgive Peacock her chattiness, her hovering over the details of her life and her subject's life, her speculations on the whats and whys of it all, in part because it channels the 18th century's sense of time -- an era in which three-volume novels could be thrillingly entertaining and women could undertake embroidery projects that consumed hundreds of hours.
Peacock seems to write in the same spirit that she sees in Mary Delany, a spirit that can glory in the details, and the resulting account is all the more heartfelt and moving for it.