The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock
The Paper Garden is an interesting mix of art history, autobiography and memoir. Molly Peacock weaves the fibers of Mary Delaney's life and artwork with her own, breaking both women's stories down into sections categorized by the qualities of the different flowers found in Mrs. Delaney's beautiful collages. And by this, I don't mean - thistle, green and purple. I mean Thistle, seemingly demure, but thorny a delicate and graceful flower (or woman) well capable of protecting itself (or herself). This style in and of itself is a bit curious but adds a bit of refreshment to it as a memoir (a genre I typically don't care for).
Mary Delaney, the artist and real life heroine of the novel, reads as nearly larger than life. Living in 1700's England, she was a dutiful daughter of society, doing what was expected of her as a proper lady yet never losing the fire and passion within herself. Married off to a man in his sixties who she found revolting while still in her teens, she survived by collecting seashells (anyone who collects and arranges can tell you, there is an art to it) and riding horses on the beach. She was widowed at 23 and began her life anew, meeting her second husband and friend of Jonathan Swift (of 'A Modest Proposal' fame) Patrick Delaney. She found true happiness with him and her artistic passions took shape in the forms of gardens and landscapes, collections and something she'd done since girl-hood, paper cutting.
When she is widowed again at 72, losing the love of her life, she moves in with a friend and begins to heal with scissors and paper in hand. Creating many marvelous paper 'mosaics' of flowers, she breathed life into hundreds of tiny pasted slivers of paper.
The novel is gorgeously written and while Mary is the undeniable star of the work, I found myself able to draw parallels to Molly Peacock's tale as it was woven in as she was able to draw parallels to Mary's. A truly intriguing story that reads almost as a work of fiction based in Victorian times. I'm glad to have been introduced to Mary's works and life story through this tour.
A word of caution though, if you're offended by sexual descriptions of flowers or by various words for 'vagina', you may want to open this book with a bit of forewarning. For instance, on page 6 you'll find this passage (for those easily offended skip the italics):
They all come out of darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers' cunts.
I read that passage with barely a thought, then blinked once to see that word sitting there on the page. I use it, I'm not offended by it, but not everyone curses like a sailor or embraces words like that. So consider yourself warned.