You may not be familiar with Mary Granville Pendarves Delany or with what she called her “flower mosaick[s]”(4)—I wasn’t—but perhaps after reading this, if you are able, you might want to just pop into the British Museum and have a look at them. I wish I had read this book before I was in the UK last month because I certainly would have visited the BM and looked at her collages.
Molly Peacock’s book outlines Mrs. Delany’s life linking each “chapter” with one of the paper cut outs of flowers. Mary Delany began life as Mary Granville, the daughter of a royalist family who perhaps rather disastrously supported the Jacobite faction in politics after the death of Queen Anne. At seventeen, Mary was married off to the possibly impotent Alexander Pendarves, a man over forty years her senior, and so “lost all that makes life desirable—joy and peace of mind” (79). At twenty-five she was widowed and managed to live an independent life on the fringes of the Hanoverian Court counting Jonathan Swift, the artist Hogarth, and George Frideric Handel among her friends and refusing a proposal of marriage from Lord Baltimore. In June 1743, aged forty-three, Mary Granville Pendarves married the Reverend Patrick Delany, Dean of Down in Ireland, for love, and it was in 1772 four years after the dean’s death that she began what is now known as the Flora Delanica at Bulstrode, the home of her long-time friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck the dowager Duchess of Portland
The volume itself is something of a pleasure to hold being printed on glossy paper, and included amongst its thirty-five colour illustrations are twenty-one reproductions and close details from the nearly one thousand originals. My personal favourite is, I think, the opium poppy, or perhaps the damask rose. There is something just so satisfying about the depth of the red and the pink against the black background. The detail, even in reproduction, is so fine, that it is hard to believe that the works are paper.
Peacock celebrates Mary Delany’s creativity and innovation. She also draws parallels between her commentary on the collages and on Mary Delany’s life with her own life as a poet and with her own reunion with her for want of a better phrase high-school sweetheart, Mike, a professor in Canada. Peacock celebrates the joy of lifelong friendships, her own with fellow poet Phillis Levin and Mary Delany’s with Margaret Cavendish Bentinck. There were times perhaps when I found these personal connections somewhat intrusive into the narrative of Mary Delany’s life, and then I felt myself to be uncharitable.
Mary Delany ended her life as a friend of King George III and Queen Charlotte, praised, by the Bishop of Worcester, in her epitaph as a “lady of singular ingenuity” (359). Molly Peacock ends her book developing the observation that “living a full life requires invention, but that needs a previous pattern, if only to react against, or happily, to refigure in the making of something new” (360). The Paper Garden is the “making of something new.” It is more than biography. In some ways, it is more fragments of Molly Peacock’s autobiography than Mary Delany’s biography. It is a prose poem, a paen to invention and creativity.