I described The Paper Garden as an impulse buy—but there’s always something behind an impulse, some need or desire or curiosity or affinity. As I read through this idiosyncratic, fascinating, beautiful, and occasionally annoying book, I kept wondering what it was that had drawn me to it at this particular moment, especially because it’s not, superficially, “my” kind of book. I don’t read a lot of biography or autobiography, and this book is partly the story of Mary Delany (1700-1788) and partly the story of contemporary poet Molly Peacock. I have never been as interested in the eighteenth century as in other times—never found the art or literature or music of that period as compelling as that of the Victorian period, for instance. This is a generalization that suppresses all kinds of exceptions, of course, but nonetheless, in the choices I made about my professional specialization as well as in the daily choices I make about reading and looking and listening, I don’t tend in an 18th-century direction. And yet not only did I pick up The Paper Garden to take a closer look (a first move that’s understandable when you see how lovely all the various editions are) but almost right away, I wanted it. It seemed to have something to do with me, something to offer me.
Peacock suggests that her own interest in Mary Delany is continuous with her life-long quest for role models (“my blurry radar scanned on, as if I were always looking for something at the back drawers of experience”). Her strong sense of identification with her subject permeates the story she tells of her and also shapes the way she tells her own story, as she integrates her autobiographical material so as to invite or explicitly draw parallels between the stages of their lives. The similarities are more abstract than specific, unsurprisingly, given the historical distance—and the economic difference (though not, herself, exactly wealthy, Mrs. Delany moved in very aristocratic circles: she was best friends with the Duchess of Portland and eventually intimate with George III and Queen Charlotte). What can two women separated by centuries, living lives unlike in almost every imaginable concrete detail, have in common? What Peacock’s mingled narratives evoke is a sense of the rhythm of lives: growth, survival, flourishing, and then fading. This larger pattern seems more important, ultimately, than the fact that, for instance, both women married twice. This larger pattern is common to all living things, too, and so it unifies not just the two women the book is overtly about but all of us, and then links all of us to the flowers that are the focus of Mrs. Delany’s own art. Peacock chooses one of Mrs. Delany’s flower “mosaicks” (as Mrs. Delany called them) as a motif for each chapter, reading its details as illustrative of each phase. The common Hound’s Tongue, humble, unprepossessing, yet strong, introduces young Mary Granville, nobody of particular notice and yet altogether herself, her strength and possibility nascent rather than displayed; the startlingly aggressive Nodding Thistle evokes the prickly misery of Mary’s first marriage, to the much older, drunken, creepily possessive Alexander Pendarves; much later, the Portlandia Grandiflora (named for her dearest friend) expands luxuriously, as Mrs. Delany did when she emerged from mourning for her second husband to become an artist. “Seventy-two years old,” remarks Peacock. “It gives a person hope.”
Hope is what The Paper Garden is ultimately about; it’s what Mrs. Delany modeled for Peacock, along with perseverance and resilience. It takes a lot of hope, doesn’t it, to make something new, to believe in yourself enough to do it, to expose it and thus yourself? Can it be too late for that? Learning Mrs. Delany’s story, Peacock is reassured that it does not. “Some things,” she concludes, “take living long enough to do.” The paper collages are the fruition of a lifetime of observing, crafting, and caring very deeply about every detail: as Mrs. Delany says in the book’s first epigraph, “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old? It is just the reverse.” Peacock loves the moment in which Mrs. Delany sees how to use her attention, “the spectacular mental leap” from a fallen petal to her long expertise with paper and scissors, “the vital imaginative connection between paper and petal,” a “lifelong habit of simile” galvanized into new form by the “dropped petal of a geranium.” Twice widowed, childless, aging, temporarily immobilized by an injured foot, Mary Delany was finally ready for the work that would immortalize her. ‘I have invented,” she wrote laconically, “a new way of imitating flowers.” In the next 11 years, she completed 985 “mosaicks.”
The prints of them in The Paper Garden are lovely, but it’s hard to believe they are what you’re told they are, that is, incredibly fine cut and layered pieces of paper glued into place: the reproductions do not convey their three-dimensionality. Nothing can compromise the astonishment, though, of learning that on some of them she integrated leaves or other parts from actual flowers, the most magical of which is surely the “desiccated netting” of the decaying Winter Cherry or Chinese Lantern. Nobody knows, Peacock reports, how Mrs. Delany “managed to glue something so brittle and make it stay.” Peacock reads the Winter Cherry as a metaphor for Mary Delany’s creative life: “Some of us flash into floral peak like prom queens, but others of us have to dry like the Winter Cherry in order to unfold into productivity.” That’s the source of her hope: that we can see time as our friend rather than our enemy. “The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age.” For women in particular, inundated as we are with signals that aging is to be fought, resisted, feared—that youthful blushing ripeness is all—that’s a powerful, subversive, liberating idea.
Peacock’s very personal ‘readings’ of the flower collages were fascinating and also provoking to me: I turned back again and again trying to look with her eyes at their images. These readings of hers were also what prompted intermittent resistance and annoyance from me. For one thing, to her the flowers are insistently sexual. The further I got in the book the more I found myself prepared to concede her that point, which she justifies early on by the straightforward reminder that “flowers are plants’ sexual organs, after all.” Still, there were moments when I thought “really?” and moments when the connections she wanted felt forced or speculative. For all she knows about Mary Delany, from the more than three thousand pages of her correspondence, there’s still plenty she can’t know, after all. “Did Robert Twyford steal a kiss?” she wonders. “No kiss? No touch?” she queries as Mary’s relationship with Lord Baltimore founders; “No disordered dress or wrenching away from an embrace?” Not in her sources, anyway, and so who can be sure what feelings pulsed through the lived experience. “It seems impossible,” Peacock writes about Mary’s second marriage, to Dean Patrick Delaney,
that the woman who ate with the gusto, who wrote with the vigor, who danced with the elan, who walked with the heartiness, who consoled a friend with the vitality, who drew with the energy, who gardened with the spirit, who chattered with the vim that Mary displayed moment to moment in all her eighty-eight years did not have a little sexy affection for the man who called her his bliss.
Fair enough: the life force she sums up here is amply conveyed in the excerpts from Mrs Delany’s letters, and why not assume the rest? But (and perhaps this is just an imaginative or aesthetic failure of my own) I had a harder time accepting moments like this one, comparing Mrs Delany’s magnolia to two contemporary renderings of that flower by male artists:
Mrs. D’s magnolia lolls at the bottom of the page. It almost looks up from the bed linen-like disarray of its petals. The two men style the magnolia at the top of the missionary position, but hers waits below for a partner to lower onto it.
“It’s just a flower!” I mentally protested as I read that the first time. And yet the more times I look at the picture—now, inevitably, with that description in my mind—the more I see at least the possibility of its eroticism. As Peacock points out, “Anyone who has ever read a seventeenth-century metaphysical poet knows that the sacred and the sexual are never very far apart. Nor are the botanical and the anatomical.” Mrs. Delany’s flowers look, superficially, very pretty: simple, safe, and feminine. When Peacock herself first saw them, she was disappointed in her own reaction: “I felt nearly ashamed about how deeply I swooned over her work, because the botanicals seemed almost fuddy-duddy.” They belong to “the tiny, boundaried world that has its sources in handiwork,” the kinds of crafts her grandmother did. That’s not the artistic heritage she seeks for herself (“Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso probably would have hated them”) but she is “hooked,” “sunk.” At first, though, she didn’t see the collages quite as she would later come to, and as she would like us to: “They all come out of the darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eight-five flowers’ cunts.” Is seeing (showing) the flowers this way a means of exorcising the fuddy-duddy from them, or from herself?
Perhaps one reason I was drawn to The Paper Garden is that as my birthday came around this year, for the first time I began to feel haunted by my own aging. I turned 45—which is not, I know, really old, though it was startling to read Peacock’s remarks on Mary’s second marriage, at age 43, at “what she thought was her old age, but what turned out to be her middle period.” I too am in, I suppose, my “middle period.” I didn’t approach my 40s with the trepidation that seems to be the clichéd expectation for women. (To a large extent, I thank my grandmother for this, as she always told me the good years began at 40, and she launched her own career as a writer and editor in her 40s. Like Mary Delany, she worked into her 80s, too, full of vitality and loving life, never indifferent. ) So it was unexpected that 45 felt like a tipping point. Was it the subtitle that caught my eye, then? It promises what The Paper Garden in fact delivers, a subversive, celebratory view of growing older as a woman. The book is also, crucially, about becoming an artist—I would say, “belatedly,” but the whole impulse of The Paper Garden goes against that word, insisting instead on the necessity of long preparation (“Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment”). I’m not (as Peacock is) a creative artist, so there’s an even fainter resemblance between my own story and Mrs. Delany’s in these specifics. But in the last couple of years I have been doing some different work that I’m really just starting to believe might be my real work, if I can see how to do it right, the way Mrs. Delany figured out how to replicate the fallen petal. Five years ago, though I had done a lot of writing, I would never have called myself a writer. Now, that identity lives for me as a possibility.
Mrs. Delany’s possibilities come to fruition not just through her own creativity and ability but, Peacock emphasizes, through the encouragement of her friends, especially Margaret, the Duchess of Portland: “the idea of the solitary artist is undercut at every turn by Mrs. D.” When Mary makes her first “mosaick,” her “friend of more than forty years supplied exactly what was necessary: applause.” Her applause continued “non-stop for ten years,” spurring Mary to continue and also drawing the attention of “the botanical, artistic, and aristocratic worlds.” Peacock’s many returns to this issue made me wonder why today we are so furtive about wanting applause. I often make self-deprecating remarks about my own anxiety about how my writing will be judged: “I’m a recovering A student,” I say, “still worrying about getting my teacher’s approval.” But is this anxiety really nothing more than refracted vanity, no better than the chafing of needy egotism? Isn’t it instead (or also) a kind of hope? And is it so shameful to bask in the occasional praise that comes our way? “Compliments,” Peacock points out, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” Compliments about my writing help me believe in myself as a writer. They encourage me to write more, as “the recognition and praise of the Duchess for Mrs. Delany’s imaginative act triggered more acts.” Peacock tells us also of Mary’s young classmate Lady Jane Douglas, at Mlle Puelle’s school for girls, who cherished Mary’s paper cut-outs of flowers and birds, “preserving them,” Mrs. Delany recalled, “many years after.” “It was as if Mrs. Delany had pinned her friend Lady Jane’s admiration to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron,'” Peacock reflects, “and in private moments, decade after decade, dressed herself in its esteem.”
It seems apt that Mrs. Delany’s creations should, in their turn, have given other women confidence. The very idiosyncrasy of her project is its most inspirational aspect. She succeeded by being completely herself. “What is your own form among the endless varieties of life on earth?” Peacock asks meditatively, near the end of the book. We’re all, in our own way, just trying to figure that out. It’s an effort that “requires creativity till the day a person dies.” That’s the effort, the quality, that Mrs. Delany exemplifies. It does, indeed, give a person hope.