Painting Around the Obstacles: Molly Peacock, Flower Diary

book-cover-flower-diary-by-molly-peacockIn an era where Mary Cassatt eschewed marriage and a fully adult life to live with her parents in Paris so that she could produce her work, Mary Hiester bounded into an adulthood of painting with a grown-up’s problems of money and sex and logistics . . . Existing with an ambitious man in a socially constricted world for women of which a person today can barely grasp the demeaning dimensions, she lived, by her lights, “cheerfully.” She painted around the obstacles of an artist’s life by employing a woman’s emblem, the rose, and later an emblem of independence, the tree.

Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary weaves together three stories—each of which is also, in its own way, more than one kind of story: there’s the biographical account of artist Mary Hiester Reid, including her marriage to and working relationship with her husband George Agnew Reid; there’s the story of Peacock’s second marriage, which is also the story of her second husband’s illness and death; and there’s the story of Mary Evelyn Wrinch, who married George Reid after the first Mary Reid’s death. “The three of them,” Peacock notes, “are even buried together

in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, section 18, lot 22. Not side by side, but on top of each other; MHR is the foundational layer. Then George on top of her. Last, Mary Evelyn on top of George.

art-books_40_mary-hiester-reid-a-firesideLike Peacock’s earlier, similar work The Paper Garden, the biographical and autobiographical material is interwoven with commentary on art and creativity, especially in this case Mary Hiester Reid’s paintings. For me, these were the best parts of the book. Peacock is a wonderful observer. “A Fireside is rich, warm, and pillowy,” she says of one of Mary’s early paintings:

It’s full of interest for the beholder’s engagement (books, copper tea kettles, a Japanese print brought back from Paris, George’s copy of a huge Velazquez that Mary admired). To the side of the umber beams bloom paperwhite narcissus bulbs in a ceramic bowl. The sparkler flowers hurl out their scent in swift dashes of white that make you know it must be snowing outside. (Canadians plant them to bloom in January or February, life in the dead of winter.) Painted in 1910 when she was fifty-six, it is of a generous room where MHR lit her own art fire, warmed others, and somehow negotiated the complexities of a spiritual, aesthetic, familiar, and perhaps sexual, quasi-ménage à trois.

“Like the continent’s Depression, or perhaps her own,” she says later, of the still-life “Three Roses,”

Mary’s roses languish, looming from the dark background. One of them even drops two tear-shaped petals onto the table below. Another rose—the youngest?—barely out of the bud, has tightly folded petals. Each one is flushed, the pink of the inside of a mouth. The top flower almost pats the back of the one that has let two weeping petals go. It is a highly emotional scene—roses acting out a romance? The still life has a narrative quality. 

Now that she’s described it that way, I can see it: does it make her description any less plausible that it never would have occurred to me to read so much drama into these quietly lovely flowers? I remember having similar questions about her interpretations of some of Mary Delaney’s paper flowers—and about some of the commentary in William Kloss’s ‘Great Course’ on Masterpieces of European Art. “You see, but you do not observe,” Sherlock Holmes famously chides Dr. Watson: it takes a trained eye, a sympathetic eye, perhaps a poetic eye, to see what Peacock sees. Her poet’s words, of course, also make the difference between plain description and illumination.Three Roses

I found Mary’s paintings really beautiful. (Flower Diary itself is a beautiful object, with heavy, glossy pages and rich, high quality reproductions, a treat for the eyes.) I hadn’t heard of her before. Peacock explains that MHR’s influences were the “tonalists,” painters who “attempt to represent emotions in their paintings through times of day like sunrise, twilight, or sunset, and weather like fog and rain”— a key example is Whistler, whose portrait of Thomas Carlyle was a significant inspiration for MHR’s late composition “A Study in Greys.” MHR, Peacock says, “made [tonalism] her own, with a Realist’s touch”; she had “zero interest in the hard abstraction of modernism.” These labels and abstract explanations mean less to me than Peacock’s insights into the paintings as reminders “that a moment existed, that it flowered fully, that it was fraught and complex, and that a woman in a lace collar holding a palette insisted on its essence.”

MHR by GARFlower Diary follows Mary’s artistic development, integrating it with the story of her personal life—as indeed the two were intricately related in reality. There are lots of parts to both, including the art school Mary and George ran and many trips to Paris and Spain and time spent in an artistic community in Onteora, in the Catskills. Peacock emphasizes Mary’s “persistence” as an artist. Hers was not a bad marriage, or an unsuccessful career: George was a supportive partner, and she was productive and accomplished and recognized. The times were not kind to ambitious women in general, though, or to women artists more particularly. “I don’t know where the assurance and conviction required for Mary’s sort of persistence comes from precisely,” Peacock comments,

but daily circumstances—the vector of a husband’s energy, an active social life, the maintaining of meals, clothes, sleep, friendship, sex, when no one expects you, a weaker vessel, to do what you do—require an internal stamina that must connect to a conviction that something inside of you will perish if you don’t protect your gift. I marvel at the ability to access emotions so thoroughly and to organize an art life, to display rage and to turn toward a canvas with plans. It is consummately adult to hold at once these contradictory responses and urges. “Going cheerfully on with the task” was her method. Eight paintings equaled health, equaled survival, equaled a truly textured life that could have disintegrated if the rage and disappointment she modeled had been enacted.

reid787“Going cheerfully on with the task”: there’s no doubt that this is admirable, and getting on with things rather than enacting one’s rage may indeed by a truly adult—the only possible—adult response to the complexities of life, including married life. There’s ultimately something a bit stolid about the woman we meet in Flower Diary, though, or about Peacock’s characterization of her anyway, and I think that’s why Flower Diary, interesting as it is, and full as it is of beautiful pictures and wonderful bits of writing, was a disappointment to me after the revelation that was The Paper Garden. The story of Mary Delany discovering and fulfilling her own peculiar creative genius late in life was so exhilarating; it seemed to offer so much hope. It is, as I said in my post about it “a subversive, celebratory view of growing older as a woman”: in Peacock’s wonderful phrasing, “Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment.”

When I wrote about The Paper Garden, it resonated with my rising hope that I too might be finding my moment. Now, almost a decade later, I feel less buoyant, more tired and uncertain. It’s not that I don’t recognize myself in MHR: it’s that I do (except maybe the ability to carry on the endless negotiations between life and work, reality and ambition, as “cheerfully” as she apparently could). Where Mary Delany offered inspiration, Mary Hiester Reid represents something more like sensible resignation: do what you can, keep on doing it as well as you can, be satisfied if the work is good. That’s exactly right, of course, and MHR’s work, as Peacock shows it to me, is good indeed. And yet at the same time it seems uncomfortably apt that the culmination of such a life is a study in greys and not an exuberant flowering.



Recent Reading: King, Lawson, Mitford

I have read three NFW (not for work!) books since finishing The Strangers: Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, and (sort of) Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. None of them was very demanding, unless you count the struggle to persist with The Blessing, which by about half way through I was just tired of. I didn’t really finish it: because it was for my book club, I really tried, but I ended up short on both time and patience and so did a very sloppy speed read so that I could at least say I saw the last page. 🙂

I was inspired to order The Other Side of the Bridge because I read Lawson’s latest, A Town Called Solace, for a review and also had recently read and liked Road Ends. I am pretty sure I read Crow Lake back when it was a new release, but that was in the Before Blogging so I can’t be sure. That I hadn’t followed up with her subsequent novels suggests that if I did read it, I didn’t love it. I don’t know if I would say I “loved” any of these other ones, but they are all very readable. They are all on a small scale: if I were devising a marketing blurb for them I might describe them as “Anne Tyler in Alice Munro country,” intimate family stories, often shot through with loss or trauma but softened by a kind of tenderness in the point of view, set in rural landscapes that are bleak but sustaining.

I looked up Writers and Lovers because of a swell of Twitter endorsements: I forget the exact context (as one does, with Twitter recommendations) but recently someone asked for smart but light(er) books for their mother to read on vacation, IIRC, and Writers and Lovers got a lot of shout-outs, and I already had it on my ‘watch list’ because of some earlier mentions. Twitter is both wonderful and terrible this way, of course: sometimes you are just (or, at any rate, I am just) sucked in by buzz around new, hot titles, but sometimes—and these are the good times!—you learn about books you’d never heard of before from readers whose range is wider than yours and whose judgments and sensibilities you believe in. (And yet I still can’t bring myself to read Bear, in spite of Dorian and everyone else. I went so far as to suggest it for my book club, and everyone’s expression on Zoom was basically ‘WTF you weirdo?!’) Anyway, I didn’t much like Writers and Lovers at first: plots about young people’s boyfriends and dating and break-ups sometimes seem as alien to me now as stories set on Mars. The novel’s protagonist is not exactly “young,” though, and she’s a writer, and her mother has just died quite young and very unexpectedly, and her struggles with her novel and her grief add layers to the story of her love life. A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are writers, and of course even more of them are readers, and I do sometimes think this skews the books that get a lot of attention, the way that following so many academics made The Chair seem like such a big event on Twitter when in fact surely it is quite a niche little thing. Writers and Lovers spent a fair amount of time on workshops and creative angst and agents and things—and on the stress and logistics of waiting tables, work I am pretty sure I would be terrible at. I expected something lighter, but in the end it was the sadder parts I liked the best, especially because (spoiler alert) they are capped off with a happy ending. It felt earned.

Now I am reading Lindsay Zier-Vogel’s Letters to Amelia, which is going well so far and has even made me think perhaps I should get to Newfoundland one of these days. Also in my TBR pile: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (because I decided I might as well find out for myself), and Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary, which is a physically beautiful object. Some of you might recall how much I loved The Paper Garden. It is a bit stunning to realize it has been nearly a decade since I wrote it up. It inspired me so much, including to reflect on my own efforts to find “[my] own form among the endless varieties of life on earth.” “Five years ago,” I wrote then, “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.” I am still not entirely sure that I call myself a writer, but I certainly have done a lot more writing since then, including here!

This Week In My Classes: Some Good News

daffodilsThe good news isn’t specifically about what’s happening in my classes this week (although I hope there is some connection): it’s good news about my teaching more generally. This week I learned that I am this year’s recipient of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Regular readers of Novel Readings will know that I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into my teaching. (Novel Readings itself includes an extensive archive of that process over the past decade.) Teaching is one of the most demanding parts of my job, and sometimes one of the most frustrating, but it is also the part that is most rewarding and that seems likely to make the biggest difference in the world–not in any big, cataclysmic way, but in the “incalculably diffusive” way so beautifully invoked in the Finale to Middlemarch. Precisely because its effects are so variable, so diffuse, and so intangible, teaching is a very difficult process to measure–and to measure the success of. The recognition by my peers and my students that this award represents is thus especially precious, a rare marker on a long, winding, and often foggy road.

cassatGiven the role that Novel Readings has played in my teaching life–as a vehicle for reflection and a place where I have both shared and received ideas and encouragement about teaching–it is gratifying to know that my blogging was part of the case made on my behalf, and that my success at generating “conversations both within the university and in wider circles” was cited by the committee that selected me to receive the award this year. I started blogging about pedagogy when this kind of outward-facing work was still relatively uncommon for academics and was (as it still largely remains) not entirely congruent with the university’s standard operating procedures. I have found it intrinsically valuable, for the process itself and for the conversations and communities it has brought me into. For that reason alone I would keep it up in any case, but I admit it is nice to have some institutional recognition that it contributes to our core mission.

On a more personal note, as most of you know the last couple of years have been a bit rocky for me professionally; as a result I have often found myself, both professionally and psychologically, in either a defensive or a defiant posture. I’ve been nominated for this teaching award before, and I didn’t have any particular reason to think that this time would be the charm. Still, I figured that if I wasn’t the one this time, at least I wouldn’t be any worse off than before. I underestimated, however, just how much better it would make me feel to actually win it. It feels great! It’s easy to tell yourself (again, defensively or defiantly) that you don’t need anyone’s approval to keep doing what you think is worth doing as well as you can do it, but that doesn’t mean approval isn’t nice to have.

peacockAnd it has felt even better sharing my good news and basking in people’s happiness on my behalf. I got a lot of help from my friends, both online and off, when things went badly for me; now everyone has been wonderfully supportive about this good news. Social media certainly has its down sides (as we are only too well aware at this point), but there’s also something magical about the way it creates a vast web of connections–intangible perhaps, but still very real–between so many people across such distances. I hesitated before putting my good news out there in case it seemed self-aggrandizing, but I’m so glad I did. Why should we be afraid to invite a bit of cheering for our accomplishments, after all?  I was reminded of one of my favorite points from Molly Peacock’s wonderful and inspiring book The Paper Garden. Peacock emphasizes how much her subject Mary Delany benefited from the “applause” of her friends, which spurred her to further artistic accomplishments. “Compliments,” Peacock observes, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” She describes Delany as pinning her friend’s admiration “to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron'” so that in later life, when she needed it, she could “[dress] herself in its esteem.” I will certainly draw strength in the future from the praise of my friends, colleagues, and, especially, my students.

Thank you very much to everyone who wrote in support of my nomination, and to everyone who has celebrated this good news with me.


Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden

peacockI 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.”

winter-cherryThe 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.

magnolia“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.