The Paper Garden

In this lush, humane book, noted poet Molly Peacock shows a terrific hand for crafting prose as she delves into the life of Mary Delany, a woman whose fascinating milieu around 1730s London is illuminated partly by what she accomplished at her life's end. After the death of her second husband, Mrs. Delaney embarked on what would finally make her always memorable life most worthy of note: a series of flower "mosaicks", beautifully cut layered papers that collage into cunning botanical renditions. The flowers that emerge out of the cut paper are a craft so fine they become art, and an art so keenly observed it becomes a kind of science.

 

Mary Delaney's mosaicks literally invented new art-making techniques, and are full of small revolutions in craft. But they are also works outside of the main stream, fully crafted not for public consumption but in the private space of an aging 18th century woman. This makes them no less fascinating than apparently mainstream art. But because a seventy-two year old woman wielding scissors could automatically seem grandmotherish, or "derriere-garde" as Peacock ruefully admits, Peacock bravely uses her exploration of Delany to sidestep or upend the conventional place of the feminine, the craftsy, the domestic. Instead, Peacock uses Delaney's fascination with flowers as a way of meditating on things as large as North American exploration, the place of the exotic within the domestic, the politics of court, and the role of women within Georgian England. Peacock's exploration is itself expertly stitched. Here's Mary getting dressed for court decades before she would ever cut a single paper stamen: "By this time Mary's breasts and belly were flattened so that she would have looked like an upside-down flower: her head, neck, and torso the stem; her arms the leaves; and her skirt the flowerhead."

 

Just as Delany makes a cosmos out of flowers, Peacock makes a cosmos out of her interest in Delany's world. In a remarkable act of observation, recuperation, and assemblage, Peacock weaves her own collage—cutting between Mary Granville's early life and times, her later flowering into art, and Peacock's own journey as a 21st century sympathizer with Mary's loves and ambitions. What emerges is fascinating both because it is surprisingly and keenly observed, a world where Handel and Bartram and John Wesley and Lord Baltimore all make cameos, and also because of the linguistic care of Peacock's own collage. Here's Peacock drawing herself, by proxy, into fascinated relation with Delany: "Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is—say, just a flower—but it also states what this is like, making a threshold into another world."

 

To call this book small or quiet would be somehow to belittle what Peacock has so beautifully magnified and made resonant—the triumph of art as a human pursuit, and the curious webs from which both art and craft spring. This book is not flashy, but it is one of the more beautifully constructed and deeply engrossing books I have read in some time. It is a keen reminder of what the fruits of vivid watching—and passionate living—can offer. 

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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