Researching and then writing about Mrs. Mary Delany, author Molly Peacock truly had her work cut out for her. Peacock writes Delany’s story with inspiring enthusiasm. She likens even the tiniest steps in the woman’s life to the superbly scissor cut flowers she sculpted out of paper from what must have been a photographic imagination of reality.
Delany first put her scissors to various kinds of paper after her sister passed away followed by her husband's passing in 1768. Having had the fullest of lives, Delany would not succumb to old age. At seventy-two, she picked up a pair of fine scissors and cut out a single geranium petal. So realistic her replica that she continued cutting until she had petals for an entire flower. Her “mosaic” art as she named it did not make mere flower representations in the same way an origami artist makes facsimiles. No, her flowers, her leaves, the pistils, the stamens, the bud cup, and any stems and tendrils were perfectly fashioned.
So skillful was she that the pictures throughout The Paper Garden would more than likely pass as real flowers set against a black background. The replications are stunning. Where she could not extricate the exact piece of paper she needed to paste on a realistic shadow or varied petal and/or leaf color, she delicately brushed on the hue with very fine brushes. At times, she added the smallest shadow with a pencil.
But there is much more to The Paper Garden. Author Peacock blends Delany's flowers displayed in this remarkable work to phases in the artist's life. As a nubile marriageable teenager and in order to improve her family’s chances to climb socially, she married a sixty-year-old oaf. She reports that through this horrible marriage, “I lost not life indeed, but I lost all that makes life desirable—joy and peace of mind.” On arrival at her new husband’s walled in dark castle, Delany felt,“I was sacrificed.”
Much later after this first lout died, Delany married a very wholesome man for love, although he was seventeen years her senior. On their way to his home in Ireland, The Paper Garden describes how these two sensitive lovers finally had the chance for a relaxed, prolonged and intimate sexual union. It never happened—they spent most of the crossing “puking into buckets in their tiny stateroom.”
I found this story uplifting because of the way author Peacock related all the events in Delany’s life to a bud, a flower, or a plant as it developed and grew to maturity. The book's pictures are splendid reproductions. Peacock wrote the tale with so many clever metaphorical references to the pictured blooming flowers, that they might go unnoticed.
I would recommend this moving story to all readers because it is so spirited. Delany was a woman of much artistic talent, spirit, and dogged courage throughout her life diligently working to lift her family’s societal position. Would that we all could begin a new life at age seventy-two.