Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2016

Georgiana Molloy, the Mind that Shines, by Bernice Barry

Georgiana Molloy the mind that shinesDestined for non-fiction and biography shortlists, Georgiana Molloy, the Mind that Shines rivals Journey to Horseshoe Bend as the best non-fiction book I’ve read so far this year.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love botanical illustration and it has its own category here, but Georgiana Molloy, the Mind that Shines is the first full-length biography I’ve come across that tells the life story of a woman working in this field of knowledge.

Like the women whose work Penny Olsen celebrates in Collecting Ladies, Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) was a significant botanist in the years of early settlement, but I first encountered her in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women by Susanna De Vries, an unimpressive book which harped on the drudgery of pioneer life for women and failed to make its subjects interesting.  Molloy also gets more than a mention in Curious Minds by Peter Macinnis, a much more engaging and better-written homage to the naturalists who began the work of studying our unique flora and fauna.  But in a twelve-year labour of love, Bernice Barry has given Georgiana Molloy a whole book of her own, and this biography is sheer delight to read.

Georgiana Molloy née Kennedy was born into a privileged English family that became impoverished through her father’s debts, and after his death her mother tried to keep up appearances and flirt her way back into money while mismanaging both her finances and her family.  When her older sister’s drinking problem caused scandal yet Eliza still retained her mother’s favouritism, Georgiana fled from her mother’s carping criticism to friends in Scotland.  Moving from a landlocked town with a skyline of grey roofs to an expanse of silver water in one of the most beautiful places on Earth at the Keppoch estate near the Gareloch, Georgiana was transformed.  She had intellectual companionship and she healed emotionally.  It was there that she developed a love of plants and began to learn about horticulture and it was there in 1829 that she made a marriage to John Molloy, a soldier distinguished in the Peninsular Wars and nearly twenty years older than she was.  While I have summarised these events in just a few lines, this part of the book makes for fascinating reading as it unravels the mystery surrounding Molloy’s background and Georgiana’s motives in leaving home – a most unusual thing for a young lady to do in those days.

Settlement in Australia was marketed to potential free settlers in the early 19th century as a paradise offering both profit and position in society, but the newly-wed Molloys were hoping for adventure too.  They set sail for the Swan River Colony in Western Australia with possessions, livestock and furniture for their cabin, and since washing of clothes was not allowed on board, ‘fifteen to twenty shirts or shifts with a proportional quantity of other garments’ considered to be enough to last the journey.  By the time the ship was at sea, Georgiana realised she was pregnant …

One of the things I noted in my review of Collecting Ladies was that Ferdinand Mueller, the first Government Botanist of Victoria, thought that  women had plenty of leisure for collecting flowers.  I quoted him:

What trouble would it be to collect and preserve flowers, and enclose in an envelope to their destination? How many ladies might devote a few leisure hours to this pursuit?

And I commented somewhat sardonically that

In fact only about 10% of his collectors were women, and I think we can safely assume that this had something to do with men having more leisure time, and not having to suspend operations for childbirth every now and again.

Barry’s biography makes the reality of 19th century pregnancy and childbirth explicit.  By the time the Molloys arrived at Swan River, the best land grants were gone, and so they made their way up the Blackwood River and settled on even more remote land near Cape Leeuwin where they named the fledgling settlement Augusta.  Georgiana’s first baby was born in a tent, and in the absence of any medical help, Mrs Dawson, who had only just delivered her own first baby, helped at the birth.  There were serious problems with the afterbirth, and indeed Georgiana had life-threatening complications with all her pregnancies, and it was eventually childbirth that killed her when she was only 37.  That first baby died in Georgiana’s arms when only twelve days old.  Georgiana’s journal is a heartrending account of this little baby’s short life and if you ever thought that parents were more sanguine about infant mortality in the past, her words disabuse you of that notion.

Poor Baby very ill and dreadfully distorted her features were changed with convulsions.  She shrieked and seemed in very great agony.  I could scarcely hold her and Mrs. Heppingstone begged me to let her have her but I saw what was coming and was determined not to have her out of my arms until all was over. (p.160)

Conditions were so rudimentary there was nothing to lay the baby out on.

I knew not what to do.  I felt inclined to rush out into the open air and charge the winds with what weighed so heavy at my bursting head.

Saturday 5th The day has arrived when I must part with what I was mysteriously possessed of.  She came in sorrow.  She was the source of fondest pleasure in her little life & of unutterable grief in her departure, but again I cannot wish to think of her when her hollow shrieks and cries are still sounding in my bewildered brain. (p.161)

John Molloy was devastated too:

Elizabeth Molloy was the second child born in Augusta and when John Garrett Bussell read her funeral service on 5 June, she became ‘No.2’ in the list of burials.  [Mrs Dawson’s baby was ‘No.1’]. Without telling his wife what he was going to do, John Molloy sowed rye grass and flowering clover on the grave and wove a trellis from twigs, entwining the wild, creeping plants around it to make a bower.  Later, when Georgiana overcame the physical grief that gripped her for weeks, she planted pumpkins there because she knew they would quickly grow green shoots to form ‘a sort of Dome’ over the grave. (p.159)

It is these details, observed and interpreted by an author of great insight, which bring Georgiana to life as a whole person: wife, mother, farmer, and botanist.

With very little help because accompanying servants soon realised they could also take up land grants, the Molloys built their kit home brought from England and moved in once the thatch was in place.  Like many other settlers they had lost many of their animals on the journey, and everyone shared what tools and equipment they had to begin farming there in the deceptively benign soil and climate, masters and servants working side by side in clearing and ploughing the land.  Georgiana took charge of growing the vegetables, churning the butter, doing the hard labour of housework and cooking.  John Molloy was soon appointed as Government Resident and Resident Magistrate, necessitating frequent trips to Perth and later to the new settlement of Vasse, so Georgiana was often alone for weeks and months at a time.  As the years at Augusta went by, her responsibilities included looking after her small children, and also doing the paperwork for her absent husband.  Astonishingly, in all the letters and journals quoted, there is only one which suggests resentment.  She loved John Molloy dearly, and he loved her.

Still, it was a transformative moment in her life when she received a letter from Captain James Mangles, asking her to collect plant specimens for him.

From that day, Georgiana had a purpose beyond the thatched house, the settlement and even the colony.  She was the government resident’s wife and a mother, but for the first time in eight years she was an individual of intellectual worth and potential not limited to her humble surroundings and the ‘odious drudgery’ of her life. (p. 220)

The story of how she came to be known internationally as a major collector is fascinating, but I am not about to tell you more about that because I want you to buy this book and read it for yourself.  Georgiana Molloy was one of our first scientists, self-taught – as most naturalists were in that period – and working under arduous conditions, her work interrupted by pregnancies and handicapped by irregular sailings to transport her collections and by the demands of her life.  She should be a household name and there should be institutions named after her, but Wikipedia trivialises the ingenuity and intellectual complexity of her work by stating that she spent nearly all of her leisure time in collecting.  As if it were a genteel hobby like embroidering handkerchiefs and not arduous field trips in the harsh Western Australian climate followed by hours developing ways of mounting and protecting the collection on its journey overseas, not to mention researching botanical classifications in books so hard to come by in her remote location.

One other aspect I really like about this biography is the attention paid to the indigenous owners of the land.  Barry acknowledges that the Molloys and others like them would not have survived without the help of the Wardandi people.  In her final illness when Georgiana could not walk, it was the Wardandi (and the Molloy’s small children) who collected seeds and specimens for her.  Barry does not ignore the conflicts which became increasingly ugly, and warns her readers against giving undue weight to the extant records, which are, of course, not written by the Indigenous people.  After recounting one incident in the words of a source, she notes that:

The words chosen by each writer to describe what happened next carry the full weight of personal viewpoint with them and illustrate how different accounts can subtly shift the central elements of a story that becomes fixed in history.  Lenox’s report recounted how the child was left ‘drowning’ and ‘a compassionate person rescued him’.  He assured the colonial secretary that he had sent messages to the parents to say that the child would be returned ‘on application being made for it’.  The account of another eyewitness, George Layman, told how they ‘took a child prisoner about fourteen months old’.  He added, ‘I expect before long the natives will resent this.’ (p. 217)

Generously illustrated with full colour illustrated pages and intriguing B&W facsimiles of Georgiana’s journals and other documents, and with an index and endnotes, this is an outstanding biography, and it was a great pleasure to read.  Highly recommended.

Author: Bernice Barry
Title:  Georgiana Molloy, the Mind that Shines
Publisher: Picador, 2016
ISBN: 9781743549148
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I’m sure I gave this one as a xmas present, blowed if I remember who to, x-Mrs Legend I suppose. Anyway sounds like it’s time I borrowed it back and read it. Great review.

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    • LOL Another good reason to stay on good terms with The Ex!

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  2. A quick glance at the author’s website shows that Barry first self-published, then was picked up by Pan Macmillan. Great review, thanks – you’ve definitely (further) stoked my interest. I bought this just a week or two ago and it is now definitely at the top of my TBR pile.
    It also has the most beautiful cover of a historical biography that I’ve ever seen. Much better than the usual stuffy portrait in oils…

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    • Yes, I forgot to comment on the cover, it is lovely:)

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  3. What a glowing review! There was an excellent Hindsight program on her (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/botany-and-the-bush-georgiana-molloy-and-her/3285810) which is where I first became aware of her. This sounds a wonderful biography that really contextualises her within the gender and class categories of the time.

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    • There are also some very interesting insights into the research process, and some touching moments too, as for example when we see the handwriting of one of the children in the official register, because Georgiana has educated them herself and trusts them to do it.

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  4. Oh yes, I saw this was out. Those early botanical women are just fascinating. Must try to read it.

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  5. How did I miss your interest in botanical illustration, Lisa? It’s one of my pet subjects too. This book sounds fascinating… alas, not available on this side of the world, but one to add to my wishlist. Thanks for a great review.

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    • *snap* I knew we were soul sisters. What you can do, you lucky thing, is go to Kew Gardens and see the specimens, Molloy’s and many others sent by ‘collecting ladies’ in Australia….

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      • Yes, I must do that. I haven’t been to Kew Gardens for years (it’s practically “just down the road”) so am due a trip soon. It’s hugely expensive to go though…

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        • Oh. Not free like the Botanic Gardens? How very unBritish!

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  6. Thank you so much for this wonderful review full of enthusiasm for GM’s story and understanding of what motivated me for so long. I’d forgotten until last night that I had posted a note about incorrect facts in the Susanna de Vries book, June 17 2012. You wrote a reply: ‘It sounds as if you might be in a position to write a more accurate, more engaging book, Bernice!’ – On that day I’d not long started work on the first draft, still nearly 3 years away from self-publication and four from this new Picador edition. I like a non-fiction story with a happy ending. Thanks again, Lisa.

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    • Hello Bernice, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this comment! I had forgotten about my comment too!

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  7. Hi Bernice, you have brought Georgiana to life again . We can read and marvel at her fortitude , cry with her sadnessses and rejoice in her achievements ! Well done

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  8. […] ANZLitlovers review […]

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  9. […] The other thing I like about these books is that they showcase the contribution women make towards scientific knowledge about botany.  In the days of early settlement the women who studied local flora may not have known that they were continuing a gendered indigenous tradition that goes back 60,000 years or more, but their collections and paintings formed an invaluable contribution to the growing body of botanical knowledge which informed the work of people like Ferdinand Von Mueller at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.  One of my favourites of these women is Georgina Molloy.  I read a profile of her first in Collecting Ladies by Penny Olsen, and then in a biography of her own: Georgiana Molloy, the mind that shines by Bernice Barry. […]

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