Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2017

The Birdman’s Wife, by Melissa Ashley

I wanted to like this novel with its gorgeous cover and superb design, but contrary to my expectations, I made rather heavy weather of The Birdman’s Wife.  It’s been shortlisted for the General Fiction Book of the Year in the ABIA awards, it sounded rather interesting, and it’s had good reviews, but…

The Birdman’s Wife is written in a genre that I’ve christened Rescue-A-Woman-From-Oblivion.  These women have larger-than-life husbands whose fame so overwhelms them that we know next to nothing about them.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review).  It’s a difficult task for an author to undertake because, by definition, these women whose lives were overshadowed by their husbands have very little presence in the historical record.

Well, Melissa Ashley became fascinated by the wife of the famous ornithologist John Gould, and despite the frustrations of disappointing archives, her PhD became this novel, the fictionalised life of Elizabeth Gould, one of the artists who illustrated his magnificent monographs about birds of the world.

Sue Bond at the Compulsive Reader thought it was an outstanding first novel, Dorothy Johnson at the SMH admired its lyrical passages, and Tracy Sorenson at the Sydney Review of Books was impressed by the way the novel tackles the ethical issues of bird collecting while keeping the focus on Elizabeth Gould’s achievements.  It has dozens of five-star reviews at Goodreads too.

But IMO it’s much too long.  It’s nearly 400 pages and a lot of it is repetitive.  Yes, we learn about how Elizabeth Gould met and fell in love with John Gould, and how she mastered the skills to illustrate his wonderful books about birds.  We learn about her growing family, the historically significant people that she meets, the death of two of her children, her anguish about leaving her children to travel with Gould to Australia, and her experiences in Hobart and country NSW in the late 1830s.

But there’s an awful lot about killing birds, the disgusting business of eviscerating them, stuffing them and stitching them back together again, arranging them in cabinets and finally painting them.  We hear about the mess, and the smell, and we hear about it a lot.  There’s a fair bit about childbirth as well, for each of the eight children that Elizabeth bore.  Yes, there’s a great deal of detail about a woman who only lived to be 37, and IMO at times the temptation to include all the PhD research and the author’s experiences as a volunteer taxidermist should have been resisted.

Yet despite this wealth of detail I didn’t find Elizabeth a wholly convincing character.  Elizabeth narrates the novel, and while her ‘voice’ sounds authentic for the era, she has some disconcertingly 21st century moments.  She is coy about the bedroom, but she discusses contraception with her husband.  She forges a satisfying partnership with a man who in the name of science is ruthless about killing huge numbers of birds (both intentionally and also through ignorance about how to care for them), and then expresses tentative and quickly suppressed concerns about it.  She defies convention to go traipsing around the bush for her art but meekly acquiesces to a husband who objects to her portrait depicting her as the artist that she was.  The John Gould of this novel is mostly an insensitive workaholic and yet she is endlessly forbearing.  I would have believed it better if they’d had a flaming row sometimes…

But I am out of step with critical opinion, so you’d better not take any notice of me.

Author: Melissa Ashley
Title: The Birdman’s Wife
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344998 (hbk.)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Birdman’s Wife
Or direct from Affirm Press, where you can also buy it as an eBook.


  1. […] The Birdman’s Wife, Melissa Ashley, (Affirm Press), see my review […]


  2. The cover is gorgeous; shame the contents didn’t work for you.


    • The inside end papers are gorgeous… but I just didn’t find it engaging. I wanted it to, I like these books that bring women out of the shadows, but no, it just didn’t work for me.


  3. Thanks for this review Lisa. Someone sent me a link about this book recently but I wondered if it might not be a bit too earnest. I’m not really up to reading about all the killing and stuffing so I think I’ll give it a miss.


    • Earnest, yes indeed, that’s the word I was looking for. It’s too earnest.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t finish the work. To my mind it would have worked better at about 250 pages.


    • Hello Nicole, thank you for your comment:)
      I agree: I think a shorter, livelier book would have been more enjoyable to read. There’s no doubt that Elizabeth Gould is a great subject who deserves to come out of the shadows.


  5. When I first saw this book in the shop I fell in love with title and cover and premise of it. Then I read another review that was less than positive but not as detailed as yours. I hesitated to buy it and thought the library would suffice for the time being. There was such a long queue ahead of me I decided not to place a hold. Now after reading your review I have gone off it all together. Think I will read something else. There is certainly no shortage of books we all agree are excellent. I appreciate your honest review.


    • There’s a long queue for it at my library too: I was in there borrowing something else and was warned that I would not be able to renew it.
      I’m going to take it back today if the sun stays out long enough for me to walk down there:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure I can tackle earnest either, maybe I’ll just instagram/litsy the pretty cover and return it to the TBR shelf at work for someone else to try.

    I’ve just finished The Museum of Modern Love and Exit West and trying to find something to match them. A colleague suggested I should try the new John Boyne, but not sure if Irish misery is where I want to go. The Patriots looks interesting – any thoughts? suggestions?


  7. […] include The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley about the forgotten wife of John Gould (see my review); Jill Blee’s novels about the Irish in Australia; Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally […]


  8. I came back to read this review again, given your reference to it in your recent review. What you say accords with a lot of what I’ve read about this book – too long, too detailed, probably too much research showing? A shame because the topic – regardless of the rescued woman theme or not – is interesting. I love learning about new things (such as taxidermy) through fiction but it’s got to be interesting.


    • It is a shame, it’s a terrible shame and the more I think about it, the more I wish the publisher had intervened. Because it’s potentially a marvellous book…


  9. […] Melissa Ashley The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), see my review […]


  10. […] The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm Press), see my review […]


  11. I can’t agree with your sentiments. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – I felt I got inside Elizabeth’s head. Her ’21st century moments’ – as you call them are the inner thoughts of women for time immemorial. Of course she questioned contraception – who wouldn’t – in any age? Self doubts about the deaths of the birds? Of course; and she supported this by never painting an albatross after being confronted by the plight of this bird on their voyage and in my mind this action is a 19th century woman taking a stand.I was fascinated with the dissection process, the making of the paints, the childbirth fears – all of it. Sorry, I cannot agree with you Lisa.


    • That’s ok, Brenda, no hard feelings and you are in good company:) The book has won awards, and as you can see, (as always when I don’t care much for a book), I have (prominently) linked to other reviews that are more favourable than mine.
      But I should also add that even as recently as the NF festival in Geelong, in two separate chats about books with other readers I’d never met before, both of them brought up this book and said much the same as me. You are the first person I’ve come across who’s read it and admired it, and I thank you for balancing what I’ve said with your own opinion.
      (That’s what I love about blogs: the interactivity which enables differing opinions. You can’t do that with a review in a newspaper!)


  12. […] with the legacy of 19th century naturalists Joseph Banks and John Gould (and some of us who read The Birdman’s Wife also know about the contribution of Elizabeth Gould too).  But the silent and mostly […]


  13. […]  The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm Press), see my review […]


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