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Book Review: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

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Researching and then writing about Mrs. Mary Delany, author Molly Peacock truly had her work cut out for her. Peacock writes Delany’s life story with inspiring enthusiasm. She likens even the tiniest steps in the woman’s life to the superbly scissor cut flowers she created 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 in 1761 followed by her husband in 1768. Having had the fullest of lives, Delany would not succumb to old age. At 72, she picked up a pair of very fine scissors and cut out the single petal of a geranium. So realistic was it that she continued until she had 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 tendrils and stems were perfectly fashioned.

So skillful was she that the pictures throughout The Paper Garden would pass as real flowers set against a black background. The pictures in the book are stunning. One can only imagine what her real creations are like. 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 various flowers along with those displayed in this remarkable work to phases in Delaney’s life. As a nubile young teenager of marriageable age, in order to improve her family’s chances to climb socially, she married a sixty-year-old man oaf. She reports that through 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 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 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 is filled with metaphorical references to blooming flowers which often are so clevery written into the text 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 72.

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