Georgiana Molloy: Collector of Seeds and Words

Over at The Australian Legend, Bill Holloway is hosting a focus on the first generation of non-Indigenous women writers in Australia. As this is my area of specialty I thought I’d pen something on Georgiana Molloy and, if I get time, another on Rosa Praed.

 Part of the garden at Crosby Lodge

Part of the garden at Crosby Lodge

Georgiana was born into a life of wealth in 1805 in Carlisle, England. Her father, an ambitious Scotsman named David Kennedy, married Elizabeth Dalton, daughter of the Mayor of Carlisle. Kennedy built a house on his wife’s land (which was now his) at Crosby-on Eden, a few kilometres east of Carlisle. Georgiana, as a girl training to become a lady of leisure, learned her first lessons about plants in its gardens. Like other decorative arts such as writing, painting and flower arranging, botany was seen to be a worthwhile pursuit for women as it combined leisure and learning. It encouraged women to go outdoors, learn botanical Latin and read handbooks about Linnaean systematics.

Georgiana’s father fell from his horse and died in 1819, leaving behind debts, five children and a widow with no means of supporting them. Georgiana was fifteen. As she grew older, her family situation became even more unstable, as there was conflict with her mother and sister. One of Georgiana’s motivations for marrying Captain John Molloy and emigrating with him to Augusta in 1829 was that her options were narrowing.

The Molloys were among the first Europeans to live at Augusta (roughly 300km south of Perth). Not long after her arrival, Georgiana gave birth to her first child in a tent, but the baby only survived twelve days. In Georgiana’s archives is an undated and unaddressed account which catalogues her baby’s decline towards death. I have always thought this was an attempt to make sense of the event. She wrote to her mother and her friend Frances Birkett about her child’s death, but this account must also have been sent to her family or friends, otherwise it would not have made it into her archives.

Georgiana’s grief could easily have turned her against her environment, but instead she and her husband responded with a tentative acceptance of it. Sometime after her daughter’s burial, Georgiana wrote in her undated account, ‘Dear Molloy went unknown to me and sowed Rye Grass and Clover over [the grave] and has recently put some twigs across it to form a sort of trellice work with the surrounding creepers which in this country are very numerous.’ The mingling of English and Australian plants seems symbolic. Later, Georgiana wrote that in her garden she had ‘frequently endeavoured to introduce the native Plants among the exotics, they do not succeed from want of their Native shelter’.

Georgiana had another five daughters and a son. In December 1836, she received a box of seeds from James Mangles in England, cousin to Ellen Stirling, wife of the governor of Perth. With the box was a letter requesting the exchange of the English seeds for ‘the native seeds of Augusta’. Georgiana didn’t have time to collect for Mangles on account of what she called ‘domestic drudgery’, but in November 1837 her son, then nineteen months old, fell into a well and drowned. Following this, Georgiana had a ‘dangerous illness’ (which I interpret as a breakdown), and when she recovered she went into the bush to collect seeds for Mangles, and to take her mind from her grief.

  Kennedia

Kennedia

Georgiana’s extraordinary and poetic life has been chronicled in a number of biographies, most recently with great detail by Bernice Barry in The Mind that Shines. However little attention has been paid to Georgiana’s skill as a writer. The letters that she penned to her family are quite different to those that she wrote to Mangles. This is largely on account of audience, for writers always adapt to whomever they are writing for. To her mother and friends Georgiana chronicled the hardship of her life at Augusta and the heartbreak over her loss of her children. The letters to Mangles, however, sparkle and shine with wit, humour and poetry, particularly when it comes to writing about plants. Mangles gave Georgiana the opportunity to write with creativity and imagination, and the letters she wrote to him were extremely long. Below is an excerpt from a letter of 1840, so long that Mangles only made extracts from it. The Molloys had by this time relocated from Augusta to the Vasse (now Busselton) because the country there was better for farming:

            To day I have been employed in your service after breakfast the Children and I went in search of Flowers; — It has been a beautiful day & I have not been so long a walk for many months.  I found two sorts of lovely Kennedia Nos 50, 311 the first I had never seen before in flower altho’ I sent you a green specimen and the seed by the Box which certainly must have arrived in the beginning of July I have received so much from you I am quite ashamed to think of it, and the little leisure I have, or rather opportunities I take to endeavor [sic] to collect are so circumscribed I am quite mortified I cannot do more to contribute to your laudable pursuits.

              I was out riding a few days back & the country was assuming its usual garb Hibbertias & Hoveas thickly covered the ground I dried two or three Specimens but not being able to gather them myself I did not get all I wanted, However rely on it I will do my best — I have dried some beautiful specimens of Kennedia but by the time you receive them their brilliancy of colour will be fled — I never ride out that it is not on your account the other day when in search for Nuytsia I had most delightful success — We went a very nice ride in a south easterly direction following a small tributary stream to the Vasse, the banks were thickly studded with Banksia, Acaccia [sic] & the Shea - oak, the ground was adorned with the crimson flower of Kennedia, but not so profusely as it will be, a week or two hence — all at once after going through an interminable grove of Jacksonia we came on to an open plain of many acres in extent scarcily [sic] a tree on it and those that grew were large & fine — I discovered a plant I have been almost panting for, a very small neat white blossom, on a furze looking Bush, I do not know the Number, it is in the last collection, & Mr Preiss could not tell the name, it being peculiar to this Vasse Country We found a large quantity of it — a little further on another enigma was solved the beautiful White blossomed tree, the flowers I sent in my last I found to be the identical Tree. which bears those wooden Pears or Nuts, the first was hanging on the tree, but was too high for us to reach I was quite happy to make such a discovery as the shades of night were commencing we reluctantly turned homewards, when other agreemens met my inquiring eye — What? but a grove of “Nuytsia Floribunda” I thought myself really blest that these desiderata should place themselves before me, & going up to [the] trees I unhappily found I was too late, I should but for my long illness have had the seed, it was too dark to detect seedlings, but these I will repair for — you will think I am romancing when I tell you that out of this Nuytsia swamp we came on one as thickly & universally covered with Kingia if I understand rightly what Kingia is — the grass plant with many short heads branching out whereas the “Xanthorea hastile”, are very tall and upright, these 4 things have occupied my mind many a long day — I was quite exhiliated [sic] I had found these treasures so unexpectedly before this, I was working blindfold.

  Nuytsia floribunda , just starting to open.

Nuytsia floribunda, just starting to open.

When Georgiana first began collecting, she didn’t know the names of plants, so she created a system whereby she named each of the seeds and their accompanying specimens, and asked Mangles to give her the names. In this extract this system is still place (evident through her mention of Nos 50 and 311) but she has learned the names of other plants and is keen to use them. Although she might not have been aware of it, Georgiana was practicing science: she created and organised her knowledge of  plants, then tested that knowledge against that of botanists such as John Lindley, professor of Botany at University College London.

Georgiana’s poetic tendencies appear in her use of adjectives such as ‘thickly studded’, ‘adorned’ and ‘small neat white’. Even more starkly apparent is Georgiana’s obsession with collecting, indicated by her comments ‘I ride out that it is not on your account’, ‘I discovered a plant I have been almost panting for’ and ‘these 4 things have occupied my mind many a long day’. The latter, in particular, indicates the intellectual nourishment that collecting gave Georgiana in a colony in which, when she first arrived, ‘Nothing was to be heard of but Beef and Pork’. Her joy in discovering these plants also underscores her sense of collecting as a vocation, as she wrote to Mangles, ‘when I sally forth either on foot or Horseback, I feel quite elastic in mind and Step; I feel I am quite at my own work, the real cause that enticed me out to Swan River.’

As Clarke and Spender relate in Life Lines, early women writers in Australia did not have access to publication, but this doesn’t mean they weren’t writing. Letter writing ‘could stir and challenge the creativity of the woman writer and promote a sense of power and pleasure in the achievement of the writing’ (Clarke and Spender, xxvi). Anyone who has read the letters of Rachel Henning will understand this, for Henning had a great capacity to stir her readers with plot and drama. Georgiana, too, used imagination and creativity to charm her audiences – at first Mangles, and now readers of the 21st Century. Her intelligence, fortitude and appreciation for her environment - so evident in her letters - continues to resonate and inspire.

 

Further Reading

Barry, Bernice. Georgiana Molloy: The Mind that Shines. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2016.

Clarke, Patricia, and Dale Spender. Life Lines: Australian Women's Letters and Dairies, 1788-1840. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992.

Shteir, Ann B. Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

White, Jessica. 'The Inexhaustible Properties of a Lady's Pen': The Literary Craft of Georgiana Molloy. Claiming Space for Australian Women's Writing, ed. Das, Devaleena, and Sanjukta Dasgupta. Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

 

2017: My Year of Writing

Even workaholics need to have fallow years if they are to continue functioning well. 2017 was such a year for me, as I needed to pull back after nearly killing myself in 2016 (when I hadn’t even properly recovered from 2015). I finally finished my memoir while I was on hols in Croatia, and while I might still have to do one more draft, it’s been a huge load off my shoulders. I was still unwell for most of the year, but the colds & flu weren’t as intense. And now, after a few weeks off over Xmas, I’m full of beans again. Long may it last! Below is a list of my literary doings over the past year.

 Cockies on the Gold Coast

Cockies on the Gold Coast

Publications

I had more academic work than creative pieces published this year, which makes sense as all my time is taken up by being an academic. If I do write fiction, it’s on the weekends, or bashed out the night before my writing group’s deadline.

At the beginning of the year, my essay on the craft of Georgiana Molloy’s writing was published in Claiming Space: Australian Women’s Writing. I started writing this essay in Rome at the end of 2014! This was followed in October by an essay on eco-memoir in Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir, in which I compared Kim Scott and Hazel Brown’s Kayang and Me with Tim Winton’s Island Home.

Just before Christmas, the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies published my essay on John Molloy’s (Georgiana’s husband) involvement in a massacre against Wardandi Noongars, and the subsequent papering over of this in later accounts. Writing this paper was hard work: it took hours to piece together a timeline of what had happened, as well as the debate over the events that resurfaced in later histories, and to attend to the language that was used in covering up what had happened. I was glad when it was finished.

In each of these volumes or issues, my work sat alongside that of other wonderful scholars, and I am really grateful to the editors for publishing my work.

In August I was Southerly journal’s monthly blogger, publishing four posts (one each week) about writing, deafness and environment. You can read them all via the links on this page. In October my eight-word story was featured on a billboard courtesy of the Queensland Writers Centre. That was pretty exciting!

I was pretty dismayed, once I got to the end of the year, to realise I hadn’t published any creative work (aside from said billboard), but then I remembered I’d finished my memoir. Fingers crossed that it gets somewhere this year.

 UQ Ferry

UQ Ferry

Awards/Funding

I was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize again, this time for ‘Depths Exceeded’, which is a small part of my mermaid book. I’m still trying to find a home for it; I’ll get there eventually.

I continued with my study on vernacular criticism, for which I received funding at the end of last year, and will have this written up by March. It turned out to be a much bigger project than I anticipated and is eating up a bit of time. While it’s something that engages me intellectually, it isn’t a topic I’m downright passionate about, which is problematic. I remember one of my supervisors telling me that when you choose a PhD topic, it has to be something you’re obsessed with if your interest is going to carry you over three years. The same holds, it seems, for any kind of project. Still, it’s a good short-term study, and I’m finding I’m applying some of the research methods I learnt as a research assistant at Autism Queensland, which is a boon.

 Gum blossoms!

Gum blossoms!

Teaching

In the second half of the year, I was course convener for Women Writers, the subject I tutored in last year. This was a very steep learning curve – a little hairy at times – but it was ultimately very rewarding. The books I set were: Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Joyce Carol Oate’s Foxfire, Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Gillian Mear’s Foal’s Bread, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and Helen Oyeymi’s White is for Witching. The students responded well to all these books except for The Golden Notebook (and some were a bit mystified by The Lesbian Body). Although The Golden Notebook was revolutionary when it came out, it held little meaning for them now. I wonder how or why that matters; Jane Eyre is poles apart from the experience of women in the 21st century but readers are still enraptured by it. Perhaps it was the form of the novel, which made it hard to digest, whereas Jane Eyre is a fairly conventional romance. Aside from this it was really heartening when students told me they enjoyed the books because they were works they wouldn’t usually encounter.

I tutored a class alongside the lectures, and as with last year I loved my students – they were confident, intelligent and outspoken. But by the end of the year I was in my usual haze of fatigue because of the toll of straining to listen and to lecture (every lecture is a performance). I think most people are knackered by the end of the year anyway, and the holidays straightened me out.

As well as the lectures for Women Writers, I also delivered one on Position Doubtful for the third-year Australian studies course. This year I’ll be lecturing on James Bradley’s Clade and Tim Winton’s Island Home for this same course, but I won’t be doing any other teaching as I need to devote myself to finishing my ecobiography.

 Flowers at Kew Gardens

Flowers at Kew Gardens

Conferences and Supervision

In February I presented on Liptrot’s The Outrun at a conference on excess and desire at The University of Queensland. In London in June, I presented on a digital example of ecobiography, Queensland artist Pat Hoffie’s ground trothing. In retrospect this was not a great example of ecobiography but I was trying to align it with the conference’s focus on digital life writing narratives. Still, I enjoyed being back in London, thought the conference was absolutely fantastic, and met some great Aussie writers and academics, including Ellena Savage and Nicole Matthews, who presented a very memorable paper on hearing air reviews.

From England I flew to Croatia and presented at the European Society for Environmental History conference in Zagreb (preceded by a field trip to Kornati National Park near Zadar). This was the first history conference I had ever been to. I presented a similar paper to that which I’d delivered in Perth the year before, on ecotones, but my paper, I found after some rather harrowing comments from the audience, was not up to scratch (no one likes getting criticism, but having to receive it in a public forum is way worse). Once I recovered from that experience and was able to examine the comments with equanimity, I realised they were constructive. I’m intending to present at the environmental history conference in Canberra this year and to do a better job.

As soon as I arrived back in Brisbane I turned around and went down to the Gold Coast to present on Molloy and ecobiography at a conference on Literary Environments. This was not a very smart move as I was shattered from jetlag, but I couldn’t bear to miss it because Ursuala Heise gave a keynote and a workshop, both of which were amazing.

I capped off the year with a paper on Georgiana Molloy’s participation in botanical connoisseurship – the rage for exotics collected by Europeans and grown in their gardens – for a conference on the Nature and Spaces of Enlightenment. I really enjoyed this conference as well but I was completely wrung out from the year, so I couldn’t make it to all the sessions.

Throughout the year I also took on the supervision of four creative writing students, three doing MPhils and one a PhD. I found this unexpectedly rewarding, as I could chat to them about their ideas and help them with their critical essays. I also supervised a wonderful third-year student who wrote a brilliant essay on young adult novels and their representation of deafness. Aside from my research, supervision is one of the satisfying parts of my job.

 Kornati National Park, Croatia

Kornati National Park, Croatia

Research

I used my funding to fly to the UK and comb through the archives relating to Mangles and his contemporaries. This was a great trip but it was jam-packed and involved zig-zagging up the country from south to north. I like travelling and the distances didn’t faze me, but I could have done with a more leisurely pace. My next big task over this month and next is to collate and transcribe everything so that I’m ready to write in March, as well as writing up the rest of my trip (it's happening, but v.e.r.y s.l.o.w.l.y).

 V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

V cool plants in the UNESCO Stari Grad Plains, Croatia

The Australian Women Writers Challenge

I put the ball for AWW on the shelf last year as I had too much going on, but managed to co-ordinate guest posts from lesbian/queer authors (Kelly Gardiner; Eden S. French; Jess Davidson; and my own thoughts on the themes that have appeared in guest posts by lesbian/queer women writers), and authors with disability (Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, editors of Defying Doomsday; and Anna Spargo-Ryan). This year I’m picking up the baton from Marisa Wikramanayake and am going back to bi-monthly roundups, as well as the usual guest posts. This year, the theme for NAIDOC is ‘Because of her, we can!’ so I really want to feature more posts from Indigenous women writers.

 BrisVegas rainforest

BrisVegas rainforest

The Year Ahead

I have tried not to take on too much this year as I need to focus on finishing my ecobiography, but already there are quite a few pots on the stove. Aside from the two lectures which I need to write and present, and my vernacular criticism study to complete and write up, I’m co-ordinating, with Clare-Archer Lean from the University of the Sunshine Coast, two panels on the interface between science and literature at the annual literature conference in Canberra in July, as well as subsequent publication of these papers in the Australian Humanities Review. I'm also giving a workshop on Writing Animals and Their Worlds for the Queensland Writers Centre on Saturday 28th April.

On top of this I need to prepare a fellowship application for gainful employment next year, as my contract ends in January 2019. I think I had pretty much better say ‘no’ to anything else that comes into my inbox this year.

Health-wise I am determined to start running again, with the aim of doing a half-marathon in August, and of getting out of the city into bush more often. Exercise and the environment will help ameliorate my stress. I’m also casting about for some kind of hobby, instead of working all through the weekend. I think dancing, drawing and going to the movies are back on the cards. Well, time to dive into 2018!

 Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

Everything is going to be ok if there are peonies in the world.

Notes from the Field (vii)

I’m on holidays at last and catching up on my blogging, which has very much taken a back seat this year. To pick up on my last post, after my day at the Lindley Library I caught the Tube to Kew Gardens. I spent quite a bit of time at Kew while I lived in London because it’s home to the National Archives, where I did archival research for Dr Fiona Paisley for her book on Anthony Martin Fernando. This time, though, I was there for the plants.

 Kew Herbarium and Library

Kew Herbarium and Library

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has a library and an herbarium. I went to the former first, after getting a coffee at a café named Antipodean (as a general guide for coffee snobs, coffee made by Aussies in the UK tends to be ok). I knew Mangles had corresponded with William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens from 1841 – 1865, because there’s a letter from Hooker to Mangles in the latter’s letterbooks asking for information on Georgiana Molloy’s contemporary and collector, James Drummond. Alas there were only a few letters from Mangles in the archives, along with some from his son who was also in the plant trade. On the library’s databases there were also scans of letters from George Wailes, another correspondent of Mangles’, to Hooker, so I copied them too.

In the exhibition space was a collection of works by Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th Century German naturalist and illustrator who travelled to South America with her daughter to collect and illustrate specimens. Her most famous work is Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, published in 1705 with 60 plates of engravings of the plants, animals and wildlife of the Surinam region, but she was also a scientist, closely observing and documenting insects and their metamorphosis. Some of her illustrations were on display and they were absolutely gorgeous. I thought it fitting, that I was researching a female collector of plants at the time that this was showing. 

 One of Georgiana Molloy's specimens

One of Georgiana Molloy's specimens

On the third day I visited the herbarium, which is like a library of dried plants, with thousands of folders of pressed specimens stored in cupboards. I followed the lady looking after me up a red, 19th century spiral staircase (like the ones in the greenhouse), where she located some of the flowers Georgiana had pressed and sent to Mangles. I just about turned inside out with excitement, but it was also eerie, to think that she had handled those specimens one hundred and seventy five years before. The lady took me to another section of the herbarium which was cooled, and wheeled open some huge compactors to take down the folders of flowers. It was a giant botanical filing cabinet.

 The Hive

The Hive

Afterwards I wandered into Kew Gardens and had a look at The Hive, a structure designed to create awareness of bees, then my favourite part of Kew, the Palm House.

 The Palm House

The Palm House

I also had a look at the Shirley Sherwood gallery of botanical art, and the Marianne North Gallery, which exhibits (from wall-to-wall) the botanical art of another intrepid female traveller, Marianne North, all of which was gorgeous and amazing.

 River Thames at Richmond

River Thames at Richmond

The next morning I went for a run in Richmond Park, and walked along the river back to where I was staying. It was a gorgeous day, with clear blue sky, lush green grass, a really good running track and the odd deer - a far cry from the carnage that would unfold on London Bridge that night with the terrorist attack.

 Richmond Park

Richmond Park