A few weeks ago, I came across an article in Inside Story, ‘Everyone was a Bird.’ It opens with a reference to the author’s composition of a song cycle for baritone and orchestra. This composition included the words from a letter that 19th century Western Australian botanist Georgiana Molloy wrote to fellow botanist James Mangles in England about the death of her son by drowning. In the end, the composer writes, he wasn’t able to find the music to fit to the words, and he relied up on the sounds of birds from the bush near Augusta, where she lived before moving to Busselton: sounds of the West Australian bush near Augusta: bristlebirds, New Holland honeyeaters and spotted pardalotes, splendid fairy wrens and a Carnaby’s black cockatoo.
Georgiana Molloy emigrated from England to Augusta in 1829 with her new husband, John Molloy. Not long after her arrival, she had a baby girl, who died a few weeks later. She had another two girls, then the son, whom she lost through the drowning. This loss coincided with the request from Mangles to collect Australian specimens and seeds for him. Georgiana went into the bush to take her mind from her grief, and this engendered a radical shift in the way she perceived her environment.
Georgiana and her story has not only inspired musicians, but also artists and writers. Miles Noel created a portrait of her for his series on Western Australian scientists, using artistic licence to slip a piece of Boronia molloyae (the only specimen named after her) into her hair. Libby Hathorn wrote a children’s historical novel, Georgiana, Woman of Flowers, while my first novel A Curious Intimacy was inspired by the research I did on Molloy for my Honours year in English literature.
Until recently, there have only been two monographs on Georgiana’s life, Alexandra Hasluck’s Georgiana Molloy: Portrait with Background (1955) and William Lines’ An All Consuming Passion: Origins, Modernity and the Australian Life of Georgiana Molloy (1994). Hasluck’s work is a standard biography, citing extracts from Molloy’s letters, which Mangles had copied and bound into two letterbooks (along with others from his correspondents), now held in the Battye Library of the State Library of Western Australia.
The structure of Lines’ book is more complex, beginning with an account of the earth itself, then the geological creation of Australia as it broke from Gondwana, and then the populating of south west Western Australia by diverse forms of flora, then Indigenous people, then white colonists. In his preface, Lines explains his approach as a way of avoiding the anthropocentrism of biographies, which ‘situates a human at the centre of the world’ (xi). Molloy, he continues ‘as the single dominating character … holds the different parts of the narrative together, but she is not the only source of that narrative’ (xii). It’s an admirable approach, but the book is unavoidably anthropocentric because humans remain its focal point. While Lines does incorporate more research than Hasluck on the Aboriginal people with whom Molloy and her neighbours interacted (often violently, and sometimes peaceably), he doesn’t refer to the environment again at any great length in his work. I am still indebted to this work, however – if I hadn’t randomly found it on the shelves of a library at the University of California, Berkely, where I was on exchange in 1999, I would never have started my research on Molloy.
Now, with the recent publication of Bernice Barry’s Georgiana Molloy: The Mind That Shines, readers have a far more comprehensive and detailed account of Georgiana’s life and her motivations. Over the last decade, Barry has painstakingly combed the archives in Cumbria to piece together Georgiana’s family history. In doing so she reveals a young girl who was forced to make a decision to travel to the other side of the world with a man she barely knew, even if her heart wasn’t entirely in it.
In writing this, I’m reminded of a class which Glenda Adams took in my writing course at UTS, in which we discussed a young woman dressing herself and curling her hair before a ball in the nineteenth century.
‘It’s a job, right?’ Glenda pointed out in her soft, American accent.
And so were every woman’s accomplishments a gentle, desperate kind of work necessary to find security. Happiness was something that came along if you were lucky.
I’d had an inkling of the strain in Georgiana’s family from reading the Cumbria archives, but I never had the time, while I was doing my PhD on Georgiana, to transcribe them. I was enthralled by Barry’s account of the disasters that rippled through the family, and by their desperate attempts to save face. Barry’s meticulous research also reveals a background that John Molloy, whom Georgiana married, wished to keep to himself in the new colony of Swan River.
For me, this was an exciting book because of its wealth of new information. Barry mentions that one of the books Georgiana placed in her trunk was The British Album, an anthology of poetry by group of English writers living in Italy. The poems in this book ‘describe physical passion, only lightly veiled by erotic imagery’ (8). She also packed a copy of The Songs of Robert Burns, a Scottish poet of high emotion. These works affirmed Georgiana’s passionate nature, which is usually bridled in her letters, but sometimes flares free
Barry also includes a transcript of the letter Georgiana wrote to her mother when her first child died not long after her arrival in Augusta. It shows Georgiana’s (often overlooked) skill as a writer. ‘I knew not what to do,’ Georgiana wrote. ‘I felt inclined to rush out into the open air and charge the winds with what weighed so heavy at my bursting head’ (172). This sentence is packed with movement (‘rushing’ and ‘charging’) and pressure (‘weighed’, ‘heavy’ and ‘bursting’), suggesting Georgiana’s emotion was too much for her body.
Barry’s writing is clean and detailed and, aside from a few moments of authorial intrusion that annoyed me (which would in any biography), the narrative pulled me along. There is also a lovely set of colour plates, and the cover is gorgeous. The research is also testimony to Barry’s patience, because transcribing the letters, which were often crossed to save postage (which the recipient paid) would have taken hours and hours of work.
I read this book as I was travelling back to Brisbane from Goondiwindi after giving a writing workshop. The flat, orange-brown landscape outside was worlds away from the lush greenness of Roseneath, where Georgiana stayed with friends before moving to Western Australia, and from the tall tuarts of south west Western Australia. It reminded me of what I love so much about Georgiana’s life: her precise vision of the natural world, and her poetic rendition of this in her letters.
I’m a biased reviewer because I’ve been researching Georgiana on and off for fifteen years, but anyone who is interested in remarkable women writers and scientists of Australia should pick up this book. It does much justice to an intelligent, brave and creative woman who achieved an astonishing amount in her too-short, but intensely rich life.