Over Christmas and New Year, I flew from Rome to England to stay with some friends, first in Dorchester and then in Newcastle. My part-Geordie, part-Australian friends drove me to the outskirts of Carlisle to look at Crosby Lodge, the house in which my research subject Georgiana Molloy lived until she was 16.
I’ve been researching and writing about Georgiana since 1999, when I pulled William Lines’ 1994 biography about her, An All Consuming Passion, from the shelves of the library at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was on exchange. At 16 her father was killed by a fall from his lodge, so they moved away to Rugby. At 24, she married John Molloy, 25 years old than her, and in 1829 she sailed with him to Augusta in south west Western Australia. There, she began to collect flowers and seeds for a botanist in London, becoming, arguably, Western Australia’s first female scientist.
Before stopped at Crosby Lodge, we ventured to Solway Firth, an estuary leading to the Irish Sea. On the other side of the estuary was Scotland. My friends told me how the Scots would cross the water to work, then go to the pub after work (as this was frowned upon in Scotland), then stagger back across the water on stilts. Because they were often drunk, some would fall into the water and drown. Yikes.
Even though I was wearing several layers of clothes, including thermals, I froze, but the water was beautiful and the air crisp and clear. As we drove away, it suddenly occurred to me that on the next day, which was my birthday, I would the same age as Georgiana (37) when she died. Where she had conceived eight children and lost three of them (one was a miscarriage, one died ten days after she was born and the other when he was 16 months old, from drowning), I had the liberty to decide if and how many children I wanted to have. I was allowed to go university, I could write books, I could travel on my own, I could even study science if I had the inclination. All these things were denied to Georgiana, for her primary purpose was to breed.
When I saw Crosby Lodge, which was enormous (to an Australian, at least), it brought into sharp relief how remarkable Georgiana was. She’d had an incredibly privileged upbringing, yet ended up working like a drudge on the opposite side of the world. Even though she was permanently exhausted, she still found time to collect specimens and seeds, and to observe and write about her environment with both a poet and a scientist’s gaze.
My latest essay on Georgiana is in the ‘Looking West’ edition of Griffith Review, released on 28th January (it’s already in the post to subscribers). This is the first time I’ve ever been published in Griffith Review and I’m overjoyed to be in the company of brilliant writers such as Kim Scott and Tim Winton. Unfortunately I can’t get hold of a copy until I come home next week – it’s something to look forward to at the end of the flight. If you’d like to read my essay, and the others by wonderful Australian authors, head to the Griffith Review website or your local independent bookstore. Literary journals are Australia’s literary lifeblood as they nurture new talent and have a diverse range of new and emerging authors. If you buy a copy, you won’t be disappointed!