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The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72

by Molly Peacock

This wonderful and markedly unusual work by Toronto poet Molly Peacock is both biography and memoir, but not the sort that switches back and forth between genres. The biographical element concerns Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700–88), an acquaintance of such diverse figures as Jonathan Swift, John Wesley, and George Frederic Handel. On the surface, at least, the life of a widowed 18th-century Anglo-Irish gentlewoman couldn’t be more different from the author’s. Peacock (born in 1947) grew up in a working-class household “dominated by a violent, alcoholic father [and] lived in fear of something happening that would prevent [her] from getting out of Buffalo.”

As she neared 40, Peacock learned of Delany’s most singular accomplishment: how, at 72, she “entered a mesmerized state induced by close observation” and developed a new art form, a kind of proto-collage. With scissors and paste, Delany created nearly a thousand incredibly intricate (and botanically accurate) three-dimensional flowers, to which she sometimes added paint or dried leaves, thus becoming, so to speak, the mother of mixed-media.

Delany’s art, now in the British Museum, launched Peacock on a decades-long journey of enlightenment and obsession, as she tried to comprehend how creativity can strike without warning at such an advanced age, and what that may tell us about gender, empowerment, the craft that lies beneath art and literature, and “the floral metaphor as a way of life.”

The gist of Peacock’s discoveries could be paraphrased this way: we are all prisoners of biology, and biology doesn’t simply erode as the body withers. “The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age,” Peacock writes. “They are aged. They can be portraits of sexual intensity – but softened. Softer, and drier, as our sexuality becomes. Yet they also can be simple botany, nearly accurate representations of specimens. They all come out of darkness, intense and vaginal.”

This is a unique book, one even more remarkable than Mrs. Delany herself.