Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose.
That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788). Although she moved in aristocratic circles, she lived as many ordinary people live today, making choices that determine a life, such as her marriages to Alexander Pendarves (a slobbering, rich old man) and later to Dean Delany (a Protestant Irish clergyman). Her choices also included designing dresses, crewelwork, painting, gardening and a full social life. She didn’t have children but had a long, devoted relationship with her sister and a deep connection with her second husband. “She wasn’t an expert at anything except observing,” Molly Peacock writes in The Paper Garden. “And then she did something no one had ever done before.”
After the death of Mr. Delany, Mary took refuge at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire estate of her long-time friend, Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland. Laid up with a foot injury, the 72-year-old widow sat beside her table of art supplies and noticed the color of a piece of paper matched that of a nearby geranium petal. She cut out the petal shape from the paper, “commencing the most remarkable work of her life.”
Over the next ten years, Mary Delany created 985 intricate, botanically accurate “flower mosaicks,” as she called them, precursors to today’s mixed media art form. They are composed of “the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper” placed on deep black backgrounds. For Mary Delany, the floral concoctions were just another one of the many projects she’d pursued over the decades, this time assembling a personal, visual memoir she named Flora Delanica. The results, though, now reside in the British Museum.
Last year, when The Paper Garden was first published, I hesitated to read it, thinking it would be filled more with botanical discussions than storytelling. It is such a gorgeous book, though — a stunning design with 35 full-color illustrations — I couldn’t forget it. So for months I engaged in a ridiculous biblio-nerd’s courtship with the book, borrowing it from the library, asking for it in bookstores (sold-out at New York’s Three Lives & Co.) and searching for it online. I wanted to own it more than I wanted to read it.
The book repeatedly drew me toward it, and I repeatedly pushed it away. It insistently held on, so I surrendered to the paperback released this year. When I read it, I found myself delightfully absorbed in Molly Peacock’s unforgettable search for answers among Delany’s cut-out flowers about aging and life work. Molly Peacock is an award-winning author of six volumes of poetry. Her insights, beautiful writing and poetic leaps make The Paper Garden an unforgettable, winning combination of biography and life philosophy. And let me be clear, The Paper Garden is not at all the intimidating botanical complexity I thought it would be, rather an extraordinary narrative and visual treasure for everyone.
Hound’s Tongue, Damask Rose, Nodding Thistle, Opium Poppy, Magnolia and Everlasting Pea (above), are some of the flowers illustrated in this fascinating book that explores how a life blooms. Molly Peacock engages with the flowers as metaphors that open the door into Mrs. Delany’s relationships with her sister and husbands, social activities and independent life between marriages. Also, in brief interludes, Peacock draws parallels between her life and Delany’s, bringing warmth and 21st century relevance to the 18th century story. Indeed, often this gifted author writes powerful sentences loaded with fodder for the examined life, such as when she casually remarks, “But in life our routines are the signposts of destiny.”
“Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope,” Molly Peacock writes. “Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age?”
You can hear her joy and astonishment in these sentences, as well as when she writes about her discovery trips to England and Ireland, visiting the mosaicks in the British Museum and Mrs. Delany’s 86-year-old relative, Ruth Hayden, outside Bath. I could feel it — the uplifting hope that life can still surprise us in our last decades with an unknown gift that’s been percolating throughout the years. “Some things take living long enough to do,” Molly Peacock tells us several times at the end of the book, with more of that joy and astonishment.