The Incomparable Mrs. Delaney

I am drawn to books about outstanding women from historical times. Women’s stories were often lost, so those that survive are testament to enormously strong individuals.

Mrs. Mary Delaney is such a woman—she sparkles off the page. Her story is told in The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock (Bloomsbury, 2010). Mrs. Delaney lived from 1700 to 1788, and knew many luminaries of her time, including George Frideric Handel and Jonathan Swift. She became friends with King George III and Queen Charlotte through their shared love of botany. While her life was often challenging (she was married off at sixteen to a sixty-one year old fellow who liked his drink), her lively mind and spirit sustained her.

At 72 after the death of her beloved second husband, Mrs. Delaney began creating beautifully detailed “mosaicks.” Using her scissors and her powers of observation, she assembled gorgeous, accurate flower montages. Several of her creations are beautifully reproduced in the book. Her collection, Flora Delanica, resides in the  British Museum in London. When I am next there, I plan to head straight to the museum to see these wonders for myself.

There are several excellent newish books that reassess the lives and careers of important historical women. Quick to mind are Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (Thorndike Press, 2012), and Cleopatra: a Life by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown and Co., 2010).

My personal heroine is Abigail Adams. Although there was a recent biography written about her, Abigail Adams: a Life by Woody Holden (Thorndike, 2009), the most readable depiction of her full and purposeful life is in David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2001). John Adams is at the top of my best-books-ever list. The long marriage of John and Abigail was a sturdy partnership of equals.

The description of Abigail’s first journey at sea makes me smile every time I think of it. At age thirty-nine, never having been away from home for longer than a night or two, she and her daughter boarded the ship Active headed for England. By the time they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, she had mastered the names of all the masts and sails, directed a thorough cleaning with “scrapers, mops, brushes, infusions of vinegar, etc.,” and taught the cook how to “dress his victuals!” The captain said he was sure she could take over at the helm as well. Now that’s my kind of woman!

These books are available at your local public library and at Parnassus Books, Nashville.

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2 comments on “The Incomparable Mrs. Delaney

  1. Tari Hughes says:

    Donna, thanks for the tips! I love Abigail too.
    — Tari

  2. Juli Mosley says:

    I’ll present this list to our book club. Women reading about important women is nourishing. I love that she made her most significant contribution after the age of 72. There is still time.

    Juli Mosley

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