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review: biography

I briefly encountered Mrs. Delany, born in 1700 and famous for her cut-paper flower mosaics, when I was writing about Jonathan Swift. One can be fairly certain that hot sex did not play much part in her life, but the poet Molly Peacock sees her as a sensualist like herself, and her work as casting its light on flowers' vaginas. The Canada Lily's petals have a "labial look to them," and the Passion Flower is pubic and vulvular.

"I had to contend with the leaps of a poet's mind," writes Peacock, who characteristically plants her imagery of startling physicality within a quite complex formal framework.

But then, "a metaphor can feel truer to me than a fact." We do get the facts too, bit by bit. Mary Delany was born Mary Granville into an influential political family. When her father fell out of favour, she was married off at 17 against her will to the gross, elderly, alcohol-sodden Alexander Pendarves. Fortunately, he died seven years later. She would never again, Peacock elaborates, with Swiftian disgust and Swiftian disgustingness, have to "whiff the whisky breath, never see the slobber, never inhale the reek of piss and fecal residues" of the marital bed.

The widowed Mary Pendarves spent the next 20 years being a guest in great country houses and "seeing and being seen" at court. She was a desperate social butterfly, fishing for the security of a position as lady-in-waiting, which never materialized, and nurturing an inconclusive relationship with Lord Baltimore.

When he married someone else, to cheer herself up, she visited Dublin with a female friend. There she met Jonathan Swift and his great friend, a pleasant, sociable clergyman called Patrick Delany. Back home, she sustained a decidedly frisky correspondence with Swift, though not with Delany, who was getting married to an English widow at the time of her visit.

But after his wife died, Dr. Delany pursued Mrs. Pendarves by letter, and proposed. They had not met for 10 years. After some prevarication, she married him. She was 43. He was over 60, and a nobody in her family's estimation, but the marriage was quietly and solidly happy until his death 25 years later. Molly Peacock does not mention that Dr. Delany had a peculiar obsession with polygamy, against which he preached and wrote endlessly. "Surely," wrote one of his friends to another, "the Dr. has given himself an unnecessary trouble, for this is an age when we are so far from taking two wives that we can scarce be prevailed upon to keep one."

Mrs. Delany had scissored cut-paper designs and silhouettes since her girlhood, as well as doing shellwork and embroidery. Now, in her second widowhood, at the age of 72, her energies and talents exploded. She began to compose, out of intricately cut, hand-coloured papers, her botanically accurate flower mosaics - 985 of them before her eyes finally gave out.

The skill and precision of her work are staggering; the main flower head of her "Damask Rose," for example, is made up of more than 70 tiny slivers of paper in graded pinks and reds. She brushed on shadows with watercolour, sometimes pasted real leaves among the cut-paper ones, and always used a pitch-black background. George III and his Queen were admirers and became her friends. Her Autobiography and Correspondence were published in six volumes, her albums are in the British Museum, and there is a considerable and growing literature on Mrs. Delany and her Flora Delanica.

None of the scholarly commentary is anything like The Paper Garden. Deciding that the cut-paper mosaics have "the feeling of a memoir," Peacock scrutinizes closely 11 of them and proceeds to free-associate, cutting and pasting Mrs. Delany's life story in small, vivid snippets. She layers these with accounts of her research, and with slices of her own life, which is so very different from Mrs. Delany's that some of the juxtapositions are quite jarring, like clashing colours, as is her defiantly anachronistic description of Mrs. Delany's letters as her "blog." Yet there are parallels: their childlessness, their satisfying second marriages - and, in "a strange way," her subject's early life "lays a ghostly silhouette onto the atmosphere of my own experience."

Thus, Peacock has structured the whole book as metaphor, a collage about collage, and a meditation on sexuality, friendship and creativity. It both analyzes and exemplifies that obsessional, mesmerized state induced in artists and crafts people through concentration and close observation. The volume itself is a craft object, sumptuously presented and designed, on fine paper, with colophons and decorations, and full-page colour reproductions so that we can test Peacock's responses against our own. If some of the interpretation seems absurd - as Peacock herself fears it might - it is triumphantly absurd. The Paper Garden will be everyone's favourite Christmas present this year.

Victoria Glendinning's Jonathan Swift: A Portrait was published in 1998. She is writing a biography of Stamford Raffles (1781-1846).

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