Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines by Bernice Barry – Book Review

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Georgiana Molloy

Georgiana Molloy is every biographer’s delight: an interesting woman who kept a diary.  And yet, as is typical for many women who deserve a more prominent role in Australian history, her story is not well known.

In Glasgow in 1829 Georgiana Kennedy (aged twenty-four) married army officer Captain John Molloy (aged forty-nine).  Six weeks later the newlyweds set sail for Western Australia to begin a new life, and a new colony.  Conditions on the Swan River were predictably difficult and all the best land seemed to be already taken so within weeks the couple elected to move over 300kms south, to establish a homestead at Augusta on Flinders Bay.

Over time the Molloys had three daughters and a son, but the eldest died when she was only weeks old and the boy drowned as a toddler.  Bernice Barry writes the children’s stories with sensitivity and an eye for the telling detail.

Barry is also an accomplished researcher and the book contains much information that is new: Georgiana’s troubled relationship with her mother and older sister; John Molloy’s early life; and John and Georgiana’s courtship.  Rumour had it that he was the illegitimate offspring of royalty but Barry has found evidence for a far more humble background.

When introducing her newly discovered material Barry uses the device of stepping the reader up and out of the narrative, and describing her research activities in the first person.

Unfortunately Georgiana burnt all her letters one evening just before she set sail for Australia.  The letter she received from Molly on 26 May was among them but its contents have survived because of the nineteenth century habit of keeping drafts of correspondence in ‘letter books’. One afternoon in May 2005 I was at the JS Battye Library in Perth when I noticed a particular archive reference for the first time.  The item was recorded simply as ‘Letter of Proposal’.

For two more pages we are treated to the details of Barry’s research, hopes raised and dashed, John Molloy’s idiomatic use of Spanish, before the draft of the letter is provided in full.  It is an interesting way of enhancing the biographical story.

Not that the story needs too much enhancing.  Georgiana, married to a man her widowed mother may have been considering for herself, is presented as being far from the demure, overtly religious woman previous historians would have her be.

The Molloys spent their wedding night in Glasgow, where John had been stationed a decade earlier with the Rifle Brigade.  By the next morning, some of Georgiana’s fears were resolved and the ink on five exclamation marks she added carefully to her diary entry is deeply etched into the paper: ‘What a night this was!!!!!’

John Molloy was, it seems, a kind and loving husband but he was no farmer.  He started off with plenty of capital but through a variety of bad luck and poor judgement he managed to lose nearly all of the livestock purchased en route to Australia.  John was appointed to several government roles and while his income kept the family solvent, the work meant that John was often away for weeks at a time, leaving Georgiana to manage alone.  Almost literally alone – for the first three years there were no genteel women nearby to befriend and servants and farm-hands (being much in demand) were hard to come by and harder to keep.  Georgiana worked so hard, and lost so much weight, that one day her wedding ring flew from her finger.

Georgiana’s only delight, apart from her children, was her garden.  As well as the necessary vegetable plots and orchards, she went to great lengths to grow an ornamental garden around the modest cottage at Augusta.  In 1839 the family looked for easier farmland and moved to the Vasse River, almost 100kms  northward, where a new homestead was built and a new garden established. A friend, knowing of Georgiana’s delight in horticulture, recommended her to a botanist in England and he wrote to Georgiana,  inviting her to collect and send him seeds of the native plants of the region.

With increasing confidence Georgiana proceeded to do so, accompanying the seeds with written descriptions and with the albums of pressed flowers she had painstakingly prepared. The seeds she sent to England were distributed to various botanical gardens in England, often to well-known private gardeners. Plants previously unknown were propagated and developed from them and were scientifically classified. Too often seeds and plants did not survive the trip to England but Mrs Molloy’s seeds from Western Australia became noted among English enthusiasts for their freshness and careful packing. Some of the seeds and albums can be found still, at the Kew Herbarium.

For five years Georgiana had clearly found her calling, delighting in the search for plants and in their careful dispatch.  But in 1843 Georgiana died in childbirth, too young and with so much still to achieve.

Barry’s lovely, lively biography goes some way to bringing Georgiana Molloy back to life.  The book’s beautiful cover eschews the usual dreary colonial portrait and the pages within are dotted with relevant photographs and maps; black and white images throughout and four sets of colour plates. A useful family tree is included as is an index of names (not a full index though, alas).

Georgiana Molloy: the mind that shines is just the sort of thing we should be seeing more of – histories that expose us all to the crucial role of women in the establishment of colonial Australia.  Well, I would say that wouldn’t I.  But it doesn’t make it less true.

Want to know more?

This lovely biography seems to have been published without much fanfare but perhaps it will be a slow burner. According to the author’s website, Georgiana Molloy was self-published in Western Australia in March 2015 before being picked up by PanMacmillan and published under the Picador imprint in March 2016. Hmmm, I’m curious to know how often that happens these days.

Other reviews:

 

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9 responses »

  1. It’s odd how sometimes a book doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This bio is good reading even if the subject is unknown or botanical art is not a special interest. I hope it will as you say, turn out to be a slow burn…
    PS Thanks for the mention:)

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  2. This has been on my TBR (To Be Reviewed) shelf for ages, so as a West Australian I’m doubly embarrassed you beat me to it. Still, I always enjoy your insider’s view of the biographical process, and am learning to appreciate the author letting us in on that process. I’ll let it stew a few more months now and you can judge whether or not I am an apt pupil.

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    • Lifting the lid into the biographical process is becoming quite the thing. I enjoy reading it, I guess others do too. Looking forward to your review – I’m curious to know if Georgiana is better known in WA than elsewhere.

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