Imagine starting your life’s work at seventy-two. At just that age, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (May 14, 1700–April 15, 1788), a fan of George Frideric Handel, a sometime dinner partner of satirist Jonathan Swift, a wearer of green-hooped satin gowns, and a fiercely devoted subject of blond King George iii, invented a precursor of what we know as collage. One afternoon in 1772 she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade (she’d have called it a scalpel) or a pair of filigree-handled scissors – the kind that must have had a nose so sharp and delicate that you could almost imagine it picking up a scent. With the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.
Then she snipped out another.
And another, and another, with the trance-like efficiency of repetition – commencing the most remarkable work of her life.
Her previous seventy-two years in England and Ireland had already spanned the creation of Kew Gardens, the rise of English paper making, Jacobites thrown into the Tower of London, forced marriages, women’s floral-embroidered stomachers, and the use of the flintlock musket – all of which, except for the musket, she knew very personally.
She was born Mary Granville in 1700 at her father’s country house in the Wiltshire village of Coulston, matching her life with the start of this new century, one that would be shaped by many of her friends and acquaintances. She would see the rise of the coffee house (where she took refuge on the day of the coronation of George ii) and of fabulously elaborate court gowns (one of which she designed). She would hear first-hand of the voyage of Captain Cook (financed partly by her friend the Duchess of Portland) and be astounded by that voyage’s horticultural bonanza (instigated by her acquaintance Sir Joseph Banks). She would attend her hero Handel’s Messiah. She would share a meal with the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and read in a rapture Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa. She would flirt with Jonathan Swift. In middle age, at mid-century, she would see the truth of his cudgel of an essay on Irish poverty, and in her old age she would feel the sting of a revolution on the other side of the world that divided North America into Canada and the United States.
By the time she commenced her great work, she had long outlived her uncle, the selfish Lord Lansdowne (a minor poet and playwright and patron of Alexander Pope); she had survived a marriage at age seventeen to Alexander Pendarves, a drunken sixty-year-old squire who left her nothing but a widow’s pension; she had tried to get a court position and found herself in a bust-up of a relationship with the peripatetic Lord Baltimore. But with a life-saving combination of propriety and inner fire, she also designed her own clothes, took drawing lessons with Louis Goupy, cultivated stalwart, lifelong friends (and watched her mentor William Hogarth paint a portrait of one of them), played the harpsichord and attended John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, owned adorable cats, and wrote six volumes’ worth of letters – most of them to her sister, Anne Granville Dewes (1701–61), signifying a deep, cherished relationship that anyone with a sister would kill for.
She bore no children, but at forty-three she allowed herself to be kidnapped by love and to flout her family to marry Jonathan Swift’s friend Dean Patrick Delany, a Protestant Irish clergyman. They lived at Delville, an eleven-acre estate near Dublin, where Mary attended to a multitude of crafts, from shell decoration to crewelwork, and, with the Dean, renovated his lands into one of the first Picturesque gardens in the British Isles.
But she made the spectacular mental leap between what she saw and what she cut four years after he died, and eleven years after her sister died. She was staying with her insomniac friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess Dowager of Portland, at the fabulous Bulstrode, an estate of many acres in Buckinghamshire. The Duchess, who would stay up being read to for most of the night and rarely rose before noon, was one of the richest women in England. Her Dutch-gabled fortress, presiding over its own park, with its own aviary, gardens, and private zoo, housed her collections of shells and minerals, and later the Portland Vase, a Roman antiquity which now occupies a spot in the British Museum. By then the two women had been friends for more than four decades. (They met when Margaret was a little girl and Mary was in her twenties. Margaret would always have been referred to by her title, except by those of us centuries later who seek to know her on a first-name basis. Mary would have called Margaret “Duchess,” and Margaret would have called Mary “Mrs.”)
Mary Delany took the organic shapes she had cut and recomposed them in the mirror likeness of that geranium, pasting up an exact, life-sized replica of the flower on a piece of black paper.
Then the Duchess popped in.
She couldn’t tell the paper flower from the real one.
Mrs. D., which is what they affectionately call her at the British Museum, dubbed her paper and petal paste-up a flower mosaick, and in the next ten years she completed nearly a thousand cut-paper botanicals so accurate that botanists still refer to them – each one so energetically dramatic that it seems to leap out from the dark as onto a lit stage. Unlike pale botanical drawings, they are all done on deep black backgrounds. She drenched the front of white laid paper with black watercolor to obtain a stage-curtain-like darkness. Once dry, she’d paste onto these backgrounds hundreds – and I mean hundreds upon hundreds – of the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands, and loops of brightly colored paper, slowly building up the verisimilitude of flora.
“I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,” she wrote with astonishing understatement to her niece in 1772.1
How did she have the eyesight to do it, let alone the physical energy? How, with her eighth-decade knuckles and wrists, did she manage the dexterity? Did her arm muscles not seize up? Now Mrs. D.’s works rustle in leather-edged volumes in the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room, where they have been sequestered since her descendant, Lady Llanover, donated them in 1895.
Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope.
Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age? A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies. Even if you’ve managed major accomplishments throughout your life and don’t really need a model for making a mark, you do need one for enriching an ongoing existence.
Where was she when she cut out her first mosaick? In the spacious ground-floor apartments that the Duchess had assigned her at Bulstrode. What time was it? Probably sometime in the morning. At night, with short candles burning (she preferred short candles because they shed more intense, lower light), it would have been time for embroidery or handiwork. Was it messy? Oh, it was messy. The Duchess was always having to clean up all their projects when she was expecting guests: her vast collection of shells and their flaking, her minerals and their dust, her exotic plants and their shedding particles of leaves.
Mrs. Delany did not pick up a quill pen, nor did she draw. Instead, she entered a mesmerized state induced by close observation. If you have ever looked at a word so long that it becomes unfamiliar, you have crossed into a similar state, seizing on detail, then seizing up, because that very focus blurs the context of meaning. This is the mental ambience in which a ghost of something can appear. A memory. An atmosphere of a time in life long gone but now present and almost palpable to the touch. Touch is the operative word here because Mary Delany touched many implements. According to those who’ve tried to recreate her technique, Mrs. Delany used tweezers, a bodkin (an embroidery tool for poking holes), perhaps a thin, flat bone folder (shaped like a tongue depressor and made for creasing paper), brushes of various kinds, mortar and pestle for grinding pigment, bowls to contain ox gall (the bile of cows which when mixed with paint made it flow more smoothly) and more bowls to contain the honey that would plasticize the pigment for her inky backgrounds, pieces of glass or board to fix her papers, pins to hang her papers to dry.2 It was a feast for the tactile sense; it was dirty, smelly, prodigious.
If you make an appointment to see the flower mosaicks in the Prints and Drawings Study Room of the British Museum, they will let you hold these miracles by the edges of their mats (provided you borrow a pair of chalky curatorial gloves) or even let you turn the pages of their albums. I dare you not to release a dumbfounded syllable or two out of sheer disbelief and disturb the whole staid mahogany room. The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age. 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, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers’ cunts.
Flowers are plants’ sexual organs, after all. There are only four parts a person has to remember that each flower has in common, no matter how different they look: sepals (the leaves that encase the bud), petals, stamens (the male organs), and pistils (the female organs). The work Mrs. Delany labeled her “first essay,” the Scarlet Geranium and Lobelia cardinalis, resembles two pressed flowers in ladylike quietude, but a bully of inspiration begins to burst forth in the ones she began to create after that, muscular, vibrant, petiolate. They do not exude the full-flesh sexuality of the flower paintings that Georgia O’Keeffe executed in her sensual thirties, but they are sensuous in the tender, yielding way of deeply adult touch.
As they veer between the dignified and the sensual, the flower mosaicks seem to be as complex as Mrs. D.’s personality. They hold the opposites of intrepidity and shyness, inspired daring and the deliberate anonymity that frustrated her beloved husband Patrick Delany yet endeared her to him. (He wanted her to show off, to play the harpsichord or dance in company, and though she was reputed to be a stunning musician and a delightful dancer, she would adamantly refuse.) But don’t confuse her with the prissy ladies in nineteenth-century novels. She lived a century before, when politeness did not mean squeamishness, when elaborate manners existed side by side with blood and bile. Mary Granville, then Pendarves, then Delany was a complicated character in a multi-leveled, socially ornate world. But if a role model in her seventies isn’t layered with contradictions – as we all come to be – then what good is she? Why bother to cut the silhouette of another’s existence and place it against our own if it isn’t as incongruous, ambiguous, inconsistent, and paradoxical as our own lives are?
A few of the papers she used – all of the papers in the eighteenth century were handmade – in fact were wallpapers, but mostly she painted large sheets of rag paper with watercolor, let them dry, then cut from them the hundreds of pieces she needed to reproduce – well, to re-evoke might be a better word – the flower she was portraying. There is no reproduced hue that matches the thrill of color in nature, yet Mrs. D. went after the original kick of natural color, and she did it like a painter. If you look at photographic reproductions of her work in a book like this, you may swear to yourself that her flowers are painted. But if you go to the British Museum Web site,3 zoom in on the image, then zoom in again and again, at last you will see the complicated overlapping layers of cut paper that this book shows in enlargements of details.
The black background of the mosaicks meant that Mrs. Delany downplayed light sources and shadows, as she was taught. The conventions of English botanical painting intentionally aimed to depict the form of each specimen with utmost clarity.4 Her flowers are, for the most part, botanically accurate, but not realistic. They provoke a person to understand that there is a material difference between accuracy and realism. The full flower heads with their main flower parts, along with the buds, the vines, the stems, and the leaves, are palpable, but they don’t appear exactly as in nature. (For one thing, the root systems aren’t shown.) Because of the seeming absence of light, they loom as if they are imaginary. They are more like incredibly vivid memories than representations and are reminiscent of poems in their layerings of lines and in the ways they rhyme their colors. Just as it takes a magnified attention to see how an actual flower is made, it takes an Ultra Optix 2x power lens with a 5x bifocal magnifying glass to tackle the poetic complexity of these virtual flowers. After all, Mrs. Delany dissected her specimens in order to render their splendor in her cut-out likenesses.
Each of Mrs. Delany’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality, the bloom posed as a human figure might be positioned in a painter’s portrait. In the dream-like, luminous atmosphere of memory, imagination, and mourning, the flowers have something of the feel of self-portraits as well. The flowers are like dancers. Like daydreamers. Like women blinking in silent adoration. Like children playing. Like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias. Like courtesans lying on bedclothes. Like girls hanging their heads in shame. Like, like, like. Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but it also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.
When Mrs. D. picked up her scissors, grief was the chief prompt. After her beloved Dean Delany’s death in 1768, which followed the death of her sister, Anne, in 1761, she wrote that she considered each of her flower portraits to be “an employment and amusement, to supply the loss of those that had formerly been delightful to me; but had lost their power of pleasing; being depriv’d of that friend, whose partial approbation was my pride, and had stampt a value on them.”5 By “those” she meant Anne and the stopping of their lively, vital correspondence. By “friend” she meant the Dean, in the eighteenth-century sense of friendship that was familial. He was absolutely the friend that a husband can become. She was bereft of the spark of his approbation and encouragement and deprived of that sturdy sounding board that Anne had provided all their lives.
Patrick Delany had not been one of those family-assigned eighteenth-century aristocratic mates. She’d already had one of those as a teenager, and it had almost deformed her emotionally. For her second marriage (and her second life), she decamped from England to live in Ireland, though she maintained her house in London and her ties to family and friends. With Patrick her life metamorphosed from something brittle and sometimes desperate into an existence that was softer and more expansive.
He was born on March 15, 1685, in Rathkrea, Queen’s County, Ireland, the son of a servant to an Irish judge. Educated in Athy, County Kildare, his intelligence won him a place at Trinity College, where he was much loved and admired.6 He was not part of the aristocracy, but part of an emerging meritocracy. He wrote many turgid sermons and some hopeful poetry. He was too earnest to be really witty, although he was a great pal of Jonathan Swift, the wit of his age. Swift described him to Alexander Pope in a 1730 letter as “a man of the easyest and best conversation I ever met with in this Island, a very good listener, a right reasoner, neither too silent nor talkative . . . but hath too many acquaintance.” A vastly social man, Delany loved entertaining, which is how he met Mary. Friends had brought her along to dinner at his Dublin house, Delville. But Delany was already engaged to the very wealthy Margaret Tennison.7 Mary would hear about him in subtle, casual inquiries, sometimes through Jonathan Swift, throughout the twelve years of this marriage. Then Margaret Tennison died. Mary was forty-three; Patrick was sixty-one. She was at a point in her life when wit fizzled, irony paled, and she was ready to fall in love with earnestness. In the spring of 1743 Patrick Delany tracked her down and popped the question.
Mrs. Delany throve for twenty-three years in her marriage to the Dean – embroidering, mounting shells in grottoes, raising a herd of deer, drawing, painting, redecorating, and entertaining all who passed through Dublin, from influential bishops to the extravagant Lennox sisters, daughters of the Duke of Richmond. And it was at Delville that gardening became a true devotion. By refusing to level the contours of the estate, she preserved the twisting paths through the woods and downplayed the ordered parterres and allées that Patrick Delany and his friend Richard Helsham had spent a fortune on. (Their garden debt was mocked by Swift: “And when you’ve been at vast expenses / in whims, parterres, canals and fences, / Your assets fail . . .”)8 Instead, Mrs. D. designed natural theatres to show off her flowers and spaces to share with women friends, such as a “Pearly Bower”9 (a sheltered arbor planted with flowers) for her sister Anne.
By the time she was widowed at sixty-eight, she had been loved candidly and clear-sightedly, not in a blur of romance but in clarity of observation, with true acceptance. It was not a sweeping love but a lucid love, or, as Dean Delany would write in a poem to her, twelve whole years after their wedding, “My pride, my life, my bliss, my care!”10 When the Dean died, she knew as a stout Christian that she would meet him in the next world. But she was still on earth, recuperating from his last years. After a grueling extended lawsuit and professional complications, the Dean’s reputation had been narrowly snatched back from a precipice, with a huge physical toll on the elderly clergyman. So after the lawyers came the doctors, the repeated trips to the spa at Bath to take the waters, the blisterings, the bleedings – all the brutal methods of eighteenth-century medicine that could kill you.
Mrs. D.’s letters reveal her to be an absolute wreck in the first years of her widowhood. She was dislocated, indecisive, and heavily reliant on the presence of her friend the Duchess Dowager, generous and considerate and eccentric and a widow herself. She no doubt understood the vigor unique to mourning. It’s an emotional workout as much as an emotional drain. The Duchess, about fifteen years younger than Mary, must have understood that a shadow of an idea could slip into place as the new routines of widowhood and the bustle of reconnecting friendships increased, understood that her house and her interests were providing for her friend a feeling of safety as, very, very slowly, Mary woke from her stupor of grief and held a piece of black paper behind that first geranium, emphasizing the plant’s profile, its silhouette. In the embrace of Bulstrode the inchoate inventor of collage, or the Flora Delanica, as she wryly called her group of botanical concoctions, played around with her papers, scissors, scalpel, and paste – filling in an atmosphere of absence with color.
The mosaicks unveil the vision of a person who was not remotely interested in simplification, or the lessening of experience in order to smooth out the contrariness of its elements. Mary Delany took her scissors and she got it all, every single wisp in her field of vision. She was determined to find out the dimensions and names of things. On nearly every flower she would write the Latin name, and often the vernacular name and the place and the date the work was executed. These notations combine elements of botanical labels and the headings of diary entries. They are botany and reflection both.
We know so much about Mrs. D. because she wrote a partial memoir in mid-life, and she also wrote thousands of pages of letters to her relatives and friends, and occasionally to names we still recognize, emblems of the eighteenth century. But mostly she wrote to her younger sister Anne. These letters entwine like the tendrils on the climbing flowers she loved to render. Intense and caring, the sisters had a mutual snap of communication, that feeling of knowing how one felt in the other’s skin. Mary, the older sister who lived in London society and the world of the court, had a horror of private or personal information coming to light. She destroyed many of the letters she received and, in her bossy older-sister-ish way, advised the younger Anne to do the same.
. . . I believe I have burnt this week an hundred of your letters: how unwillingly did I commit to the flames those testimonies of your tender friendship! but I have preserved more than double their number, which I shall take with me as so many charms. I thought it prudent to destroy letters that mentioned particular affairs of particular people, or family business.11
But Anne, who led a much more retiring life in the small town of Gloucester with their mother, didn’t share Mary’s fear of exposure. She disobeyed her older sibling’s advice, quietly, just as she disobeyed other sisterly injunctions, such as how she should conduct herself as a fiancée or how she should raise her children. She kept for posterity Mary’s lively, opinionated missives, written in her lucid, utterly readable hand.
There are more than three thousand pages of these epistles, and they are as layered as the collages themselves, full of squiggles and loops and interconnections of information, family ties, and juicy portraits of scandalous, modest, aristocratic, servile, and artistic figures. They don’t present a complete record of her artistic efforts, but they do contain intermittent references to her works and clues to her process. Glints of her nascent creative life surface and go underground and surface again in hints, dropped fragments, and passionate descriptions. Written with an eye for a button or a piece of lace, in a narrative joie de vivre, they’re emotional and social outpourings with breezy opinions and the details of living that allow one to drink in the brewed quotidian existence of the eighteenth century. She wrote down what she ate and with whom, where she went and with whom, and above all what everyone wore. She described the dresses, the waistcoats, the fabrics, the rooms and stairwells, the wildflowers, domestic flowers, cold remedies, bloodlettings, cats, clerics, gossips, suitors, satirists, artists, botanists, and royals. She could size up an individual in the flick of an eyelash, then go to her desk and write it down. “Up comes the gentleman,” she wrote of a caller, “so spruce and so finical you would have sworn he had been just taken out of a box of cotton.”12
Given Mrs. D.’s penchant for burning evidence, there are obviously many fewer surviving letters from her sister Anne. Those that endure are calm and softly witty; their self-possessed tone implies a woman with intelligent reserve. Anne passed on the letters she had squirreled away to her daughter, Mary Dewes Port (1746–1814). Mary Port gave them to her daughter Georgina, who was Mrs. Delany’s charge and companion in late life. Georgina Mary Ann Port Waddington (1771–1850) in turn gave them to her daughter, Augusta. Augusta Waddington Hall, Lady Llanover (1802–96), transcribed and edited the letters, which were published in six volumes as The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany: With Interesting Reminiscences of King George the Third and Queen Charlotte, by Richard Bentley, Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty (Queen Victoria), in 1861 and 1862.
Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (1835–1905), best known for her children’s book What Katy Did (written under the name of Susan Coolidge), edited The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delany into a compact two volumes for North American audiences, published in 1879, and R. Brimley Johnson (1867–1932) used Lady Llanover’s edition as the basis of Mrs. Delany at Court and Among the Wits in 1925. But not Woolsey or Johnson or Emily Morse Symonds (1860–1936), who, under the name of George Paston, compiled Mrs. Delany (Mary Granville): A Memoir 1700–1788 in 1900,13 or John St. Clair Muriel (1909–75), who wrote the biography Mrs. Delany under the name of Simon Dewes in 1940, are much responsible for what we know about her now.14
Lady Llanover’s monumental effort at editing the volumes of letters still influences all who are interested in Mrs. Delany, including Ruth Hayden, her living descendant and author of Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. In that book’s dedication, Hayden thanks her children and late husband for tolerating her obsession with her ancestor, and I find myself thanking her, too. At the age of eighty-six she showed me how to feed currants to a robin from my bare hand in the garden of her small house in Bath, just as Patrick Delany had shown his reticent but opinionated wife Mary two hundred and forty–odd years earlier in the garden of their house outside Dublin. But the newest way to learn about Mrs. D. is through the renaissance in recent scholarship about her. Harvard garden historian Mark Laird and Walters Art Museum curator Alicia Weisberg-Roberts gathered essays from thirteen scholars in Mrs. Delany and Her Circle. Deploying expertise from historians, art historians, botanists, paper specialists, and experts in textiles and crafts, the essays probe, tickle, tease out the social, aesthetic, and scientific sources and mysteries of her work. Yet all who investigate the life of Mrs. Delany owe a debt to Lady Llanover. As Weisberg-Roberts reminded me, “These scholars are like Lady Llanover’s grandchildren.”15
Bursting from the bright spirit that wrote those volumes of letters come the flowers themselves, made by two hands that had seventy-two years of flexion in other crafts, and by eyes that had seventy-two years of pure noticing. As Mrs. D. embarked on her great work of art, she was in a position, as we all are at a certain time of life, to review, to respond, to re-evaluate all that has happened – and to revive. Bluestocking writer and reformer Hannah More, after visiting Mrs. Delany when she was in her eighties, wrote that the old artist still had “that tenderness of heart which people are supposed to lose, and generally do lose in a very advanced age.”16 Mrs. Delany’s flowers contain that tenderness. How did she keep hold of it? Can such a great talent behave like a seed? How can it lie dormant for so long? We all know the truism: people who seem to spring into artistic action were, in fact, quietly preparing for years.
I saw my first flower mosaick at three o’clock on Saturday, September 27, 1986, at the Morgan Library in New York City, after an elderly guard (at least I viewed him as elderly then) eyed me suspiciously as he checked my coat. There, in the beige gallery off the dimly lit foyer, glowed one hundred and ten of the flowers. They had been sent across the Atlantic from the British Museum. The gallery was as underlit as a room beneath the ocean. The handful of viewers almost swam from flower to flower, as though snorkeling to discover coral glimmering through another element. And these were only a tenth of them, emanating from a place beyond sex and beyond death but thoroughly of both.17
I was thirty-nine and had published two books of poetry. Those flowers had the carefully crafted but mysterious quality of the poems I most admired. I went around the show twice, not methodically but flowing across the gallery from frame to frame. I could not get over the dexterity, the eyesight, and the fine muscle coordination that had produced them. I was hooked, I was sunk. My grandmother and my great-grandmother, whose ordinary needle-work talents I exalt, would have loved them.
I felt nearly ashamed about how deeply I swooned over her work, because the botanicals seemed almost fuddyduddy. Somebody like Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso probably would have hated them. They were not shiny, abstract, or hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. They were not avant-garde, even in their own day. They were derrière-garde, and not even technically collages. Collage, I’d been taught, was a twentieth-century invention, supposedly a lot more involved than Mrs. D.’s pasting of paper on paper. Now one might even view Mrs. Delany as a mixed media artist, since she painted on the papers and occasionally added dried leaves as well.
How I wished I loved in my heart the art I could love in my mind. Big, bold, epic, symphonic. But I love the small, the miniature, the detailed, the complex: the tiny, boundaried world that has its sources in handiwork. Handiwork, crisply bordered or patched with cut geometrical shapes and defined by stitching, was what I watched my maternal grandmother do – in the quilts for our beds, the quilt for my doll, the embroidered and crocheted runners on the buffet, the corners of the tablecloths, and the handkerchiefs that primly blinked from her pocketbook. I’d had plenty of the unboundaried world as a child. In the tumult of the working-class household where I grew up and the crowded post-war elementary school I attended, where the floor space was so limited that each child’s mat overlapped another, I longed for distinct outlines to things.
At an age when other women had left New York City to marry or remarry and move to affordable places to have their families, I had stayed. I was divorced and lived in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side, a tiny spot in a neighborhood so wealthy my blue-collar Buffalo family or their farmer cousins west of the Finger Lakes would never have imagined it. My family were my earliest role models, but since my first attachment to a teacher as a child, I have never stopped my search for others. Past adolescence, the usual time for bright examples, as Mrs. Delany’s brother-in-law would say, my quest went quietly on, well into middle age – and beyond. It hasn’t been a focused canvassing but almost its opposite, something full of happenstance. Years ago, I lit upon teachers and slightly older girlfriends, then professors, older colleagues, and therapists, and I was always scanning likely characters in stories and novels. At times the role models proliferated; at others the world emptied of them. Yet my blurry radar scanned on, as if I were always looking for something at the back drawers of experience.
At the age I am now, these guides no longer come from the ranks of the living – yet I find a good dead role model to be ideal. Life has its rushing formlessness, but an existence from centuries ago has a shape. Mrs. Delany’s life is so shapely that it feels like a complete work of art, cut and pasted – a still life rich with the captured curves of petals, bristling with the leaf, and still, in a sense, breathing. Her post-life suggestions are succinct and piquant. They almost have a scent, like the imagined perfume that might arise from her blooms.
The Morgan Library exhibit was accompanied by Ruth Hayden’s book, and I was determined to have it. But even as I tromped to the quiet gift shop staffed by silk-bloused, wool-skirted volunteers who may have appreciated the handiwork detail of the mosaicks more than the ebullience, I knew that an imported hardcover would be expensive and that I had to make my rent. My salary as a middle-school English teacher at Friends Seminary School was so low that I couldn’t eat, take the subway, and pay for the Upper East Side studio, so I sublet my apartment illegally for the last weekend of each month, moved out to Queens to stay with my boyfriend at the time, and returned to pay my rent on the first of the next month with the sublet money. I paged through the British Museum publication, with its horrific conversion price from pounds to dollars, and gave up the chance to buy it. Credit card debt would not have stopped Mrs. Delany, who never had enough money but who spent all her life as befit an aristocrat. In retrospect, I know it wasn’t my credit card that stopped me. It was where I was in life. Like reading a novel you know is too old for you but being fascinated anyway, I read the opening of Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers – and put it down.