The Wasp and The Orchid: The Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman…
About the Book:
‘Have you met Mrs Edith Coleman? If not you must – I am sure you will like her – she’s just A1 and a splendid naturalist.’
In 1922, a 48-year-old housewife from Blackburn delivered her first paper, on native Australian orchids, to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria. Over the next thirty years, Edith Coleman would write over 300 articles on Australian nature for newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. She would solve the mystery of orchid pollination that had bewildered even Darwin, earn the acclaim of international scientists and, in 1949, become the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion. She was ‘Australia’s greatest orchid expert’, ‘foremost of our women naturalists’, a woman who ‘needed no introduction’.
And yet, today, Edith Coleman has faded into obscurity. How did this remarkable woman, with no training or connections, achieve so much so late in life? And why, over the intervening years, have her achievements and her writing been forgotten?
Zoologist and award-winning writer Danielle Clode sets out to uncover Edith’s story, from her childhood in England to her unlikely success, sharing along the way Edith’s lyrical and incisive writing and her uncompromising passion for Australian nature and landscape.
What a wonderful book this is to include in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for this year – a book about a forgotten Australian woman writer! From an early encounter in her career with the work of Edith Coleman, scientist and writer Danielle Clode, hung on to a fascination with naturalist Edith Coleman. Who was she, and why had her work faded into obscurity? Almost twenty years later, Danielle has pieced together what little is known about Edith’s personal life, scoured the archives for her work, tracked down family members, visited past residences, and produced a remarkable book about a woman who solved a mystery of naturalism that confounded even Charles Darwin.
Part biographical, part speculation, and part social history, The Wasp and The Orchid is also the story of how Danielle pieced together the puzzle that was Edith Coleman’s life. The biographer has a strong presence within this account, and in many instances, she writes of herself within the context of Edith’s story and experiences. It’s a technique that allows the reader to feel as though they are on this journey with the biographer, a team uncovering facts and filling in gaps. Early on in the book, Danielle raises the question of Edith’s modern day obscurity:
“It is tempting to think that Edith has been forgotten because she was a woman, but it’s more complicated than that. She’s been forgotten because she was a scientist, and because she was an amateur. She’s been forgotten because she wrote for newspapers, magazines and academic journals, rather than books. She’s been forgotten because she was Australian, because she wasn’t Australian enough, and most of all because she was a nature writer.”
Much later, she offers this theory:
“Women’s voices are being lost when we anthologise, analyse and criticise the literature. In this case, it’s not a question of what’s written, but who we have chosen to hear.”
That makes a lot of sense to me and is something the Australian Women Writers Challenge seeks to redress.
The highlight of this book for me was the inclusion of Edith’s own writing. For a scientist, she was incredibly artful and her prose could almost be described as flowery (yes, I did just describe the writings of a naturalist as flowery!):
“It is a wonderful land – a land of striking contrasts. To those of us who have fallen under its spell it will stretch out invisible hands to draw us back to its blossoming wilderness – to follow again elusive trails across silvery plains; over white, dry beds of winding watercourses, over rock-strewn hills, painted in unbelievable colours, which only a few artists have dared to put on canvas – colours which must be seen to be believed, best of all, to enjoy again the colour and perfume of its vegetation, and to marvel again at its wonderful fertility.” – Magic rain carpets the ‘inland’: Many and brave are the flowers of inland – blooms of a ‘desert’ that is no desert. Edith Coleman, 1938.
I found Edith’s words utterly sublime. They evoked such a strong imagery and conveyed her love of the natural world so completely. You have the impression from her writing that she was a lovely woman, a gentle and appreciative soul with an inquisitive mind that was sharp as a tack. I can understand Danielle’s fascination with her.
Each new chapter of the book begins with a fictional narration based on some fact uncovered. I will admit that I enjoyed these passages above all in the book, with the exception of Edith’s own writing. I couldn’t help but ponder on how a fictional account based on fact might have been better than a biography. So little was known about Edith and Danielle speculates heavily on quite a lot of Edith’s life. It could be just my preference for fiction coming through, but these chapter starters were highly engaging and I think Danielle has a talent for story telling as much as for writing non-fiction. I kept imagining Edith’s story being brought to life in the tradition of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley.
Anyone with an interest in Australian women writers from the past will enjoy this book, as will nature enthusiasts. I will admit to being captivated by Edith’s discovery linking wasps with orchids. The book itself is a be-ribboned hardback beauty with extensive images throughout in both colour and black and white. It resembles a keepsake and would make a lovely gift to those who love gardens and reading.
Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy of The Wasp and The Orchid for review.
About the Author:
Danielle Clode is a zoologist and award-winning author. She has worked as a zookeeper and scientific interpreter, in exhibition design and academia, and spent many years as a technical editor and writing teacher. She has written seven books, including Voyages to the South Seas, which won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Hardback – ISBN: 9781760554286; Pages: 432; Price: $39.99
eBook – ISBN: 9781760559823; Price: $17.99 Pub Date: 27/03/2018
Category: Biography & True Stories / Biography: science, technology & medicine Biography & True Stories / Biography: general
Imprint: Picador Australia