Flower Diary, In which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries, and Opens a Door by Molly Peacock ff. The beauty of Flower Diary is not confined to its poetic prose; the tactile and visual elegance of the book itself is a complementary pleasure. The exquisite paintings reproduced in each chapter, the use of shaded pages to mark interludes, the very quality of the paper make this an objet d’art you will not be tempted to earmark. Contrary to my usual careless habits, I used an old pressed-flower bookmark as I read.
Like Molly’s earlier book, The Paper Garden, this work is a blend of biography and memoir. As a paleontologist reconstructs a prehistoric animal from the fossil of one paw, Molly takes the limited clues to the life of Mary Hiester Reid (1854-1921) and brings her to life. Having discovered a postcard Mary once sent, Molly conjures the scene. Instead of a lifeless postcard, we see what must have been – a thoughtful MHR in her confining gown, long sleeved and high collared. licking the stamp.
Not simply the account of a gifted painter, Flower Diary discloses a female artist crafting a way for creative life and marriage to coexist. As Molly puts it, “in a world of misogyny as dense as and threatening as any fairy tale forest, they painted together, side by side.” This harmony between artistic work and marriage is the door MHR gently unsealed, an opening which benefited future generations of creative women, including Molly herself.
As Molly considered marrying her high school beau, who came back into her life after more than 20 years, she found her own key. She could sink deep into “that place of metaphor” where her full consciousness was far from the surface world, and he would respect her need for concentration. With him, she could compose a sonnet without worrying about getting the bends from being called back too quickly from the murky deep.
That place of metaphor is not easily accessible to most of us, but Molly’s writing pulls us into it. Even if we don’t generate our own metaphors, we can read our way to a place of almost mystical flow. Precious Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock art that means ‘floating world”) floated to France as wrapping paper for artifacts, eventually inspiring artists including MHR and Bonnard and Villard. The stream affected Molly in her love of the haiku. Connections unrelated to chronology abound in the floating flowing space-time continuum of this work.
Many of MHR’s paintings are of gorgeous flowers in vases. Molly’s descriptions are lessons in seeing. “Delicate pinks underpin the white roses like lingerie beneath pale gowns.” Molly prepared the reader for this simile by exploring MHR’s training, painting the human body. Reminded of the stringent dress code for women of the era, we see that sometimes a rose is not just a rose.
Reading always strikes me as a privilege and never more than in reading Flower Diary. Molly’s writing is generous. She lets us see as much of her mind as can be safely revealed. She interacts with her subjects with an open heart. The book is uplifting and heartbreaking. Like her subject, she has opened a door.