1. In chapter 1 of The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock describes the first time she came across Mrs. Delany’s extraordinary flower mosaics many years ago in the Morgan Library in New York. At the time, Peacock writes “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.”
Have you ever felt this way about art, literature, music, or decor? Or do your head and your heart (or soul, perhaps) seem to be in agreement about these things? Has that situation changed as you have gotten older?
2. Later in the book, Peacock relates how the mosaics and Mrs. Delany’s own story re-entered her life, this time taking an unshakeable hold of her imagination.
Have you ever rediscovered something that suddenly seems meant for you, at that particular point in your life? How do such new beginnings make you feel? Do you know anyone who has had a burst of late-life rejuvenation and creativity? Do you think you might be starting your life’s work at 62, 72, 82?
3. The structure of The Paper Garden is somewhat unusual, interweaving elements of biography, autobiography, and art and social history. In what ways does each thread enrich the others? Can you think of other books you have enjoyed that blend different genres?
4. Friendship played an enormous role is Mary Delany’s life, and there are many examples of different kinds of friendship explored in The Paper Garden: friendships with men and women; with people quite a bit older than Mary or, in her later life, younger; with people from various levels of the very stratified society in which she lived. Did any of these friendships surprise you in any way? If so, why? Which do you think were the most important to Mary’s happiness? Which to her physical well being? Why?
5. How does the theme of friendship play out in the more autobiographical sections of Molly Peacock’s work? In your own life? Has its role changed over the course of your life? In contrast, is the value or the fundamental role of friendship somehow different in the early 21st century from what it was in the 18th? Mrs. Delany has both a romantic friend in Ann Donnellan and a lifelong friend in the Duchess. What is your understanding of these relationships? Have you had a younger or a richer friend? How have you negotiated the differences in age or wealth?
6. Mrs. Delany had no children, although she took her godchild and her nieces into her household and even mothered a great-niece at 79. If Mary Delany had had children, how do you think it would have affected her Flora Delanica?
7. Mary Delany had two very different marriages, two very different husbands. Did the way in which she came to marry either Alexander Pendarves or Patrick Delany surprise you? The dramatic difference between her first and second marriages might highlight those differences between your own marriages or those you’ve witnessed. The Delanys are an example of a richly successful mid-life marriage. Often a second marriage becomes fertile soil for creativity—it certainly has in the author’s own life. What is your experience with how a second marriage affects personal development, or even a “life’s work?”
8. How do the threads of friendship and love entwine or contrast each other in Mary Delany’s life? How about in your own?
9. Mrs. Delany’s extraordinary flower mosaics required an extraordinary attention to the tiniest detail, a steady hand, and an ability to imagine the natural world of flowers in a two-dimensional form that nevertheless leaps off the page. How on earth did she do it? For a demonstration, watch Molly Peacock try her own hand at some mosaics at home, at www.peacockpapergarden.com.
10. Many of the reviews of The Paper Garden noted what a beautiful object it is, in all of its parts—the cover, the interior design of text and images. As one New Zealand online reviewer wrote: “I not only loved reading this book, I loved holding it and admiring it and turning the pages and smelling the ink. It’s that kind of book.”
Is this aspect of a book, or of some books, important to you? Or would you (did you?) find the experience of reading The Paper Garden on an electronic device perfectly satisfying?
11. In some ways Mrs. Delany’s story is one of obstacles and flexibility: how to overcome (or sneak around) obstacles and how to maintain flexibility. How do you see Mrs. Delany’s approach to her life in the 18th century as compared to attitudes toward how a woman can live her life in the 21st century?
12. Do you keep valuable e-mails? What role do private e-letters play in your life? Would you, like Anne, have disobeyed a command to burn correspondence, or delete precious, but intimate, e-mails?
13. The author brings Mrs. Delany, bitten on the foot by a “gnat,” to a point of stillness in her life. At this moment of being still—highly difficult for a busy person—Mrs. Delany’s creative leap takes place. Is it even possible to replicate this stillness in a 21st century life? How does stillness relate to imagination?
14. As a life-long noticer, Mary Delany was able to bring her skills of observation to everything around her, from clothes to food to flowers to people’s behaviour. Do you value the noticing skill? How does it function in your own life?
15. Molly Peacock writes that “Some things take living long enough to do.” Do you subscribe to this maxim?