Book review: The Naturalist of Amsterdam, Melissa Ashley

Ashley's latest book is an historical fiction set at the turn of the 18th century and featuring unsung women who documented the natural world.
The Naturalist of Amsterdam. Image is a side on above the bust author's shot of a woman in a green shirt with light red shoulder length hair. smiling, and on the right an orange book cover featuring a sparse tree, two butterflies and a caterpillar.

Bringing to life stories of women who have been overlooked by history seems to be a winning formula for Melissa Ashley. In the multi award-winning The Birdman’s Wife, she gave a voice to Elizabeth Gould – the wife of the renowned English ornithologist. And her second novel The Bee and the Orange Tree revealed the untold story of French fairy tale author Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy. 

In The Naturalist of Amsterdam, Ashley once again shines a light on the sacrifices and achievements of a quiet heroine who neither asks for nor receives the recognition she deserves for the important role she played in the success of her more famous counterpart. 

The extraordinary life of entomologist and artist, Maria Sibylla Merian, is no mystery to lovers of the insect world. One of the first Europeans to observe the life cycles of various insects, Merian dispelled the idea that they were spontaneously born from mud by documenting the process of metamorphosis. 

Considered to be a pioneer and early feminist, Merian fiercely pursued her passion, painting vibrant and detailed illustrations and self-publishing a number of books – with the assistance of her equally talented daughters: Johanna and Dorothea. 

It’s Dorothea Graff – known as “Dort” – whose perspectives and life we follow in The Naturalist of Amsterdam. Beginning in a Labadist settlement, eight-year-old Dort is resentful of her ambitious and selfish mother who has moved them away from her beloved father (also an artist) to join the strict religious sect, where children are raised communally and punished harshly. 

It’s only many decades later that Dort comes to understand why her mother really left and can recognise her bravery and strength in forging an independent life as a single female artist and business owner, at a time when this was certainly not the norm. 

It’s the naivety of Dort’s youth that drives the narrative of this book, as she lives a majority of her life in loyal service to her mother. From Amsterdam to Suriname and back again, Dort’s life is very much controlled, and she worries her mother’s drive and expectations will prevent her from having a family and life of her own. 

But it’s Dort who must accompany Merian on a trip of a lifetime – a self-funded scientific expedition to the jungles of Suriname, to study its many exotic and rare plants and creatures. In Suriname, they plan to reside on the Labadist plantation of La Providence, but immediately discover it is rundown and almost uninhabitable, having been abandoned.

Determined and undeterred, they stay for two years. While their domestic and social lives are isolated, challenging and stark, the natural wonders of the surrounding tropical jungle are, in contrast, thrilling and fruitful. But Merian falls ill, and they are forced to urgently return home. 

It’s on the boat trip where Dort falls in love. Back in Amsterdam, Dort continues to work alongside her mother every day. It appears she may never find the courage to step out of her mother’s shadow. Then, Merian suffers a stroke and is no longer able to work, finally giving Dort the opportunity to take control… 

Presenting a unique part of the world that’s not often featured in books or movies, The Naturalist of Amsterdam is a charming story about a woman who longs for a life that is truly her own, but doesn’t know how to break free of the traditions, conventions and expectations of her society and family.

Read: Book review: The Conversion, Amanda Lohrey

Full of rich and captivating prose, The Naturalist of Amsterdam is an enchanting read and the beautifully designed end papers, inspired by Merian’s original illustrations, are a delightful bonus in this hardcover book. 

The Naturalist of Amsterdam by Melissa Ashley
Publisher: Affirm Press
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 400pp
Publication: 10 October 2023
RRP: $39.99

Mia Ferreira is a professional writer and freelance Marketing, PR and Social Media consultant based in Melbourne, with an interest in wellbeing, sustainability and travel. She is completing the prestigious Professional Editing & Writing course at RMIT and balances all the thinking and typing by practicing and teaching Iyengar yoga.