Vivid, mysterious and unforgettable, The Butterfly Cabinet is Bernie McGill's engrossing portrayal of the dark history that intertwines two lives. Inspired by a true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family at the end of the nineteenth century, McGill powerfully tells this tale of two women whose lives will become upended by a newly told secret.
The events begin when Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges and realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for over seventy years: what really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young woman. It is to Charlotte's would-be niece, Anna - pregnant with her first - that Maddie will tell her story as she nears the end of her life in a lonely nursing home in Northern Ireland.
The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie's story and the prison diaries of Charlotte's mother, Harriet, who had been held responsible for her daughter's death. As Maddie confesses the truth to Anna, she unravels the Ormonds' complex family history, and also details her own life, marked by poverty, fear, sacrifice and lies. In stark contrast to Maddie is the misunderstood, haughty and yet surprisingly lyrical voice of Harriet's prison diaries, which Maddie has kept hidden for decades. Motherhood came no more easily to Harriet than did her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. Proud and uncompromising, she is passionate about riding horses and collecting butterflies to store in her prized cabinet. When her only daughter, Charlotte, dies, allegedly as the result of Harriet's punitive actions, the community is quick to condemn her and send her to prison for the killing. Unwilling to stoop to defend herself and too absorbed in her own world of strict rules and repressed desires, she accepts the cruel destiny that is beyond her control even as, paradoxically, it sets her free.
The result of this unusual duet is a haunting novel full of frightening silences and sorrowful absences that build toward the unexpected, chilling truth.
RESIDENT, ORANMORE NURSING HOME PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND
8 SEPTEMBER 1968
Anna. You're the spit of your mother standing there - Florence, God rest her - and you have the light of her sharp wit in your eyes. Give me your hand till I see you better. There's not much change on you, apart from what we both know. Ah, you needn't look at me like that. Sure, why else would you be here? I know by the face of you there's a baby on the way, even if you're not showing. It's an odd thing, isn't it, the way the past has no interest for the young till it comes galloping up on the back of the future. And then they can't get enough of it, peering after it, asking it where it's been. I suppose that's always been the way. I suppose we're none of us interested in the stories of our people till we have children of our own to tell them to.
You couldn't have known it, but you've come on my birthday, of all days. At least, it's the day I call my birthday. When I was born, Daddy went ...
I know there are many readers like me out there who will gobble up any story about a stately Victorian household with plenty of upstairs/downstairs class tension. I've tasted books like The Butterfly Cabinet before, and I still find them as alluring as toast and tea - good enough to be a regular part of the diet.... There are intriguing characters on both sides of the divide in Bernie McGill's Oranmore house, and the story provides readers the Victoriana they crave; there is social conservatism and florid wallpaper, there are shocking, outmoded ideas about child rearing. There are corsets.
(Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).
Full Review (1124 words).
The Butterfly Cabinet opens with an aged nanny showing her grown-up charge an heirloom curiosity.
"It's your grandmother's butterfly cabinet: I've had it these years. The keeper of secrets, the mistress's treasure. Ebony, I think it is, very solid: four big balled feet on it... Twelve tiny drawers, every one with its own small wooden knob. None of us was allowed to go near it; it was the one thing in the house that the mistress saw to herself. I'll never solve the problem of her: what's the point of keeping a dead thing?"
The Victorians were rabid in their zeal for collecting things from the natural world, living or dead. (Indeed, the natural history museums of the world owe many of their specimens to Victorian collectors...
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