Victorians and their Collections: Background information when reading The Butterfly Cabinet

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The Butterfly Cabinet

A Novel

by Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill X
The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2011, 240 pages
    May 2012, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder
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About this Book

Victorians and their Collections

This article relates to The Butterfly Cabinet

Print Review

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.) Birds, fossils, seashells, and rocks all had their enthusiasts. Collecting ferns was such a huge fad it had its own term, pteridomania.

butterfly collection

Part of the interest was acquisitive in nature (imperialist too, as it encompassed the collection of art, antiquities, and native artifacts), and part was aesthetic. Early twentieth century art critic John Ruskin taught that human work should aspire to the beauty of nature - that to imitate natural forms in art was to glorify God. In this context, a mounted beetle on the mantle shelf became more than a specimen. It was a visual inspiration - a sculpture in its own right. The scientific curiosity that made naturalists reach for their butterfly nets was not unconnected to Ruskin's spiritual views on beauty, even as the world was being catalogued and archived in a new Darwinian spirit.

Mary AnningAmateur collecting also opened doors for women scientists who were offered few opportunities otherwise. Collectors like Mary Anning (fossils), Margaret Gatty (seaweed), and Mary Ward (insects) earned respect in their fields, and have in turn captured the imagination of novelists, Victorian and contemporary alike.

Writer George Eliot describes a collecting trip with her partner, George Lewes, in her journal: "It was a cold unfriendly day - the 8th of May [1856] on which we set out for Ilfracombe, with our hamper of tall glass jars, which we meant for our sea-side Vivarium." Eliot wastes no time in turning her scientific observations into literary ones, "In hilly districts, where houses and clusters of houses look so tiny against the huge limbs of Mother earth one cannot help thinking of man as a parasitic animal - an epizoon making his abode on the skin of the planetary organism."

And years later, A.S. Byatt's eerie novella Morpho Eugenia lays out the imaginative territory that Bernie McGill goes on to explore in The Butterfly Cabinet - a world in which women can be collected like beautiful butterflies, or where they can go out into the field and cast their own nets.

For further reading: check out A.S. Byatt's review of Jacqueline Yallop's book Magpies, Squirrels, and Thieves: How Victorians Collected the World or Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No.1, a book about London's Natural History Museum.

Painting above of Mary Anning

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Butterfly Cabinet. It originally ran in September 2011 and has been updated for the May 2012 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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