by Bernie McGill
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.
I loved this novel! Gorgeous writing, wonderful characters, engrossing tale. I always like a novel written in the dual times with different voices weaving a story together and Ms. McGill is a master storyteller.
Maddie McGlade 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.
This is based on a true story. In the back of my book there is a reader’s guide for bookclub discussion and there are questions put to Ms. McGill. One is ‘What parts of the historical record did you adopt directly?’ She answered that it is hard to say what percentage is fictional and what is more closely tied to fact. The events surrounding the child’s death follow testimonies as related by witnesses at the trial and newspaper reports. Harriet’s backstory is complete invention, and Maddie is an entirely fictional character. The ‘real’ woman in this story is Annie Margaret Montagu. She was an avid horsewoman and horses were her passion. In this tale ‘Harriet’ collects butterflies and that is her passion. There is lots of interesting tidbits about collecting butterflies and Harriet compares people to different butterflies.
I found several things about the true crime online. I would suggest not looking up the true crime or persons online until after you read the book. I looked them up when I first began the book and it colored my view of it I think. I love historical fiction, but it sometimes clouds my thinking about the real vs fiction characters. They seem to vie for space in my brain!
There is a new McGill novel out now, The Watch House, and I’m dying to get my hands on it! Have you read any of her books and what did you think?