In her debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, Bernie McGill applies her remarkable imagination to a grim event in Northern Ireland’s history. In 1892 an aristocratic woman punished her four-year-old daughter by tying her with a stocking to a ring high up on a wall. The child strangled to death.
McGill employs an ingenious counterpoint technique to give her convincing fictional version of the tragedy. Harriet Ormond is serving time in prison for the murder of her sixth child and only daughter, Charlotte. Through excerpts from Harriet’s prison diary alternating with the revelations of an old woman named Maddie who has served in the Ormond household for some 75 years, McGill’s compelling narrative unfolds. The fact that Lady Harriet Ormond is relating anecdotes and sharing her reactions to them in the here and now of 1892, while Maddie is covering the same ground as a 90-year-old woman in 1968, results in a densely textured plot. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book’s major achievement.
Harriet and her husband, Lord Ormond, produce nine children in 12 years of marriage. She is an anxious, frustrated mistress of an imposing estate, “perched on a cliff edge overlooking the Atlantic.” She yearns for the freedom to pursue her hobby as a lepidopterist, a collector of butterflies. Raising children does not come easily to Harriet.
Charlotte was not the only one to suffer at the hands of her mother. Maddie, as housemaid and sometime nanny, witnesses shocking abuse – a riding crop striking little Freddie in the head, Gabriel’s blond head clunking speedily up the main staircase as an enraged Harriet drags him by the heels. With the housekeeper’s complicity, Maddie reports the maltreatment to the national Cruelty Society, but it fails to indict Harriet.
McGill depicts Charlotte as an exceptionally loveable and precocious child, making her loss seem all the more pitiful. After singing Charlotte’s praises in her diary, Harriet writes about her:
“But there was one thing she could not or would not grasp, that flouted me at every turn. She would not use the chamber pot.”
To put it simply, Charlotte was murdered for her failure to toilet train.
By the end of the novel we understand that Maddie was not a blameless character. Her own reprehensible conduct on the day of Charlotte’s death carries a heavy burden of shame.
While TheButterfly Cabinet is an intense exploration of maternal failure and a haunting illumination of cruelty and guilt, it also plays out against an authentic backdrop of defining moments in Irish history.