The Butterfly Cabinet
Bernie McGill
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Buy *The Butterfly Cabinet* by Bernie McGill online

The Butterfly Cabinet
Bernie McGill
Free Press
240 pages
July 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Inspired by true events in the waning years of the 19th century, Victorian propriety is put to the test as accusations of child abuse lead to prosecution for murder. Her husband’s vast wealth and family connections can do little to prevent Harriet Ormond from being imprisoned for the death of her delicate four-year-old girl, Charlotte, found in the bedroom wardrobe, hanging from a stocking attached to a ring in the wall.

Filled with authentic period detail, the story moves between 1968 and 1892, when elderly Maddie McGlade sends a message of love to her granddaughter Anna as she looks back over her life and the years when she worked as a servant at Oranmore Manor. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, the great stone fortress is not only the ancestral home of Edward Ormond but also a powerful symbol for the age-old world of feudal Ireland.

Maddie’s indenture at the house is shadowed first by her furtive pregnancy and then by her mistress’s great treasure: a butterfly cabinet which over the years has become a keeper of secrets. As we realize that Anna will be the true heir to Maddie’s story, and the rightful keeper of the cabinet, we learn of Harriet Ormond and the terrible circumstances that led up to poor Charlotte’s death.

Disgraced by the wider world and “sheathed in misery,” Harriet ruminates on her the roll call of children - her seven boys and a ninth child still inside her as she sits in an eight-by-five cell in GrangeGorman prison, surrounded by the flagged ground, walls, inmates, and warders. That Harriet's words - preserved and recorded among thieves and rogues, madwomen and prostitutes - are sure to be locked in a room like the one into which she put Charlotte seems an apt punishment.

Harriet’s bitterness and Maddie’s maternal love are palpable. McGill maneuvers between their two voices, weaving seemingly unrelated details and clues into wild accusations of child abuse. Maddie is the observer at Oranmore and this play world of Charlotte’s that riles her mistress up as her daughter wets and dirties herself. An unfulfilled Harriet finds herself pulled into the direction of motherhood she neither wanted or desired. It’s not surprising, then, that she harbors such deep-seated frustration against her own children.

From Harriet’s charge under the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to the disgruntled former servants who pack the courthouse in Dublin to loyal Edward who says there is no reason to fear, "that everyone will see what a tragic accident it had been," McGill expertly balances the political and social realities of a changing Ireland with Harriet’s diffidence as she transforms into fierce disciplinarian. Meanwhile, her infatuation with her beloved butterflies, so distinguished and graceful, represent Harriet’s aching heart and her yearning freedom.

Upstairs-downstairs, Harriet and Maddie are bound by the strictures of class. Maddie, always the servant, is kind-hearted, while guilty Harriet is the true victim. Both play out their hapless dramas, but Harriet, the reluctant mother, suffers the most: “I have not succeeded in teaching my children how to safeguard themselves from love.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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