Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Lady of the Butterflies.
ďMemories have turned to dust in the glare I have discovered.Ē As in any quality historical fiction, the author mixes fact with authentic detail in recounting the turbulent and passionate life of Eleanor Glanville, a 17th-century entomologist raised by a strict Puritan father. The story is set between 1662 and 1695, when forty-two-year-old Eleanor looks back over the years from, her childhood infatuation with butterflies on the Somerset moors to the man who wound his fingers around her heart, shadowing her fist marriage to Edmund Ashfield and dooming the troubled years of her marriage to Richard Glanville after her first husbandís death.
The political climate of the era is turbulent with the endless struggle between Catholics and Reformists for dominance. Eleanorís penchant for collecting butterfly species is remarked as odd by the superstitious folk at Tickenham Court, Eleanorís fatherís estate, which passes to her upon his death. The fens where the butterflies breed are under siege for all these years by businessmen who would drain the soil and take away the livelihood of those who have subsisted on this boggy land for generations: ďHow could a passion for small, bright-winged things have led to this?Ē
A motherless girl, Eleanor strives to please her father, learning her religious lessons well, succumbing to the romantic notions of love and marriage to Edmund but harboring a secret passion for Edmundís best friend: Richard, the cavalier with a beautiful face, dark ringlets and a smile to melt her heart. A young woman whose fortune is coveted by suitors, Eleanor enters marriage to Edmund knowing full well her heart belongs to Richard. This union can only breed discontent.
While Eleanor resists Richard - a very sympathetic character - for five years before becoming his wife after Edmundís death, it is as ingrained in Eleanorís personality to question her bliss as is Richardís natural ebullience. The marriage between Eleanor and Richard is passionate, chaotic and finally undone by Eleanorís lack of trust in the man she loves dearly. A series of painful contretemps leave them gasping at the damage of a few words spoken in anger and jealousy.
Mountain skillfully balances the religious, political and personal dramas of Restoration England, the country still torn by religious fanaticism and fear. The fens at Tickenham Court are a microcosm of the larger world, where superstition dominates and ignorance allows Eleanor to be reviled as insane, no matter how important her contributions to the scientific community.
Passion turns to betrayal and the pain of separation, but Eleanorís son by Richard, Dickon, refuses to cosign the condemnation of his mother. Like Cathy and Heathcliff on the moors - albeit not riddled by problems of class - the lovers play out their ill-fated drama in a marriage doomed by the very excesses that define it. In her curiosity to understand butterflies, the ďsouls of the dead,Ē Eleanor tampers with a male-dominated hierarchy. The result is simple: she must be mad.