The Butterfly Cabinet

The Butterfly Cabinet

3.7 32
by Bernie McGill

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A haunting, unforgettable story--based on real events in late 19th-century Ireland--of two women linked by a tragic, 70-year secret.


A haunting, unforgettable story--based on real events in late 19th-century Ireland--of two women linked by a tragic, 70-year secret.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Based loosely on a late-19th-century Irish murder case, McGill turns her gothic debut about the death of a young girl tied up alone in a room as punishment into an exquisite series of painful revelations. In the late 1960s, the pregnant Anna visits her old nurse, Maddie, who four decades before was a housemaid at the Castle at Oranmore. As Maddie reminisces, the viewpoint shifts between Maddie and her harsh employer, butterfly-collector Harriet Ormond, imprisoned in 1892 for the murder (accidental death, she claimed) of her four-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and later pregnant again with a daughter who would become Anna's mother. With the butterflies, pinned and displayed, serving as metaphor for the constricted lives of both Harriet's tightly disciplined children and Harriet herself, trapped in motherhood and frustrated by the unruly young Charlotte, McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out. (July)
Marie Claire
An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland . . . a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood . . . Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of the two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.
Good Housekeeping (UK)
A dramatic and haunting novel that tells the tale of two women whose lives are linked by an appalling tragedy. Inspired in part by the true story of events surrounding the death of the daughter of an aristocratic family in Ireland in the late 19th century, this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.
Financial Times
Intricately layered . . . McGill's assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one life-time, would face unimaginable change.
From the Publisher
"[C]ompelling … a densely textured plot. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement… While The Butterfly 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.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Kirkus Reviews

Like an IrishUpstairs Downstairsbut much darker, McGill's first novel examines the events surrounding a child's death in 1892 from the point of view of both her aristocratic mother and a young housemaid.

The premise of the novel, based on an actual case, is straightforward: Harriet Ormond, the mistress of Oranmore, locks her 4-year-old daughter Charlotte in a wardrobe room with her hands tied as punishment for soiling herself; when Harriet unlocks the door three hours later, Charlotte has asphyxiated; Harriet is charged with killing her child. Seventy years later, Ornamore has become a nursing home where Harriet's granddaughter Annie visits Maddie McGlade, a former Ormond servant. Maddie gives Annie the diary Harriet kept during her year in prison and tells her own secret memories. Shifting between Maddie's version of events and Harriet's, the novel gives a broad picture of the politics and socio-economic realities of late 19th-century Northern Ireland (the Ormonds are Catholic landowners in favor of Home Rule) while offering an intricate, in-depth character study of Harriet's tortured soul. Talk about Tiger moms—as the diary begins, it is hard to feel sympathy for such a harsh, seemingly unfeeling woman, and certainly that is how Maddie judges her mistress. But the diary gradually reveals Harriet's complexity. Having felt unloved as a child, she is devoted to her own children and her thoughtful, well-meaning husband Edward. But she lacks imagination and flexibility. A frazzled young mother of nine running a huge estate on a shoestring, she feels duty-bound to be strict. Jealous of her charming, well-educated younger sister Julia, who has come to live at Oranmore after their parents' deaths, Harriet knows and secretly relies on the fact that Julia regularly circumvents her punishments. When she locks Charlotte in the wardrobe, she assumes Julia will unlock the door to care for her. But as Maddie's story unfolds it becomes obvious that Harriet has less control over life than she thinks.

An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.

The Guardian

My novel [of the year] would probably be The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill, which is based, I think, on a true story, about the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most. McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.
— Julian Fellowes, actor, novelist, and creator of Downton Abbey
The Guardian - Julian Fellowes
My novel [of the year] would probably be The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill, which is based, I think, on a true story, about the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most. McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

Maddie McGlade

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.

You couldn’t have known it, but you’ve come on my birthday, of all days. At least, it’s the day I call my birthday. When I was born, Daddy went to register the birth but not having had much schooling he wasn’t sure of the date. If it’s not the exact day, it’s not far off it. One thing’s certain: within the week I’ll be ninety-two. If you stay for your tea you’ll get a bit of cake.

Sit down, Anna. Can you smell that? Gravel, after the rain. You must have carried it in on your feet. Metallic tasting, like the shock you get when your tongue hits the tine on a tarnished fork. I’ll never forget that smell, that taste in my mouth: it’s as strong as the day, nearly eighty years ago, that I was made to lie down on the avenue with my nose buried in it. Your grandmother was a hard woman, Anna, brittle as yellowman and fond of her “apt punishments.” This was to teach me to keep my nose out of the affairs of my betters, she said, and in the dirt where it belonged. Oh, don’t look so shocked; I survived that and many another thing. And, hard as she was, I think I understand her better now. I know something now about what it is to feel trapped and though it’s a strange thing to say, with all the money they had, I think that must have been how she felt.

She suffered for what she did. I bear no grudges against the dead. There’s none of us blameless.

She was such a presence about the place, there’s days I half expect to meet her on the landing, standing up, straight as a willow, her thick auburn hair tucked up tight, her face like a mask, never a smile on it. She went about her business indoors like a wound-up toy, everything to be done on time and any exception put her into bad humor. If the gas wasn’t lit or the table wasn’t set or there was a spot on a napkin, you’d feel the beam of her eyes on you like a grip on your arm. She was like a dark sun and all the rest of us—the servants and the weans and the master—all turned round her like planets, trying not to annoy or upset her in any way, trying to keep the peace.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw her in evening dress. I wasn’t long started at the castle, and I came up the back stairs to dampen down the fire in the drawing room because Peig, the housekeeper, said the master and mistress were going out to a ball. When I came back out, she was standing at the top of the main staircase, the master at the foot, and she was in a black satin cape, all covered in black cock feathers, tipped at the ends with green. She looked like a raven about to take flight, half bird, half woman, like she’d sprouted wings from her shoulders. I couldn’t see where her arms ended and the cape began. It was stunning and scaresome all at the same time. I’ve never been so frightened of a person in my life! She stood at the top of the stairs, her arms spread out, waiting for the master’s opinion, and when she peered down and saw me she looked the way a hawk might look at a sparrow. I wouldn’t have been one bit surprised if she’d raised herself up on her toes and flapped those great feathery black wings and taken off over the banister, swooped down through the house and picked me up in her beak. I went into the kitchen shivering, and Peig looked at me and asked me what was wrong. I told her I thought the mistress might eat me, and she laughed till her eyes streamed and she had to wipe them with her apron. When she finally recovered she said there was that many animals had gone into the outfitting of her that I could be forgiven for wondering if there was any portion left of the mistress that was human!

Don’t look like that, Anna. You needn’t worry: you have nothing of hers that you need fear. Your mother put me over the story a dozen times or more, and she read all the newspaper cuttings that I’d kept and many’s the time she cried sore tears for her sister, Charlotte, that she never knew. She promised to take care of you better than any child was ever taken care of, and she did, for seven short years, for as long as she could. For as long as her lungs allowed her, before the TB took her. She fought hard to stay with you, Anna, she knew what it was to grow up motherless and she didn’t want that for you, but she was no match for it. She said to me, after she got sick, that she’d always felt there was prison air in her lungs, damp and cold, on account of where she’d been born. She was only a wean o’ days old when the master brought her back here to the castle; she couldn’t have remembered anything about Grangegorman Prison, but she had that notion in her head. “Prison air,” she said, trapped in her chest, and her body only then trying to cough it up. I’d have taken over from her, Anna, looked after you myself if I’d been able, and I did try for a while. But your father could see it was a struggle for me and that was when he hit on the idea of the Dominicans, and sent you away to school at Aquinas Hall. I think he was trying to do what your mother would have wanted for you.

You have her sweet nature, Anna. You’ve waited for a child nearly as long as Florence waited for you. You must be, thirty-two? Am I right? Not far off it. September babies, the pair of us. What does that make us? Virgo and Libra: that’d be right. I remember the night you were born, the Big Sunday, September the twenty-seventh, 1936. The place was full of day-trippers, pouring into the town from the crack of dawn, taking their last chance at the weather, putting a full stop at the end of the summer. The Parade crammed with stalls selling ice cream and minerals, and the spinning pierrots, and the bay full of dancing boats: green and yellow and blue. Your mother and father were living in the yellow house where you are now, at Victoria Terrace, only yards away from the harbor. The young fellas started as usual to push each other out onto the greasy pole, and every time one of them fell in, there was a splash in the water and a roar went up from the crowd, and poor Florence gave another groan out of her and another cry. Ten hours, she was in labor with you. Poor Mrs. Avery, the midwife, was exhausted. And your father, pacing up and down the hall outside, drinking one pot of tea after another, smoking a whole packet of Players, and then going down to switch on the wireless as if there’d be some news of you on there. The psalm music was coming up from below: the BBC Chorus and then “Hallelujah!” and one last cry, and there you were. Little Anna, with a rosy face and a smile that would melt an unlit candle. You were born into love the like of no other child I’ve known. You’ve heard that story before, Anna, but you never tire of it, do you? Everyone should have a person in their life to tell them stories of their birth.

Florence got shockin’ upset, a month or so before you were born. A baby was got in the river, up at the Cutts in Coleraine. A baby girl, it was, or part of one: she’d been in the river a long time. The coroner couldn’t tell if her lungs had ever drawn a breath, the paper said. Your mother walked about for days after it, cradling her belly, talking to you. She mourned for that baby like it was her own, took it severely to heart that someone could do such a thing to an innocent child. And I was thinking that somewhere up the country, near where the Bann runs fast, there was a girl, standing in a farmhouse kitchen maybe, or behind a counter in a shop, a girl who had been waiting for that news, a girl with the paper in her hands, reading, knowing that was her baby that was got in the fishing gates, a girl with the insides torn out of her.

It’s an odd thing I ended up back here after all these years. You know, it is a kind of home to me, for when you add up the time I was here as a servant and the time I’ve been here as a resident, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere.

The first time I came, Anna, the first time I set foot over the door of this house, I was fourteen years old. I’d never seen anything like the castle. Oh, I’d seen it from the outside, sure enough, you couldn’t miss it. Grew up in its shadow, you might say, the way it stands on the headland looking down over Bone Row and the Parade and the harbor and the Green Hill at the far end. On a day like this, you can look out over the sea to the hills of Donegal in the west, Scotland to the east and the Atlantic as far north as you can see. It was never what you would call a pretty building. There’s always been a touch of the fortress about it: gray, nothing heartsome. But inside, it was a palace. Rooms the size of churches, not all divided up like they are now, everything light and airy, full of fine-looking furniture but spacious, you would say, nothing too close to anything else. And smelling of lilies, the mistress loved lilies. I hated them, still do, those white petals like curled tongues when they open, the choking way they catch at the back of your throat, the rusty pollen that stains your hands for days. Give me a bunch of snowdrops any day, or bluebells, bluebells from Knockancor Wood. But your grandmother loved the lilies, would have filled the house with them if she could. She thought they cloaked the smell of the gas. Better than the smell of the place now, anyway: Jeyes Fluid and boiled spuds. Washable surfaces, that’s what’s important now, lino and emulsion; the smell of disinfectant everywhere. Why is it that people come to the sea to die? Is it the sound they’re after? The first sound? Mistaking the crash and suck of the ocean for the swill of warm blood in their ears? Is it a return?

Do you see that, Anna, that little mark above my wrist? I saw that same mark on my mother’s hand not long before she died. It would put you in mind of a swift in full flight: two dark wings, a divided tail. I know where that little bird is headed: swift by name and swift by nature, straight to the blood. I’ve been hiding it up my sleeve; I don’t want the doctor near me. Let the hare sit, that’s what I say. What’s the point of rising it now? My time’s near as well, but in a different way to yours, thank God. I’m glad you’ve come.

There’s Nurse Jenny, Anna. Do you see her, in her lovely white uniform? She can smell death on a person. She’s never said anything, but I’ve seen her face change, one day when she was helping oul’ Mrs. Wilson up out of the chair; another day when she was spooning Jimmy’s dinner into him. There’s a gray look comes over her round face; a furrow comes in her brow, and then she’s very gentle, gentler even than before. Oul’ Mrs. Wilson was dead within two days, Jimmy that very night. It’ll not be long now, I’m thinking, till she smells it on me.

There’s something I want to show you, up in my room, behind the door. Do you know what it is? 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. The darkest wood I’ve ever seen. There was never any warmth in it, not even when the light from the fire fell 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? No luck could ever come of it. Mammy used to say that a white butterfly was the soul of a child and that you daren’t harm it or the soul would never find rest.

The cabinet ended up in Peig’s house, and when I opened it all those years ago and looked inside there was nothing left but dust and mold and rusted pins where the butterflies would have been. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen and for the first time ever—I don’t know why—I felt sorry for the mistress and I cried for her. I cried for her loss of Charlotte and her loss of the boys and her loss of the master, and for the days she spent in prison and for the misery of her sad lonely life. And most of all I cried that she didn’t know what she had and what she’d lost. Every drawer was the same: dust and mold and the dried-up bodies of carpet beetles and spiders, a waste of small lives.

But when I went to close it up again, one of the drawers wouldn’t slide back in; I could tell there was something behind it. I slid the drawer out and reached in and felt a book and when I pulled it out, I thought it was a missal, bound in black leather with a metal trim. I opened it and saw the date in pencil on the first page and then I knew straightaway what it was: the diary the mistress had kept in prison. Her writing was very neat always, small and careful, but here and there, there’d be a stumble forward to the loop of an “l” or an “f,” like the pencil was trying to get away from her and start some jig of its own.

I read three lines, and I closed it up again and put it back. You might find that hard to believe, Anna, but it wasn’t meant for me. Maybe she put it there that first visit back to the house. Maybe she meant to come back. Maybe she intended to destroy it. Maybe it was for your mother. Who’s to say? But, I think, it was her chance to speak, and she must have wanted someone to listen and she wouldn’t have wanted it to be me.

After Peig died, the cabinet and the diary passed into my hands. I decided I’d give them both to Florence someday, when you’d grown up a bit, when she’d proved to herself that there was no curse, that she was deserving of the name of “mother.” But I waited too long. And now I’m giving them to you. You are the true heir to the story. You can decide for yourself whether to read it or not, but you’re its rightful keeper. Who better than you?

I’m tired, daughter. You’ll come back? I could tell you more, maybe, another day. There’s more to tell. But the story runs away from me, the like of a woolen sleeve caught on a barbed wire fence. It unravels before my eyes. I am trying with my words to gather it up but it’s a useless shape at times and doesn’t resemble at all the thing that it was. It’s hard to do, to tell one story, when there are so many stories to tell.

© 2010 Bernie McGill

What People are saying about this

Rachel Hore
A haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerizing power about the dangerous borders of maternal love. (Rachel Hore, author of The Glass Painter's Daughter)
Eugene McCabe
McGill's rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page. The substance of her tale explores class, religion, politics and everyday life in upper class Ulster towards the latter end of the 19th century and brings us well into the twentieth. It has the best non-salacious description of sex from a woman's point of view that I have ever come across and contains no end of sentences you want to remember. (Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales)

Meet the Author

Bernie McGill was born in Northern Ireland in 1967, the youngest of ten children. In 2008 her story “Sleepwalkers” won the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest. She has also written numerous works for print and radio. She lives with her family in Portstewart, Ireland, site of the real-life events which inspired her novel.

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The Butterfly Cabinet 3.7 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 32 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Disappointed in this book...great premise but the story moves so slowly and you know the ending by page 40. Character development was weak and just didn't care or were interested in the two alternating narrators.
FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
This eerie novel is based on true events that took place on the north coast of Ireland back in 1892, and the plot is what you would definitely call, "an acquired taste." The two main characters of this haunting piece of fiction is a former nanny by the name of Maddie McGlade, and her boss - a wealthy, evil, aristocratic woman named Harriet Ormond. As we begin our story Maddie is now in her nineties, and she finds herself back inside the Ormond castle. The same structure that Maddie walked into when she was just fourteen-years-old to work, is now the Oranmore Nursing Home. Maddie's time on earth is slowly coming to an end when she receives a letter from the last of her charges which 'sparks' the need to uncover the long kept 'Ormond' family secrets that have weighed her down for decades. She tells the story of the Butterfly Cabinet - an object she received that once belonged to her employer, Harriet, and held a diary that was kept by her old mistress while she sat in prison for murder. Readers are shown a family that had it all - wealth, connections.everything. Harriet and Edward Ormond had an almost obsessive relationship as man and wife. Having eight children in total, the sixth child, Charlotte, was the only girl. And for some reason, perhaps because Charlotte had a strength and powerful attitude that her brothers did not possess, Harriet was almost tyrannical towards her daughter. Maddie remembers the times when she would hear cries in the night as one of the children was locked inside a wardrobe; or, the 'thumps' resounding from another hall where Harriet was making sure that her victim's head was smacked repeatedly against the stairs in order to teach that child a lesson. One evening, Charlotte goes from being an abused child to a murder victim, and her mother is taken away and placed into Grangegorman Prison. The story that unfolds is told from both women's POV's and, frankly, the reader will be so disgusted by Harriet that they'll find themselves angry that this is a woman who not only received a sentence of just one year for murdering her own child, but also because she was pregnant with her ninth - another poor creature to be raised by the hands of a monster. The author has certainly put together an extremely well-written novel, seeing as the characters are so real that readers will be absolutely sickened by Harriet - especially considering our present-day news that has created headlines across the country for another young girl who will never receive justice. Quill Says: Again, this is an acquired taste. The writing is well-done, but the plot is not one that is easy to recommend.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was a little disappointed at the end of this one. The premise sounded unique and interesting andd the story itself was, but i kept waiting for this great reveal that never happened. And it fot slow in several places and weighed down with extra story that haf nothing to do with the plot. i actually just skipped ahead a few times. Still glad i read it, but not sure id recommend it to others.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. Enjoyed it immensely.
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lsmeadows More than 1 year ago
I wanted to love this story, I really did. It seemed to have all of the required elements of the type of story that can really suck you in and keep you turning pages. A death of a child that is based on true events, the hint of secrets to be revealed, the telling from two viewpoints, that of the accused and that of a former employee of the accused. In the end, though, it just did not deliver. The story is told in two formats. The first being through diary entries written by the Harriet Ormond, mother of the dead child, who is ultimately accused of murdering the child. These entries I really enjoyed. I thought the author did a good job telling a believable story of life for a wife and mother in upper class England in the late 1800s. I especially liked the ruminations that she made regarding her passion for collecting butterflies and the parallels that could be drawn to the life of her and her family. This part of the book is the only reason that I was able to stay with it, and in the end give it a 3 star rating. Unfortunately, the author included the other story. That of Maddie, a maid int he household and her recollections at the age of 90 regarding the events that took place. Maddie tells her story is a one sided conversation with one of Harriet's descendants. This part of the book I found to be disjointed and lacking any real emotion or depth. It is the main reason that I cannot rate the book higher. When Maddie's chapters occurred, I found myself reading quickly so that I could get back to Harriet's story. The other reason that the book cannot be rated higher, in my opinion, is that it certainly did not live up to its promise of secrets revealed. Yes, there were secrets, and yes, they were revealed. Unfortunately, they were in no way stuning, compelling, or story altering. In the end, the secrets revealed where ho hum and as such, a huge let down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was expecting something magical like the wardrobe closet in The Lion, the Witch and the wardrobe but was disappointed.
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Jan Rives More than 1 year ago
Excellent!!! Comparable to Jane Austen books.
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Laura Stevenson More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down, it strung you along and kept you interested in the details. Good book!
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