The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

January 16, 2013 - 9:30 pm No Comments
The Butterfly Cabinet
Bernie McGill
Publisher: Headline Review
The charm intrinsic to collecting butterflies and pinning them to a display board eludes me.
It seems to be the chief delight—with riding her barely-tamed horse, Caesar—of Harriet Ormond. Certainly dead butterflies are easier to view and appreciate for their miraculous colourings, but the essential spirit of butterfly, or “flutterby” as I remember calling each little enchantment  as a child, is vanished, never to be reclaimed.
Harriet is a difficult subject to like. The mistress of a grand house in northern Ireland and the mother of five children, she is a tragic product of her own stern upbringing. Her beliefs regarding  “sparing the rod and spoiling the child” are excessive, to say the least. Her response to her children’s various childish misdemeanours is draconian—if Dracos was ever interested in infanticide. And it is the death of one of her children, her only girl-child, Charlotte, which tests her theories about child-rearing, rather too late in the day for her to do much about them.
The Buttterfly Cabinet is a fictionalised account of actual events. On the evening of February 13, 1892, the Montagu’s family doctor was called to Cromore House, their home  in Portstewart, where he pronounced three-year-old Mary Helen Montagu dead by asphyxia. The child’s mother, Annie Margaret Montagu gave evidence at the ensuing inquest that she had tied the child’s hands with a stocking to a ring set in the wall of ‘the wardrobe room,’ then, locking the door behind her, she left the child alone for three hours. Ultimately Mrs Montagu was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment  in Grangegorman Prison, where she gave birth to a child in the summer of 1892. She was released in April 1893.
Bernie McGill’s story unfolds mainly through Harriet’s soul-serching from her prison cell, and through the reminiscences of one of the servants in her house, Maddie McGlade. Maddie, too, has a startling tale to tell, offering insights into life in the late nineteeth century for poor, working-class people, as well as her observations of those who saw themselves as her betters. It is interesting to discover that several people in the story may privately have claimed that they shared culpability for the child’s death. What might have happened on that fateful day could easily have prevented the demise of little Charlotte, but a randomness of circumstance set another series of events in motion which brought with them some long-term, sad consequences. This is a skilfully-told tale which reveals attitudes about the bringing-up of children which have only recently been abandoned in our own, so-called civilised, society.

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