The events begin when Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges and realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for over seventy years: what really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young woman. It is to Charlotte’s would-be niece, Anna—pregnant with her first—that Maddie will tell her story as she nears the end of her life in a lonely nursing home in Northern Ireland.
The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie’s story and the prison diaries of Charlotte’s mother, Harriet, who had been held responsible for her daughter’s death. As Maddie confesses the truth to Anna, she unravels the Ormonds’ complex family history, and also details her own life, marked by poverty, fear, sacrifice and lies. In stark contrast to Maddie is the misunderstood, haughty and yet surprisingly lyrical voice of Harriet’s prison diaries, which Maddie has kept hidden for decades. Motherhood came no more easily to Harriet than did her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. Proud and uncompromising, she is passionate about riding horses and collecting butterflies to store in her prized cabinet. When her only daughter, Charlotte, dies, allegedly as the result of Harriet’s punitive actions, the community is quick to condemn her and send her to prison for the killing. Unwilling to stoop to defend herself and too absorbed in her own world of strict rules and repressed desires, she accepts the cruel destiny that is beyond her control even as, paradoxically, it sets her free.
The result of this unusual duet is a haunting novel full of frightening silences and sorrowful absences that build toward the unexpected, chilling truth.
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RESIDENT, ORANMORE NURSING HOME PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND
8 SEPTEMBER 1968
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
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Butterfly Cabinet includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Bernie McGill. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the
When Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges, she realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for decades: What really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed in her youth? The Butterfly Cabinet unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie’s story—as told to Anna, Charlotte’s would-be great-niece—and the prison diaries of Charlotte’s mother, Harriet, who was held responsible for her daughter’s death.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. How did you feel about the dual-narrator structure of the book? Did you want to hear more from Anna? Were there any other characters whose narration you would have liked to read as well?
2. What parts of the book took you most by surprise? What were your favorite moments?
3. Who do you think was the most conflicted character in the book? Why? How about the most tragic?
4. Maddie said to Anna, “Everyone should have a person in their life to tell them stories of their birth.” (p. 7) Who is that person for you? What are some of your favorite stories about you as a child?
5. Who do you think was the more reliable narrator, Harriet or Maddie? Why?
6. Harriet describes her parenting philosophy, stating: “It is a kindness to teach them as soon as is possible that they cannot always do as they would, without regard for others. It is for their own safety and their own self-preservation.” (p. 149) Do you agree? Do you think Harriet adhered to this method of parenting? Why or why not?
7. Harriet states, “I watched with relief as Harry and then Thomas and James were sent off to school, regretted only that the others were too young to go.” (p. 151) How does this confession affect your perception of Harriet as a mother? Do you feel any sympathy for Harriet?
8. Discuss the relationship between Harriet and her mother. What behaviors did Harriet learn from her mother? In what ways do you think Harriet’s mother influenced Harriet’s personality and parenting style?
9. Maddie wrote about the legend of Molly Bradley: “There was always a point behind those stories we were told. Dark warnings as to what could happen to a girl who didn’t guard herself: keep your coat buttoned up tight; stay out of the dark of the hedges; don’t talk to the tinkers, they’ll turn your head; be wary of men.” (p. 128) What were the purpose of these stories? Based on what you read, how did these stories influence Maddie? Were you ever told any kind of “cautionary tales” as a child?
10. Do you think Maddie was in the right when she wrote the letter to the Cruelty Society? What do you think you would have done in the same situation?
11. The press acted as a Greek chorus of sorts in Harriet’s trial. At one point, she described the papers as saying, “‘There is still one law for the rich and another for the poor.’” (p. 71) Do you think Harriet was treated differently because of her social status? Do you think a similar distinction between “rich law” and “poor law” exists today?
12. Consider Harriet’s conclusion that “the whole process of the trial must be designed to humiliate the defendant. Since one is not permitted to speak, what other reason can there be for being present?” (p. 174) Discuss the differences between the judicial system Harriet went through and the one in place in America today. Do you think the modern American system is any more fair or more kind than the one that Harriet experienced?
13. Reread the paragraphs starting with “I took the carriage to Coleraine, into Stewart and Hamilton . . .” on page 210. In revisiting Harriet’s side of Charlotte’s death, do you see any moral wiggle room in her account? Can you sympathize with Harriet at all?
14. Harriet’s trial for Charlotte’s death set out to determine, as Harriet described, whether “wickedness or evil intention had motivated my actions.” (p. 179) Harriet went on to say, “I meant to punish her, certainly. I meant to correct her behavior, without doubt. I did not mean to injure her, not in any way. I was trying to teach her how to save herself.” (p. 179) Do you believe Harriet?
15. The final opinion of the jury was that “the crime had been committed through a mistaken sense of duty” (p. 180). Do you agree? If you were on Harriet’s jury, how would you have ruled?
16. Maddie asked Anna, in reference to her taking the key to the wardrobe room, “Is a lie always something you’ve said that’s not the truth, or can it be something you’ve never said? Can a lie be a truth you’ve never told, not to anyone? Not in the confessional, and not in the witness box? Is it any defense to say you were never asked?” (p. 125) Do you think that, in keeping the key story secret, Maddie lied about her culpability in Charlotte’s death? How do you personally define a lie?
17. Harriet often described her life in fairly despondent terms, writing, for example, “My whole life spent in the way of myself: working in my own shade, not able to crawl out from underneath it, obliterating with my own being what I have been striving so hard to try to achieve.” (p. 52) What do you think Harriet was striving to achieve, and what was she fighting against? What do you think was the source of Harriet’s profound unhappiness?
18. Consider Harriet’s love of butterflies. Why do you think Harriet was so drawn to the creatures? “How hard the smallest of creatures will try for life,” she writes. (p. 139) Do you see the butterflies as a metaphor for something or someone else?
19. Harriet described the wallpaper she bought for the sitting room where she kept her butterflies as “an extraordinary design of white dove and gilt cage with a background so dark as to be almost black. Unexpectedly, when…the light caught it near the window, the narrow bars of the cage all but disappeared, leaving only the gilt base and the bird apparently freed, about to take flight, while in the darker corners of the room the flickering firelight picked out the gilt and showed the bird to be exquisitely caged.” (p. 52) What symbolism do you see in this passage?
20. After Maddie told Anna about how Harriet died—she fell from her horse—Maddie added, “Since we’re in the business of telling the truth, Anna, I’ll tell you this. Feeley said she was the best horsewoman in the country, and no horse that he knew of would dare to throw her off if she didn’t want to be thrown.” (p. 139) Do you think Harriet committed suicide?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit a butterfly museum or butterfly zoo with your reading group, and see if the butterflies inspire you in the same way that they did Harriet: “The colors, the markings, the scales on the wing, each one different, each one unique: the wonder of nature transfixed,” she writes. “[Butterflies are] a piece of earth made heaven-bound. To look at a butterfly is to remind us of what we are and of what we will be again.” (p. 121) After your trip, do you see Harriet any differently?
a. Visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_zoo#United_States or www.butterfly-houses.com for lists of butterfly zoos in the US, or Google “butterfly museum” or “butterfly zoo,” followed by your hometown, to find local alternatives.
b. If you can’t visit a butterfly museum, go to the photo gallery at www.butterfliesandmoths.org/gallery to see a wide variety of beautiful close-up photos of butterflies.
c. You can also visit the American Museum of Natural History’s butterfly website at www.amnh.org/exhibitions/butterflies/cams.php# and click on “Click To View Our Live Butterfly Web Cam” to check in with the tropical butterflies at AMNH in real time.
2. The theme of passing stories down from generation to generation is central to The Butterfly Cabinet. Reach out to an older family member or friend and ask them for a story that they want to pass down to you. If you have contact with younger generations, reach out to them and tell them a story from your memory that you want to keep in the family. Or, if you prefer, write out a family story—either one you’ve heard or one you want to share—and bring your writing to book club. Once you’re all together, share your stories!
3. Though The Butterfly Cabinet in its entirety is fictional, the author used a true story for inspiration. Do a bit of research on the real-life story and the historical backdrop that inspired The Butterfly Cabinet, and bring your findings to the book club. Possible topics include, but aren’t limited to, Cromore House; the Montagu family; Annie Margaret Montagu; the history of the Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; Grangegorman Prison; the history of lepidopterology; and women’s rights in late-1800s Ireland. Refer to the Author’s Note for more ideas. Once you’re together, discuss how the real-life story differed from the fictionalized one. How did your understanding of the novel change after connecting it to concrete historical events?
A Conversation with Bernie McGill
You’ve written plays as well as short stories and novels. How has your experience with playwriting (and with watching your plays unfold in front of you) affected your fiction writing?
Writing for the theatre, in my experience at least, is a much more collaborative process than writing fiction. During the making of a theatre piece, there are a number of voices in the room, there’s more input from other creative people, all of whom have an investment in the final made thing. When it comes to writing fiction it makes you very aware that the choices you make are your own. I always read my fiction aloud, I need to hear what’s being said to gauge its authenticity. I think theatre writing makes you a more spare fiction writer; it makes you aware of how much you can show and how little you need to tell. It makes you realize how redundant most adjectives are and how important nouns and verbs are, the real nuts and bolts of writing. And I think it helps you to focus on what happens. You need to treat your potential reader with the same respect you’d grant an audience member, ask yourself, “Would an audience sit through this?” If the answer’s no, then you know what to do. Get the scissors out and start cutting.
You write on your website about gleaning the editorial services of a fussy Annaghmakerrig table lamp at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a writer’s and artist’s retreat. Do you find yourself at the mercy of any other unorthodox editors during the writing process?
There are a number of techniques that we use in the writing groups I work with to “test”your writing, questions such as “Does this passage move the story forward?”; “Where does this incident take us?”; “Is this piece of writing absolutely essential?” I am guilty of being seduced by the poetry of language, I become attached to a piece of writing because it sounds good, but you do have to remind yourself that you’re telling a story, that you need to keep the reader with you at all times. My UK editor did a fantastic job on the first draft of The Butterfly Cabinet, and many of her edits could be paraphrased thus: “Beautiful piece of writing, what’s the point of it?” I use the second part of that phrase now when I’m writing to help me focus.
Per your website, the original title of The Butterfly Cabinet was The Lepidopterist. Why did you change the title? Were your earlier drafts more focused on Harriet—the lepidopterist—and less on the symbolism of the butterfly cabinet?
The Lepidopterist was always a working title; before that the book was called The Sea Diaries. I always thought it was a little inaccessible as a title; in general I try and avoid Latinate phrases and go for the more direct Anglo-Saxon choice. But it got me through the first draft. Harriet was always the main protagonist of the book, Maddie was invented to act as a foil to her, but she ended up having an important role to play, not just in the telling of the story, but in the story itself. The story is fairly evenly divided up between the two narratives. I think it was my agent who suggested The Butterfly Cabinet as a title, either her or my editor, and I liked it, so we went with it. It changed the book a little—the cabinet became more prominent, and I had to come up with an explanation of how it had ended up in Maddie’s possession, but it’s fun trying to work those things out.
On your website, you talk about the process by which you decided to relocate your fictional story away from the castle where the real-life inspiration occurred. What parts of the historical record—the newspaper articles about Harriet, the prison details, or the maid work, for example—did you adopt more directly?
It’s very hard to say what percentage of the book is fictional and what percentage is more closely tied to fact. In broad terms, the events surrounding the child’s death follow the testimonies as related by witnesses at the trial. According to the newspaper reports, the child was put in the wardrobe room by the governess because she had soiled herself. The mother was out of the house at the time, and when she returned she went in to the child, tied her by the hands to a ring on the wall, went out, locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and left her alone for about three hours. When she returned, the child was dead. These events were related by the mother at the inquest that was held in the house the following day. Harriet’s backstory is a complete invention, as is her obsession with butterflies, and Maddie is an entirely fictional character, although in some ways, she is a kind of collage, inspired by the servants who gave evidence at the trial. The prison details and the maidservants’ work came from reading social histories of the period. I wanted to make those two worlds as authentic as I possibly could. I also visited the National Archive in Dublin to read the original prison records for Grangegorman. It was really strange to see the mother’s name there, written by someone who had actually known her, would have dealt with her on a daily basis. That was far more chilling than reading about her in the newspapers. It made it very real to me.
How did you land upon the idea of two narrators (plus a few brief letters from Anna) for your story? Did you ever consider adding more voices?
It was very important to me that we heard Harriet’s story. As I said above, she made a statement at the inquest, hours after the child’s death, which was recorded and reread on several occasions, and printed in the newspapers. It was a fairly bald, emotionless statement of fact and it makes for very uncomfortable reading. She comes across as a fairly cold individual. But I think that was what intrigued me most. As far as I understand it, the law at the time was such that neither the defendant, nor members of the defendant’s immediate family, were permitted to give evidence during a trial, so these printed words by the mother are the only words of hers that we have. I wanted to know what she would have said, had she been given the chance. There were questions I wanted to ask her, and this was the only means I had of having her speak. There was no question in my mind that Harriet should be allowed to talk for herself.
As for Maddie, I was looking around for someone who could offer another version of events, and for a while I became interested in the idea that that other character might be a reporter working on the case. I eventually rejected this idea, though, because I wanted that other person to have an insight into the workings of the household, both before and after the child’s death. For a while, I entertained the notion that the other narrator might be Julia, Harriet’s sister, but I became more and more drawn to a servant’s voice. I wanted someone who would contrast with Harriet in terms of their social standing, their upbringing and education, and who had that duality that servants often had: someone who was an integral member of the household but who could be a witness to events, almost unseen. Other voices do come into the story—Edward’s, the children’s, the other servants’—but all filtered through Harriet and Maddie. I’m always interested in how people’s versions of events will differ from one another, how we all put our own spin on things. That relationship between truth and interpretation is very engaging, I think.
Which character would you most want to be friends with? Why?
I think Peig sounds like a good soul, and Maddie as a young woman would have been fun to know, and you could have had a good old flirt with Alphie. I think Harriet’s the kind of woman you would avoid at the school gates but gossip about endlessly with your friends. “Did you hear what she said to Mrs So and So . . . ?”—that kind of thing. She’d be very unapproachable, immaculately turned-out, her domestic life would run like clockwork. You’d never have a good word to say about her but your ears would prick up every time her name was mentioned, which would be often. She’d be much maligned and much spoken about.
How did you originally stumble across the historical research that gave way to Harriet’s character? Did you know immediately that you’d found a book idea, or did the idea resurface later in your mind?
I came across the story in a local parish magazine, just a short article about the big house up the road and the mother who’d been imprisoned for the killing of her young daughter. It lodged in my brain. I pass the entrance to the house regularly, and every time I did it sent a shiver up my spine. My own children were fairly young at the time, around five and seven. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened there, so short a distance from my own home, albeit more than a hundred years before. Around that time, I’d been awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a collection of short stories. I decided to start with this one. My idea was to write about ten stories, roughly ten years apart in time, leading up to the present day, but I couldn’t get away from this one story. Everything I wrote led back to it again. I was working with a mentor, a writer named Damian Gorman, and he suggested that there might be scope for a novel. It was a frightening idea, but after a bit of persuasion, I decided to give it a go. The research was quite time-consuming, but I kept coming across aspects of the story that held me—at the time of her imprisonment, the mother was pregnant with her ninth child. The child who died was the only daughter in the family. I’m the youngest of a family of ten children, seven boys and three girls. I’m sure it had some bearing on my interest.
Did the butterfly theme come from historical research or from your own construction of Harriet?
The butterfly theme was an invention of my own. I had read that the mother was a keen and skilled horse rider, a huntswoman, and a renowned horse breaker. This passion of hers seemed to fit very neatly into the image of her as a strict disciplinarian, but I was looking for something a little more poetic. I had been reading about the Victorians, about the legacy of Darwin, the rise in interest in the study of the animal world, the apparent lack of squeamishness around collecting, preserving, studying insects and much larger animals. That image of the collectors’ cabinet is, I think, quintessentially of that era. I began to wonder if Harriet was a collector and if so, what that meant. Was she someone who could only appreciate the beauty of the thing when it was still? I thought that if that were true, that that was both chilling and sad, and that seemed to fit with who I thought she was.
You write on your website, of Harriet, “I wasn't trying to justify what she'd done, I didn't particularly want to identify with her, but I did feel compelled to try and understand the motivations of that fictional character she had become.” By now, at the end of the writing process, do you feel you understand her motivations? Are there parts of her as a character that you still don’t understand?
There are, absolutely, parts of Harriet that I don’t understand, that I’m wary of understanding. I did want to get inside her head, but I didn’t particularly want to dwell there. It was, as I’ve said before, a dark place to be. I’m glad I don’t have to be there anymore. There are things I admire about her as an individual. When she made the statement at the inquest about locking the door and putting the key in her pocket, she essentially damned herself from her own mouth. She was saying, “I, and I alone, am to blame.” She wasn’t allowing room for speculation, which is, of course, what caused me to speculate when I was writing the book.
You write in your website bio, “I love the contract that's made between writers and readers/audiences: when people sit down, individually or together, and conspire to believe in what is openly, transparently, not true.” What messages or emotions do you hope to convey to your readers in this particular shared conspiracy of belief?
I always look for emotional truth in fiction, for characters that you can believe in, who do things that you may or may not agree with, but which you can understand. I think that’s the real joy of fiction and the theatre, and if those made-up people doing made-up things can cause you to look at the world a little differently, be a little more tolerant, a little less judgmental, then I think the art form is doing its job. Sometimes we need a medium like that, or a mirror, or a filter, we need to look at make-believe in order to get a clearer perspective on our own world. I love George Eliot’s definition, in The Mill on the Floss, of metaphor: “we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else.” We seem to need to pretend, sometimes, that a thing is something else in order to appreciate what it is. You should always come away from a story or a book or from the theatre a little changed, I think, in your outlook, a little cheered, or a little more enlightened, or a little better informed, or a little more sympathetic, otherwise what’s the point?
Do you have any ideas for, or beginnings of, a second novel right now? If not, what do you plan to work on next?
I’m tentatively working on a second novel set on Rathlin, a small inhabited island off the north coast of Ireland. It was the site, in 1898, of some of the first wireless experiments conducted by Marconi’s engineers. Even nowadays, the island is occasionally cut off in bad weather. I love the idea that this relatively remote and isolated place, which didn’t have electricity until the early 1990s, was the site of such experimental technology at the end of the nineteenth century that people were able to send and receive messages between there and the mainland without the aid of cables or wires. It must have seemed like magic was at work. I’m fascinated by that idea that your words can travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be isolated from the rest of the world.
Before your writing career took off, you worked as a theater manager and events coordinator. Would you consider going back to the theater, or are you firmly and happily entrenched in the writer’s path now?
At the moment, I seem to be a fiction writer, but I’d love to write again for the theater. It is a magical place, even, maybe especially, when you know what it looks like from behind the scenes. When I was a student I worked as an usherette in the Queen’s Film Theater in Belfast. We used to view the same film six, seven times or more, and even though the film never changed, even though what was showing on the screen was essentially fixed, the experience was never the same twice because the audience took on a different personality for every screening. Imagine how much more exciting it is to experience a theatre piece, often in a different performance space, always in front of a new audience, and where the actors respond directly to the exigencies of that space and those people every time. It is wholly live, it is never, ever the same twice, nor could it possibly be, and that’s what’s most exciting about it. There are some stories that work better in the theatre, that need to be seen and not told, and when I next find one, that’s where I’ll take it.