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The Butterfly Cabinet [Paperback]

Bernie Mcgill
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Jun 2011

An unforgettable story of two women linked by their roles in a tragedy at the end of the Victorian era.

When Anna, the young woman she cared for as a child, announces her intention to visit the elderly Maddie, Maddie recognises her last chance to unburden herself of a story that has gnawed at her for sixty years. For Maddie, rather like the butterfly cabinet she keeps safely under lock and key, has for too long guarded a secret: that of the day a four-year-old girl died at the big house where she worked as a nanny. Finally, Maddie knows, Anna is ready to hear what happened. As Maddie's mind drifts back through the years, so too is revealed the story of Charlotte's mother, Harriet Ormond. A proud, uncompromising woman, Harriet's great passion is collecting butterflies and pinning them under glass; motherhood comes no easier to her than her role as mistress of her remote Irish estate. When her daughter dies, her community is quick to judge her, and Harriet will not stoop to defend herself. But her journals reveal a more complex truth.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Headline Review (9 Jun 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755370708
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755370702
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 2.5 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 410,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bernie McGill was born in Northern Ireland. She has written for the theatre (The Weather Watchers, The Haunting of Helena Blunden), a collection of short stories entitled Sleepwalkers and a novel, The Butterfly Cabinet. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for numerous awards and in 2008 she won the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Award in the US. She is a recipient of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's inaugural ACES (Artists' Career Enhancement Scheme) Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator. She likes to sit in cafes drinking cappuccino and making up stories about the people going past. She blogs at

Product Description


'Beautifully done and thoroughly absorbing' ( Daily Mail )

'An absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder' ( Woman and Home )

'An intense exploration of maternal love and guilt' ( Financial Times )

'Exceptionally accomplished' ( Ulster Tatler )

'Utterly compelling... a haunted tale, pitch perfect in tone' (Marie Claire)

'Assured and very readable, holding plenty of promise for the future' ( Irish Independent )

'McGill has the ability to enter the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor' (Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey)

Book Description

A secret shared.  Two lives entwined.  Finally the past must come to light.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stellar literary thriller 4 Sep 2012
Loved it! I couldn't put it down. The writing was stellar for one thing, which makes it hard to understand this book's overall rating. Sure people have different tastes and everybody isn't interested in history and butterfly collecting, but this a literary thriller (not a Minette Walters or whatever), with bits of psychology and history woven in because it's based on true events. Also, I don't think you have to like the adult characaters. (The dead child is certainly likeable and she haunts the book.) What were people expecting? We know from the start that the mother is over zealous and likely to harm one of her children and that the other adults are too cowed or too stupid to inferfere, but I doubt that's the author's main point. I think she was saying something about women and mothering and that it's a lot more complicated than we think.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
Ms McGill's novel is based on a sad event. In 1892, an aristocratic woman punished her four year old daughter. The child strangled to death.

In this fictional version of the tragedy, the story moves between the prison diary of Lady Harriet Ormond as she serves time for her daughter Charlotte's accidental death, and the memories of Maddie McGlade over seventy years later. The backdrop to each woman's narrative is provided by important moments in Irish history: the struggle for home rule for Harriet, the civil unrest of 1968-69 for Maddie. The alternating viewpoints, of events that are being recounted in 1892 by Lady Harriet Ormond and her contemporaneous reactions, and Maddie's recollections some seventy years later make for interesting reading. Maddie is now in her nineties, and realises the time has come to share a secret (or two) that she has carried with her all this time. It is Anna she tells: the last of the children she cared for, and a granddaughter of Lady Harriet.

`That's what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.'

The voices of Maddie and Lady Harriet are very different, as are their circumstances and their views. Harriet and her husband have nine children in 12 years of marriage, Maddie starts work at Oranmore aged 14. Harriet yearns for the freedom to collect butterflies, while Maddie is immersed in the hard work and drudgery of housework. . Maddie has witnessed abuse of a number of the children and has, with the knowledge of Peig the housekeeper, reported the maltreatment to the Cruelty Society. To no avail.

But what is the story of the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond? Charlotte is Lady Harriet's only daughter and, at 4 years of age, one of her younger children.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mystic Irish 18 Sep 2011
By Tracey
This book is a thriller, a love story and a history lesson. Gripping from page one. the writing is poetical and beautifully scripted.The characters are well written and you feel for Harriet because of her past. It will be a thoughtful insight on how we relate to our children and how we see our parents. We must not forget that our parents had a whole life before our children are born.

The Irish background gives an insight to how things were in the 19th centuary, and sadly, how little has changed in the normal lives of the people who live there now, especially in the little towns and villages of Ireland.

The story also held me in grip because it is based on a true story and the landlord classes of the North were,by and large absentee landlords and therefore treated very differently by society and the law. It was truly a law for the rich and a different one for the poor.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Butterfly Cabinet 13 April 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
What an exceptional read, I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked this book but I certainly was not disappointed. The stories of Harriet Ormond and Maddie and their common link with the death of Harriet's daughter Charlotte was exquisitely written. Harriet's voice was written from the perspective of her prison diaries in 1892, whilst Maddie was that of an old lady, wishing to unburden herself in 1968. The author beautifully weaves their stories, drawing you into their very different worlds and upbringings, and the devastating effect that the death of Charlotte has on both of them. It also gives an insight into the Irish political life at the time without dominating the story, but once again showing the influence it has in the aftermath of Charlotte's death. The scenic descriptions are breathtaking. A fabulous novel, kept me on tenterhooks until the end, I will definitely be looking out for more from this author.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written and utterly compelling 7 Aug 2010
I started reading this book yesterday and finished it today. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, and the characters compelling. It starts quite gently but I was surprised at the pace and momentum that emerged as I read. By sixty pages in I was turning the pages faster and faster, wanting to find out how the story ends.

The book centres around Maddie and Harriet. Maddie was a young servant in 'the big house' and Harriet was her cold and rigid mistress. Maddie speaks to us directly as an old woman in 1968, while Harriet writes in her prison diary in 1892. We know from the beginning that Harriet's only daughter Charlotte has died in the house, and as the book unfolds we learn the circumstances of her death. The characters are vivid and totally believable. In the hands of a different author these characters could easily become two-dimensional caricatures, but both women, particularly Harriet, are complex and sympathetic. I really felt for both of them and how their lives were shaped and restricted by their own backgrounds and upbringings.

The book also touches upon the politics in Northern Ireland, particularly in 1892, but this is woven in so gracefully it enhances the story without dominating it. I love the sea, and it's a recurring theme in the book, especially at the end.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book. I read it rather greedily to see how the story ends (and the last page will send a tingle down your spine). I suspect it's a book I'll come back to, this time simply to appreciate the beauty of the writing.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars not bad but hard to get intp
Not what I thought it was going to be, it was quite a hard read, but once you got into the story it was ok
Published 6 months ago by Lizzie Dutfield
5.0 out of 5 stars The Butterfly Cabinet
This is a wonderfully written book and first novel for Bernie. I have had the pleasure of meeting the author who is a local lady and therefore the setting and background of the... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Elizabeth J M Gilmore
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read
Living in this area I enjoyed the references to places I know so well, and I thought it was a well written book.
Published 15 months ago by Nancy Dorrans
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it!
This is a beautifully written novel. The two contrasting female characters are finely drawn as the writer strips away layer after layer to reveal the complexity of their... Read more
Published 21 months ago by allie
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and engaging
I thought the book was enthralling, the imprisoned mother slowly revealed as human, damaged, flawed but not homicidal, the maid unfolding as complex, flawed and possibly... Read more
Published on 15 April 2012 by Chocolate crone
2.0 out of 5 stars Sadly it was a let down
This book had an interesting premise as is loosely based on a real life murder, this did pique my interest as I really enjoy books based in this period. Read more
Published on 18 Mar 2012 by Kirsty
3.0 out of 5 stars Based upon a true story, an account of a death of a young child caused...
Having read the more recent reviews to this book I decided to try a sample on the kindle before deciding to buy the whole book. Read more
Published on 1 Aug 2011 by C. Bannister
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing!
This tale is based on a true story of an upper class mother's murder of her three year old daughter in 1892 in Dublin. Read more
Published on 13 July 2011 by Alice in Wonderland
1.0 out of 5 stars Dire! And beware some very dubious 5 star reviews
I bought this book as the synopsis sounded interesting and there were only 5 star reviews at my time of ordering. When the book arrived I looked forward to a great read. Read more
Published on 8 July 2011 by JM
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