Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain

GENRE: historical fiction

They say I'm mad and perhaps it's true.
It is well known that lust brings madness and desperation and ruin. But upon my oath, I never meant any harm. All I wanted was to be happy, to love and to be loved in return, and for my life to count for something. That is not madness, is it?

So begins the story of Eleanor Glanville, the beautiful daughter of a seventeenth-century Puritan nobleman whose unconventional passions scandalized society. When butterflies were believed to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor's scientific study of them made her little better than a witch. But her life-set against a backdrop of war, betrayal, and sexual obsession - was that of a woman far ahead of her time.

This novel is based on true facts in the life of Eleanor Glenville, née Goodricke. It takes place during the Restoration period, starting not long after Charles II became King of England.

The novel follows Eleanor’s life from her childhood to her forties. She was always a scholar by heart, prompted into this direction by her Puritan father who wanted her to be a boy, and who hated luxury, but valued knowledge above all earthly matters. I really like to read about natural sciences in the past eras. It is very interesting and fascinating to read about the things that we know to be absolutely true today and we take them for granted, but it was a struggle to prove them in the past and even a danger because many people were still narrow-minded and took scientists for quacks and lunatics, even seeing them as a group of people dealing with witchcraft. This notion is presented really well in the novel and I found it interesting how in London, scientists were accepted and had clubs, whereas in the countryside they were regarded suspiciously. This applies to our modern times, too, because it seems that often, big cities are more open-minded than small, isolated villages. Of course, just like in the old times, big cities today are also more prone to corruption and sin.

Butterflies play a big role in the novel, as they define Eleanor. She was a woman who was always eager to learn, but because she was a woman, she seemed strange and even insane to her tenants, friends and even her second husband. A woman should not play a scientist, was the idea. But Eleanor was not only a scientist – she was particularly interested in butterflies, which stemmed from her childhood. Not long before her father died of the ague (modern-day malaria) he told her a very nice symbolic story about butterflies – namely, that they represent resurrection. A butterfly begins its life as a worm (a lowly creature), then builds a coffin around itself (the worm dies) and comes out/resurrects as a beautiful butterfly (a divine creature). That is why Eleanor loved butterflies so much and it was her ultimate goal to witness such a resurrection herself, which she ultimately does in the novel. The bad thing was that in those times, people saw those who admired butterflies as creatures who communicated with dead souls and were on good terms with the devil. If you were a scientist focusing on butterflies, just like Eleanor, and a woman on top of it all, you were bound to get into serious trouble.

I have to say that I think butterflies are really pretty and delicate, but up until reading this novel, I never really thought about them or saw them as anything else but a species of insects. Now, I think I am bound to see butterflies with different eyes.

The novel shows the development of the natural sciences in the 17th century, even presenting real-life characters such as Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, as well as a doctor and collector. It mentions and follows big events, like the movement against Papists, Charles II’s death and the crowning of his brother James, the Monmouth rebellion and its aftermath. That was really interesting and very well done. It also tackles one other issue that is still important – namely, the draining of moors. Among other things (discovering butterfly species, naming them, cataloguing them) Eleanor is also important because she discovered that changing a natural habitat can lead to the extinction of a species. For example, the Large Copper in England was last seen in the 19th century. This is sad. I live on the moor and I actually notice certain changes. They keep draining the moor and building new houses and some animals are actually gone.

Amidst the science and historical political matters, the reader can follow Eleanor’s personal life that was full of adventure, emotional turmoil and danger. She was married twice – the first time to a nice fellow with slightly Puritan notions (Edmund Ashfield) and the second time to Edmund’s best friend, Richard Glanville. Her second marriage only proves, I think, that it’s always a bad idea to marry your late husband’s best friend or brother because it often ends badly (it puts to mind Katharine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife). Their love was really epic at first, but she was raised as a Puritan and he as a Cavalier and they had very different views on the world. In the end, he was one of her tormentors. Namely, Eleanor was accused of insanity (because of her butterflies) by her own family. She had to struggle as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. I really admire her because she was such a strong individual.

According to the author, the ending of the novel is fictional, but I like to believe that it really happened, as it would have been a great ending to Eleanor’s life in England, giving her wings of freedom, like with butterflies, which is what she always yearned for. The final confrontation with her husband, however, happened too fast for my taste. After all she went through because of him, she was too good and lenient in the end, which was almost unbelievable to read. I am not opposed to sex in novels (unless it’s an anatomy lesson), but sometimes I just didn’t like the way it was described. It was compared to the mating of animals (with the use of certain words for intimate body parts) and I like to think that humans can do better than that – mostly. Besides, I think that steamy sex should be reserved for romances, as I kind of expect it there, but in a historical novel, I just like to focus on history. I am not a prude; it’s just a (strange) personal preference.

All in all, this is a very good historical novel, including many interesting historical and political topics, as well as the development of the natural sciences. It is very well written and truly enjoyable to read. In the end, this is the story of an extraordinary woman who followed her heart and who was able to stand her ground. I recommend this novel to all who like to read a good historical novel. I should warn you, I think, that it is 510 pages long (my copy) and has a relatively fine print, so you’ll have to take your time and be patient. But really, it shouldn’t be too hard since this really is a delightful read.



Jan von Harz said...

What a wonderful review, I love historical fiction and this sounds quite original and fascinating. Based on your comments I can see how after reading this novel it would be hard not to look at butterflies differently.

Midnyte Reader said...

This sounds very good and it's a great review. I love historical fiction.

Blodeuedd said...

I know what you mean with sex, in HR I expect it to be steamy these days, but when it just gets too sexual in normal historicals, nope not liking it then

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

What a lovely review-I'd never heard of this and I'm not a big fan of the time period but the gender politics sound fascinating.