Lady of the Butterflies - Fiona Mountain

"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.

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NOTE TO ANIMAL LOVERS: Be aware, near the end of this novel, there is a scene where kittens are murdered. 

 

Spanning late 17th century - early 18th century, Lady of the Butterflies is a novelization of the life of entomologist Lady Eleanor Glanville. Though she had an interest in studying the natural sciences in general, her specialty was in butterflies. A woman making a career in the sciences was virtually unheard of in Glanville's time, a fact that serves as a driving plot point in the novel --- Glanville trying to push beyond societal limitations for women.

 

 

I remember what Mary Burges said about people being afraid and aggressive toward what they did not understand, and I had a sense then that I might make life very difficult for myself if I did not curb this passion I had for discovery and observation. And yet I did not want to curb it, did not think it was even possible. Nor, in truth, did I see why I should.

 

Eleanor has a very strict Puritanical upbringing. Though her father is a successful businessman / landowner, his religious beliefs allow for no excess in the home. He even goes so far as to ban Christmas celebrations. But he does allow Eleanor a level of education typically reserved for boys (botany, geography, astronomy, etc). However, when her interests veer toward the subject of butterflies, Eleanor does raise the hackles on some people in her circle, as there was a 17th century belief that butterflies carried the souls of the dead, and that the process of metamorphosis was equal to shapeshifting which equated to satanic to many of this superstitious era, so having such a degree of fascination in them read as almost occult-ish to many.

 

Eleanor first hears of Richard Glanville, her future love, at the young age of eleven. Her father seems to detest even the name of Glanville being brought up in conversation, claiming that the man was living a life just seeped in debauchery: "I know of his family, I know the type." Even at her age at this time, Eleanor already realizes that it's unlikely she will ever be the docile, delicate lady type, so the sordid tales of Richard Glanville certainly stir her curiosity!

 

After the death of Eleanor's father, a Mr. Merrick comes to Eleanor and explains that he is to be the executor of the family estate in general, but mainly the overseer of the family home, Tickenham Court, until she becomes of age. It's encouraged that she seek a husband. She eventually settles on longtime friend Edmund Ashfield. While for the most part it seems like a good match, she does struggle with some of the structural elements of marriage and later motherhood, namely the law of coverture, in which any land or other possessions a woman might inherit is immediately relinquished to her husband upon marriage (a woman was allowed to keep her property if she remained single).

 

"You will continue these absurd studies no more. From now on you will receive instruction only in dancing and music and drawing and housewifery, like a proper young lady...Your father made the gravest mistake teaching you to take an interest in masculine concerns. The weaker sex may have fruitful wombs but they've barren brains. Learning makes them impertinent and vain and cunning as foxes. I fear I shall never get you off my hands, even if you do come with a fine manor and a good income. I caution you to mind your tongue when you meet Mr. Ashfield again... no man wants to marry an educated girl."

 

 ~~ So says Mr. Merrick *eyeroll*

 

 

 

Eleanor does honestly care for Edmund, but she also has deep emotional ties to her ancestral lands, so she's always fearful of what he might decide to do to the property without consulting her. This is another big point in the plot, the discussion of ecology: Tickenham Court sits on marshland that is home to swallowtail butterflies, an important area of study for Eleanor, but not so much for the men in her life looking for business (building) opportunities on the property. They are more concerned with moving forward on a proposed drainage project. But the project suffers delays as a mystery person keeps leaving messages of terrorism and sabotage --- livestock being butchered and left out to be found, property destroyed, barns set afire, even eels placed in beds! Incorporated into this darker portion of the story is Thomas Knight, a bully from Eleanor's childhood who doesn't mature into anything nicer as an adult. But is he the one to blame for these attacks on Tickenham Court? Either way, there are complicated ties between him and Eleanor (beyond the story of bullying) that wait til the last part of the book to be fully revealed.

 

Eleanor's story covers the various stages of a woman's life -- girlhood, romantic infatuations, marriage, motherhood. Through it all, whenever there are times of strife, she uses the study of butterflies to center herself and feed her spirit.... an important reminder for all readers: the value of self care! It's also important in that Eleanor struggles to stay on that line between self doubt and self assurance. Sometimes she listens to those around her and tries to be content with a simple home life as a subservient wife, but other days her inner voice screams NO! IT'S NOT ENOUGH! She knows she has research of great value to contribute to the world of science and her gender should not matter one whit! One person in her corner, though: her lady's maid, Bess. Bess adorably considers herself "worldly" in various life matters (particularly sex) and often encourages Eleanor to never accept disappointment or the idea of having to settle as the norm. Much of Eleanor's fiery nature seems to be stirred by the strain of having to constantly push against feckless men who will either not fight for her or those who would do anything possible to remind her of her place. 

 

Years later, opportunity to pursue her dreams presents itself in the form of a growing friendship (largely through correspondence) with apothecary / herbologist James Petiver, who also collected and studied butterfly specimens. This friendship and later work partnership would become the basis for the start of the British Natural History Museum. 

 

From Fiona Mountain's "Historical Note" Afterword:

 

"During the course of my writing this novel, Britain was hit by repeated and devastating floods, caused in part, according to leading environmentalists, by the loss of wetland floodplains. In 2007, the study of butterflies was formally accepted by the government as an important environmental barometer."

 

Fiona Mountain does a fine job offering readers an immersive historical fiction reading experience! Many reviewers have knocked this for being more along the lines of historical romance than historical fiction. Yes, this fictionalized Eleanor liked her men. Yes, there are plenty of scenes focusing on flirtations and build up to anticipated sex (and yes, the sex itself). But this one also runs deeper than that. We also get discussions on the science world, feminism, gender roles, societal expectations. We get solid world building that keeps the pages of this doorstopper moving, and dialogue that's witty and even breathtaking at times. As someone who reads plenty of both genres, I would put my vote in the historical fiction hat. It's not like we have a mountain of information to pull from on the real Eleanor Glanville -- there's actually quite a bit of mystery as to how the life story of the real Eleanor ended -- so a little creative license is to be expected. There's a bit of heartbreak at the end, of Fiona Mountain's imagining, that left me feeling a little guilty for some of my reader emotions!