Lady of the Butterflies
by Fiona Mountain
Eleanor is an unusual young woman, with affection for the natural world hardly fitting for one of her station. As a child, the locals viewed her as a strange, wild creature. Her father, a Puritan, raised her to be chaste and modest, but without a mother she spent much of her free time running wild around his lands instead of staying in the house like a proper young lady. During one of his lessons, her father told her that butterflies are a symbol sent from God to remind men of the promise of an afterlife. Just as a caterpillar enters a “coffin” and emerges a beautiful butterfly, so too does man find a better life after the chill of the grave. When her father dies unexpectedly, Eleanor becomes obsessed with witnessing this miracle with her own eyes. She collects butterfly specimens and corresponds with prominent natural scientists, and nothing – epic romances, war, raising her children, a crumbling marriage, and accusations that she’s crazy – can interfere with her passion for all things lepidoptera.
The star of this book was the wetlands in which Eleanor lived in. Fiona Mountain describes lush, wet grasslands teeming with life that are under constant threat of being drained and converted to ‘profitable’ land, but the draining process also kills the livelihood of many of the common people who fish and work the land for the nobility. As long as Eleanor manages her own land, she can prevent it from being tampered with, but when she marriages she’ll cede control of her property to her husband.
This marriage thing is a bit of a problem, since it seems like every man Eleanor meets falls madly in love with her, even when she treats them harshly. After a while it strains credulity; is Eleanor really so amazing that a man would pine for her year after year? The woman I met in these books is not. I mean, she’s interesting, but yeesh. These guys need to broaden their social circle or something.
The biographical bits of this book were fascinating. Eleanor Glanville was a real woman who lived in Somerset, England, and collected butterflies. Many of her specimens eventually ended up in the British Natural History Museum, and the Glanville Fritillary butterfly is named for her. Her life is a story just begging to be told, and I was delighted to discover her through Fiona Mountain’s lovely novel.
4 out of 5 stars