I recently read The Butterfly Cabinetby Bernie McGill and I was fascinated by the tale it weaves. Historical fiction based on real events always stirs my imagination but it was more than that. The story drew me in as I was moved by the plight of the child and I found the voices of the two characters who narrate this story very believable. Harriet, the mistress of the house, and Maddie, one of the servants, became real for me as I turned the pages (ok, I was pressing the button on my Kindle – but I was so engrossed that I was feeling for the edge of the page as I read). Since I enjoyed the book so much I invited the author, Bernie McGill, to visit Ascroft, eh? to answer a few questions about it.
Welcome Bernie. Shall we get started?
Tell us about your novel
BMcG: The novel is inspired by the true story of what happened in a big house in Portstewart in 1892 when the mother of the family was charged and convicted with the killing of her only daughter, a three year old child. The family were large land owners and very well connected, with relatives in both the House of Lords and in Parliament so, as you can imagine, it was a huge scandal at the time. My version of the story has two tellers: Harriet, the mother herself, through entries in the fictional diary she kept while she served her sentence, and through an invented character, Maddie who was a maid in the house at the time. In the book, Maddie is telling the story to Harriet’s grand-daughter, Anna.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
BMcG: I came across the story quite a few years ago in a local parish bulletin and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was quite a short article about the tragedy. The mother was found guilty of tying up her daughter and leaving her alone in a wardrobe room in the house. The child strangled. The mother was imprisoned, at the time pregnant with her ninth child.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
BMcG: I stuck to the facts pretty closely in terms of the recorded sequence of events that led up to and immediately followed the child’s death, and I kept the story in the historical timeframe in which it had happened, but I decided to move the site of the house. The incident that inspired the book happened at Cromore House, which is inland from Portstewart, hidden from the main road, but I wanted the building to be closer to the sea, and in a position that physically dominated the town, so I changed the setting to O’Hara Castle, now Dominican College. O’Hara Castle was owned by the same family at the time. Although I knew that they hadn’t, it wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the newly married son would have gone to live there with his young wife. That was a crucial decision because it gave me a bit of freedom to imagine the story of what could have happened there. It was very clear to me that I was writing a fiction. I think that, sometimes, you have to free yourself from the strait jacket that the facts can be in order to create something new.
What research did you do for this book?
BMcG: The trial had been very well documented in the Coleraine Chronicle at the time so I spent many hours in Coleraine library reading the coverage on microfilm. The husband of the family was a justice of the peace, his father was an MP and I found references to national and international newspaper coverage as well. I travelled to Dublin to read copies of the Irish Times held at the National Library, and to examine the prison records from Grangegorman prison which are held at the National Archive. I also read books and articles on conditions in late Victorian prisons, and on nineteenth century domestic service and life in a big house. And I read lots of folk legend material and, of course, I read about butterflies and butterfly collecting.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which do you prefer to write and why?
BMcG: The mother’s back story and interest in butterfly collecting was an invention of mine, as was the story of what happened to her after she was released from prison. The second narrator in the book, Maddie, was in some ways an amalgam of the servants who gave evidence at the trial but again, her personal story was an invention of my own. There were gaps in the newspaper coverage. The mother gave a statement at the child’s inquest but because neither the defendant, nor close relatives of the defendant could legally be cross-examined in court in 1892, that is the only public record of her account. The statement she gave was quite detailed and emotionless and it was re-read several times during the course of the trial. She mentioned that she locked the child in the room and put the key in her pocket and I became quite fixated about that. She seemed to be making it clear that she, herself, was to blame for what happened and that made me wonder about the kind of person she was and if there was something she wasn’t saying. That was one of the reasons why I wanted her to narrate part of the story. I wanted to hear what she might have said, had she been given the chance. I find it really useful to have some solid ground to push off from when I’m writing, whether that be an historical incident, or a personal experience of some kind, or even research into a particular interest or obsession. I like that grounding in the real. Paradoxically, for me at least, it makes it easier to leap off into a space where you can create.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
BMcG: I use photographs a lot when I’m writing: they’re so crammed with clues as to how people lived, dressed, behaved that it would take pages and pages to detail it in writing. I looked at a lot of photographs of the locality in the period of the late nineteenth century, as well as lots of posed Victorian studio images. It’s rare for us to take the time to really examine a photograph or an image properly, but when you do, it’s extraordinary the information that you take away from it.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
BMcG: Nearly everything I write is from the point of view of a female character. I think that’s because I have trouble getting inside the male psyche. (I have two daughters: my husband is a mystery to all of us!) I’m writing something at the moment from a male perspective and it’s an interesting exercise. I don’t think the character in question comes out of it very well! I really admire writers that can make that creative leap from one gender to another. Of the books I’ve read in the last year or two, I think Joseph O’Connor does it very successfully in Ghost Light and Colm Toibin in Brooklyn, and of course Sebastian Barry in The Secret Scripture and more recently in On Canaan’s Side. I’ve just read Belinda McKeon’s Solace which is partly written from a male perspective, as is Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog but I can’t think of a contemporary female writer that I’ve read recently who has written a novel, historical or otherwise, entirely from a male perspective. Is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall written from Cromwell’s perspective? I have a copy but haven’t read it yet. Now that I think of it, if anyone has any suggestions, I’d be very interested to hear them.
Thanks, Bernie, for the insight you’ve given us into how you conceived and wrote The Butterfly Cabinet.
Visit Bernie’s website to learn more about the book and her writing career.
About Bernie McGill: She studied English and Italian at Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a Masters degree in Irish Writing. She has written for the theatre, short stories 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 recent 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, Northern Ireland with her family and works as a Creative Writing facilitator.