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Lady of the Butterflies

A book by Fiona Mountain

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Historical romance with real-life heroine

  • Jul 27, 2010
The pioneering 17th century entomologist and butterfly specialist Eleanor Glanville (of the Glanville Fritillary) becomes a passionate heroine in British author Mountain's third historical novel.

The story begins during the early turbulent years of the Restoration, shortly after the reinstatement of Charles II, whose father had been executed by Cromwell's Roundheads in 1649. Born Eleanor Goodricke, daughter of a defiantly strict Puritan nobleman (Roundhead), Eleanor spends her motherless childhood running free over the moors of her fenland home in Somerset, absorbed in nature and receiving an education usually reserved for boys. But she also admires beautiful things and the local festivals, which are the popish bane of her father's Puritanical ethic.

When her father dies (of Puritan stubbornness, his grieving daughter might say, after he refused the new remedy known as Jesuit's powder) while she is still a child, Eleanor inherits Tickenham Manor. Her guardian, a businessman keen to drain the fens for agriculture, encourages her youthful crush on like-minded Edmund Ashfield, also of Puritan stock. Knowing no other young men, Eleanor falls in love with Edmund and only after they become engaged does she meet his dashing, charismatic friend Richard Glanville, whose family had been on the royalist side during the Civil War.

Mountain begins her novel with a prologue that gives us the bones of her heroine's historical life: Eleanor Glanville, passing among her country neighbors, pelted with rotten apples, accused of insanity or worse - witchcraft - for her peculiar interest in butterflies, suspecting that her greatest betrayer is the love of her life, Richard.

So we know from the beginning that she ends up with Richard and the marriage does not lead to perfect bliss. As Mountain develops the passionate path of Eleanor's life, she fleshes out a person whose curiosity about the natural world sets her apart and leads her to experiments, such as her abduction of a duck carcass from her father's kitchen to test the hypothesis that maggots spontaneously generate from rotting flesh.

Against the beautiful rural setting Mountain also fills in the political background of the English Civil Wars and the lingering fear and distrust, as well as the particular issue of wetland drainage; its ecological consequences, the locals' fierce opposition, Eleanor's reluctance. "I listened to the wild bugle call of the swans, the sepulchral clap of their great wings, and I felt such a sense of loss it was almost overwhelming.

Eleanor's butterfly studies are encouraged by London naturalist James Petiver, with whom she carried on a lifelong correspondence and who counted a number of her specimens among his collection, which today can be seen in Britain's Natural History Museum.

But Mountain makes Eleanor's love life the center of the novel. Readers of historical romances will find themselves swept up in the passion; others may wish Mountain had devoted more of her talents to the naturalist's fervor.

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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #184
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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A lady lepidopterist may seem an unlikely real-life subject for historical romance, but Mountain (Bloodline) makes it work in this first-person account of the life of Eleanor Glanville, the late 17th-century naturalist accused of madness because of her devotion to studying butterflies. Daughter of a landowner, Eleanor grows up not just admiring the natural beauty of the marshy moors around her but also observing and collecting specimens according to the latest scientific methods. Butterflies become her passion even as she marries Edmund Ashfield, to whom she must cede control of her land, and it is Edmond's lack of passion that drives her into the arms of his dashing friend, Richard Glanville, whom she later marries, though neither husband proves as steadfast as the London apothecary with whom she corresponds about science. In later years, Richard and Eleanor's eldest son join forces to have her declared insane in order to gain control over her property so they can drain the wetlands. In fact, drainage—battles over it, the implications of it—is a huge piece of the novel and provides the most original passages of a lush and confidently plotted historical.(July)
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ISBN-10: 0399156364
ISBN-13: 978-0399156366
Author: Fiona Mountain
Publisher: Putnam Adult

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