Book: Of Moths and Butterflies by V.R. Christensen (2011)
Age/Genre: Historical Romance, Domestic Fiction
Reading Activity: A picnic! Enjoy watching the bugs…but maybe don’t catch and preserve them…
Content Notes: Child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, rape, misogyny/sexism, classism, drug addiction, suicide
I picked up Of Moths and Butterflies for the low low price of Free on Amazon Kindle. From the description, I knew the book was set in Victorian England and it was about an entomologist/lepidopterist (Archer Hamilton) who falls in love with his uncle’s servant (Gina Shaw, aka Imogen Everard), a girl running from a scheming family, a scandalous past, and a fortune she sees as more of a curse than a blessing. Their marriage was arranged without her knowledge. The final paragraph of the blurb was: “Mr. Hamilton is about to make the acquisition of a lifetime. But will the price be worth it? Can a woman captured and acquired learn to love the man who has bought her?”
Based on that description, I expected a romance novel about an arranged marriage with witty repartee: a comedy of errors in the form of a scheming family with a happily ever after. Instead, I got a gothic novel with a spineless hero, a lot of helpless females, and a trite metaphor about butterflies, moths, and society in Victorian England. If the Brontë sisters decided to write about romance in the late Victorian era, but had never lived in Victorian England, I imagine the result would be a lot like this book. While I am not an expert in Victorian England history, I am pretty sure that an author raised during this period would not have so overtly and repetitively mentioned rape.
Let’s start with Imogen Everard. Imogen grew up in India with a loving mother and a distant, military father. Her mother died of an illness when Imogen was young, and her father left her in the care of a nanny until he died in the line of duty. Imogen’s uncle became her guardian and took her to London, where she essentially became a servant in his home. She helped the too-small staff with their chores, hosted her uncle’s business associates, and generally acted as the charming lady of the house in order to, as her uncle put it, “keep the men coming back.” Mostly, she spent a large portion of her time in that house trying to dodge the advances of too-eager drunken assholes, including her uncle. Her dodging wasn’t always successful; about a year before the events of this book, she was raped by her uncle’s business associate while her uncle was out of town.
The book starts with Imogen sitting in the parlor of her uncle’s house, essentially waiting to be arrested for causing the death of her uncle. When she discovers that her uncle, in the moments before his death, changed his will to leave her with all of his wealth, she is shocked. It isn’t until her aunts arrive to begin the funeral arrangements that Imogen realizes the consequences of such an inheritance. Instead of guaranteeing that she can live however she wants, the money will only trap her with people who intend to control her inheritance and her life. Especially because she won’t be “of age” to inherit for over a year and her new guardian, a controlling aunt, intends to marry her off to the highest bidder. So, she runs away and becomes a servant in a remote manor house. There, Imogen changes her name to Gina Shaw. She works hard, although it never seems to be hard enough in the eyes of the housekeeper and other maids.
When Archer Hamilton arrives to visit his uncle, he is surprised to see the new maid. Gina Shaw is clearly a woman who does not belong in the serving class in his eyes, yet she has lowered herself to the station of maid. Archer finds Gina beautiful and intriguing; he works hard to get to know her. Unfortunately, Archer must marry for money and status – not love – if he hopes to stay in the good graces of his uncle. A twist of fate and a couple of conniving relatives give Archer exactly what he needs – love and money – but he might have to lose one to keep the other.
There were a lot of things that irritated me about this book. One issue I had was how convoluted the plot became. What I described to you is only about the first third of the book. The rest is full of secondary characters who have needlessly vague conversations with Archer and Imogen, which always seem to result in the mains doing the exact opposite of what the secondary character suggested. For example, instead of taking his cousin’s advice to leave his uncle and make his own way in the world, Archer continues to take orders from his uncle and leave Imogen vulnerable to the people in the manor who continuously insult and physically threaten her. Because of her past trauma, Imogen approaches her relationships with men by expecting the worst from them. So, when Archer fails to protect her, she sees it as par for the course instead of demanding action from him. Her refusal to trust the men in her life stems from her father’s absenteeism and her uncle’s abuse. She refuses to trust Archer to treat her mind and body with respect. In fact, before they are married, Imogen hesitates to agree to marry Archer because he tells her he will be faithful to her during their marriage, preferring to wed a cousin who has made no promises regarding fidelity because she can “trust” him to behave as he always has.
Another bothersome aspect of the book was the continued use of the terms “lower” and “raise.” Imogen “lowers herself” to the station of a maid, then “raises herself” to become a titled lady. Imogen and Archer must “raise themselves” to a different set of English society to gain Archer’s uncle’s favor. I understand that a book set in this era will have classism, but there are other terms that could have been used. Imogen disguised herself as a maid, not to “lower herself” to a more humble station, but to try to escape the oppression and stifling nature of her former position in society. By marrying Archer and gaining a title, Imogen actually lowered her expectations of finding joy in her life. I was so annoyed that the characters kept using this terminology, even when they knew it was inaccurate.
Speaking of terminology, the title of the book refers to a running metaphor throughout the story. Archer collects moths and butterflies, caught in foreign lands by other people and carefully pinned and preserved before they are sent to him in England. Archer sees society as a bunch of moths and butterflies flitting around flames. Some are beautiful and some are ugly, but you can’t really tell which are moths and which are butterflies until it’s too late – you’re stuck with the moth or butterfly you marry. The study where Archer keeps his collection disturbs Imogen, who sees a bunch of beautiful, once-free beings pinned and trapped in glass for eternity. She thinks of herself as another butterfly in Archer’s collection, although Archer doesn’t understand why she dislikes the image so much. One more time: Archer doesn’t understand why Imogen dislikes the imagery of herself as a butterfly, pinned into submission and trapped in a life where she can only be watched by people who don’t respect her mind or her body.
That leads me to my biggest problem with this book: Archer and Imogen are the quintessential gothic novel characters that I hate. Imogen feels powerless to fix her life. She has no control over how others treat her mind and body, and her thought processes suggest that she feels she deserves disdain for “allowing” herself to be ruined. Archer is a spineless, wannabe hero. He seems to be happy pinned under his uncle’s thumb, taking orders. He loves and collects beautiful things, but he doesn’t protect them. The bugs he collects are hung on walls to be admired and dusted by the maids; if one were to fall off the wall and break, it would be thrown away and replaced rather than repaired. He loves Imogen and does what he can to collect her, but he doesn’t protect her from their horrible families. While Archer has allies, he rarely listens to their advice because it would be too difficult to stand up for himself and his wife.
Imogen’s struggle to overcome the traumas in her life are evident. There is really only one character who supports and listens to Imogen – Archer’s cousin; Imogen’s family members deliberately ignore that she has had traumatic events in her life or blame her for those events. While the author doesn’t directly address the correct way to help a person through trauma, there are good depictions of both positive and negative ways outsiders impact a person who has experienced a traumatic event. Every effort Imogen makes to escape her situation is a step in the wrong direction. Instead of refusing to accept disdain from her family, she convinces herself that she deserves it. Instead of taking control of her situation and her inheritance, Imogen runs away.
Added to all of that was the fact that the blurb drew me in, in part, because of the idea of a Victorian-era scientist. Science was a considerably different field in the Victorian era, as it was mostly performed by those who could afford an expensive education and the connections to fund their research – usually younger sons of the upper classes or extremely bright men from the lower classes who could sell their ideas convincingly. An heir to a title who chose to study something like bugs would have been an oddity in English society. However, Archer’s only claim to entomology is a degree from a prestigious university and a collection of bugs someone else caught and preserved.
Early in this review, I made references to the blurb for this book. While some of the things from the depiction on the book’s product page showed up in the book (albeit in unexpected ways), I found the book description to be pretty misleading. Archer’s “entomologist” status is a good example.
I can’t believe I made it all the way through this book without throwing it out a window…
Scheming aunts, conniving uncles, drug-addiction, murders, rapes (of at least three women by different men), abuse, scandal, three different “Who is the father?” plotlines…this isn’t a romance novel. It’s a gothic novel wrapped in a gossip magazine, with a poorly executed attempt to rail against the treatment of women as property. By the end, I was just relieved the book was over.
However, if you liked Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, you might enjoy Of Moths and Butterflies. It certainly wasn’t for me.