The Butterflies Are Free

Written by Anne-Marie Vukelic
Review by Carol McGrath

The Butterflies are Free, a quotation from Bleak House, is the title of Vukelic’s excellent new novel about Charles Dickens. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century London, Dickens struggles to oversee his home for fallen women, act as a guide for his drug obsessed friend Wilkie Collins, and care for his children, who were often rebellious. The novel opens in 1856, and soon after Dickens not only cruelly sets aside his wife, Catherine, but takes charge of his family with the exception of the eldest, Charlie. He becomes obsessed with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and they indulge in a difficult long-term secret affair which lasts until Dickens’s death in 1870.

This novel is notable for the author’s delivery of character. Dickens, Ellen and Collins are vividly portrayed, and the relationships in the novel are exceptionally convincing. Ellen’s story is engaging. She clearly gained much from the affair but she also lost years to a man who actually was a strange and brilliant mix of arrogance, profound humanity and generosity. His family especially his ‘Lucifer Box’, daughter Katie, and his son, Charlie, whose voice allows the story an intimate perspective into their lives, are brilliantly depicted, as is his odd relationship with his wife’s sister, his housekeeper, Charlotte.

The tension in the novel lies in the secret nature of his affair. Otherwise it is the female characterisation and the background of Victorian England which is, from our modern perspective, repressive towards women that fascinates. Not only has Vukelic researched her work thoroughly, but chapter notes are provided which indicate where she has followed her imagination in order to put flesh on the bones of this particular history. The Butterflies are Free is a very satisfying and flowing novel about a charismatic personality, published in time for Dickens’ bicentenary.