WILD THING

She spurned a life of idle priv­i­lege to travel the world col­lect­ing but­ter­flies. So far, so un­con­ven­tional. But apart from be­ing a fear­less ex­plorer, the 19th-cen­tury nat­u­ral his­to­rian Mar­garet Fountaine was also some­thing of a sex­ual ad­ven­turess. Her b

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - Bodies Politic -

n a hu­mid April day in 1940 Brother Bruno found a shrunken white woman col­lapsed near his monastery on the slopes ofMount Saint Bene­dict in Trinidad. She was wear­ing a crum­pled man’s shirt and a long skirt cov­ered­with out­size pock­ets, all filled­with an as­sort­ment of glass jars and small boxes.

The lady­was well known to Brother Bruno. She was an English but­ter­fly col­lec­tor, Mar­garet Fountaine, who had stayed in the monastery guest-house many times be­fore on her trips to gather spec­i­mens fromthe rain­forests of the West In­dian is­land. By the time he car­ried the 77-year-old up­hill to the guest-house there­was lit­tle left to do but ad­min­is­ter the last rites. She­was buried the next day and lies in an un­marked grave out­side the cap­i­tal of Trinidad, Port of Spain.

Home for Mar­garet Fountaine had been wher­ever her work had taken her – a guest-house in Sin­ga­pore or a for­est sta­tion in theA­ma­zon, it made no dif­fer­ence. As long as she had her nat­u­ral-his­tory tools and a good sup­ply of to­bacco she was con­tent. She would have wanted to die without fuss, and in that she suc­ceeded.

Hum­ble though her end may have been, Fountaine, who was born in 1862, was fêted dur­ing her life­time. One of the most fa­mous en­to­mol­o­gists and solo women trav­ellers of her era, she was ad­mired by her peers across the globe; from Ari­zona to In­dia, Queens­land to Brazil, her ar­rival was an event that­made the news. She pub­lished­widely in the jour­nals of her day and, on her death, be­queathed a col­lec­tion of 22,000 but­ter­flies to theNor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum, while her ex­quis­ite paint­ings and sketches of chrysalids and cater­pil­lars can be seen at the Nat­u­ral­His­tory Mu­seum in Lon­don.

And so his­tory would have con­tin­ued to re­mem­ber her – as a ded­i­cated sci­en­tist and trav­eller, a pi­o­neer­ing fe­male in­tel­lec­tual in a man’sworld – had it not been for an­other box that ac­com­pa­nied her be­quest to the Cas­tle Mu­seum, which she had de­creed should re­main sealed un­til 15 April 1978. It was only when this boxwas opened, two days late, re­veal­ing page af­ter page of di­aries cov­er­ing 1878 un­til shortly be­fore her death, that it be­came clear quite howex­traor­di­nary Mar­garet Fountaine’s life had been. This was no longer just the story of an in­trepid aca­demic and her in­sect col­lec­tions; but of awoman tak­ing charge of her emo­tional and sex­ual des­tiny, in the most un­con­ven­tional­man­ner, decades be­fore so­ci­ety­would ac­knowl­edge, let alone con­done, such be­hav­iour.

On their sub­se­quent pub­li­ca­tion the di­aries caused a lit­er­ary sen­sa­tion, but ques­tions re­mained unan­swered. What, for in­stance, of her for­ma­tive years be­fore she started the di­aries, and how­did a rec­tor’s daugh­ter from Nor­folk turn into one of the most lib­er­ated women of her era? A let­ter that she left along­side her di­aries con­cludes with this mes­sage to pos­ter­ity: ‘To the Reader – maybe yet un­born – I leave this record of the wild and fear­less life of one […] who never “grewup”–& who en­joyed greatly and suf­fered much. – ME Fountaine.’

Ev­ery­woman who has ever strug­gled­with the con­flict­ing de­mands of ca­reer and fam­ily, free­dom and ro­mancewill find some­thing in com­mon­with Fountaine’s story. They may not agree with her meth­ods – there­was a pe­riod of her life when she would al­most cer­tainly have been locked up for be­ing a stalker, if such a crime had been in­vented – but they will recog­nise the yearn­ing for a wor­thy lover and the dream of ful­fil­ment as a pro­fes­sional.

From Fountaine’s ear­li­est years as a girl born of Nor­folk gen­try – her fa­ther, John, was one of many sons and daugh­ters

who grew up at Nar­ford Hall, near King’s Lynn – she was be­set by in­ter­nal con­flicts. At first she was torn be­tween her re­spectable God-fear­ing self and her ir­re­press­ible de­sire for love, but as she passed from her twen­ties into her thir­ties the bat­tle be­came a far more com­plex one, for she also dreamt of hav­ing a ca­reer.

Fountaine emerged from a tra­di­tional up­bring­ing for 19th-cen­tury ladies. She­was ed­u­cated at home by a governess, her lessons con­sist­ing of read­ing im­prov­ing texts, trans­lat­ing Ger­man and French lit­er­a­ture, paint­ing (at which she ex­celled) and­mu­sic. She adored mu­sic and singing but, for the rest, she pre­ferred hunt­ing the hedgerows for birds’ nests or tak­ing the fam­ily goat for awalk.

So­cial con­tact out­side the im­me­di­ate fam­ily re­volved around vis­it­ing re­la­tions or at­tend­ing church ser­vices. Con­ver­sa­tions with the op­po­site sex be­yond that sphere were out of the ques­tion.

The teenage Fountaine found em­broi­dery and bi­ble study un­ut­ter­ably te­dious. She had no so­cial life to speak of, and the hours of bore­dom she en­dured gave her far toomuch time to think – mostly about a se­ries of young cu­rates. She even tat­tooed the name of one of them on to her palm with io­dine. Her lack of mean­ing­ful ac­tiv­ity led to years of sor­rowand frus­tra­tion. How­ever, at the age of 27 she un­ex­pect­edly in­her­ited a for­tune from an un­cle who died­with­out is­sue. It al­lowed her to rede­fine her life on her own terms.

Her first step was far from fe­lic­i­tous. She at­tempted to buy the love of Sep­ti­mus Hew­son, an Ir­ish cho­ris­ter­with whom she had been ob­sessed since her early twen­ties. He had been the ob­ject of her tacit de­sire ever since she had heard his ex­quis­ite voice at Nor­wich Cathe­dral. For al­most seven years she pur­sued him. In her imaginatio­n they were vir­tu­ally mar­ried al­ready, though in re­al­ity they had had no more than two or three con­ver­sa­tions, en­gi­neered by Fountaine be­com­ing a com­mit­ted­wa­ter­colourist of the cathe­dral’s in­te­rior.

Hew­son was a sim­ple Ir­ish lad whose voice had led him to se­cure a good job in­Nor­wich, but who was then sacked be­cause of his drink­ing. He left in dis­grace, yet Fountaine ig­nored ev­ery shred of ev­i­dence to the con­trary to put him on a pedestal as ideal hus­band­ma­te­rial, and it is proof of her per­sis­tence and great skills of per­sua­sion that her very strict mother (her fa­ther had died when she was 15) was even­tu­ally pre­vailed upon to agree. Af­ter all, Fountaine did not need him to take care of her fi­nan­cially and, though mar­ry­ing for love was an un­usual idea, it was at least an hon­ourable one.

The poor man was too fright­ened to ad­mit he did not love Fountaine. How could he – he hardly knew her? The grim truth only dawned on Fountaine when he failed to­ma­te­ri­alise af­ter she had an­nounced their en­gage­ment, a pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion she never for­got and from which she never quite re­cov­ered.

Travel to the con­ti­nent was her ini­tial di­ver­sion from such painful mem­o­ries, and Fountaine was de­lighted to dis­cover that other men found her ir­re­sistible. She was no beauty, but she was vi­va­cious and, as a solo woman trav­eller, she dis­cov­ered that she was a chal­lenge, and an al­lure, to the male ego

wher­ever she went. A but­ter­fly net was part of ev­ery Vic­to­rian tourist’s lug­gage and her first trip to Switzer­land brought home to Fountaine not just the won­ders of na­ture, but the joys of hunt­ing but­ter­flies. Typ­i­cally, while oth­ers pur­sued nat­u­ral his­tory as a hobby, Fountaine wanted to be­come an ex­pert and was soon read­ing ev­ery en­to­mo­log­i­cal book she could lay her hands on. Mean­while, she ex­plored other, more ro­man­tic, pos­si­bil­i­ties with a Cor­si­can ban­dit, an Ital­ian doc­tor, sev­eral barons and a va­ri­ety of guides and fel­low­trav­ellers.

Yet awoman like Fountaine could never be sat­is­fied with mere ro­mance. She needed a pur­pose in life and she dis­cov­ered that but­ter­fly col­lect­ing and en­to­mol­ogy were

her true pas­sions. Con­ve­niently, it was also her ticket to the world, where she could ‘ex­plore the un­der­cur­rents of life’ without po­lite so­ci­ety on hand to judge her.

Thus she com­bined work­with play, be­com­ing the first English col­lec­tor to hunt in Si­cily in 1896, aged 34. It re­sulted in an ar­ti­cle for the jour­nal The En­to­mol­o­gist, which was the spring­board for a ca­reer that was to span more than 40 years.

Within lit­tle more than a year Fountaine had es­tab­lished her­self as a se­ri­ous but­ter­fly col­lec­tor and reg­u­larly col­lected to or­der for the Nat­u­ralHis­to­ryMu­seum and other in­sti­tu­tions in Eng­land andNorth Amer­ica. She be­came an ex­pert on trop­i­cal but­ter­flies, trav­el­ling to re­mote places in Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­ica, fre­quently alone.

Her stami­nawas leg­endary, and even now there are few trav­ellers, male or fe­male, whowould ven­ture to ride a horse 45 miles across the east Cuban high­lands in one day, as Fountaine did just short of her 70th birth­day.

To­day sci­en­tists are re­dis­cov­er­ing Fountaine’s work. She would be de­lighted to knowthat her life’s study of trop­i­cal but­ter­flies has con­tin­ued rel­e­vance be­yond her dis­cov­ery of species pre­vi­ously un­known to sci­ence. The rapid de­struc­tion of rain­for­est habi­tats through­out the world and the threat of ex­tinc­tion to count­less but­ter­flies has­meant that Fountaine’s unique knowl­edge of life cy­cles, food and host plants is again be­ing sought out by mod­ern con­ser­va­tion­ists. She was a pi­o­neer in cap­tive breed­ing, re­al­is­ing long be­fore oth­ers that the Vic­to­rian ob­ses­sion with tro­phy hunt­ing was a dan­ger to the world’s flora and fauna. She stud­ied trop­i­cal but­ter­flies in their nat­u­ral habi­tats, of­ten spending 10 or 12 hours per day clam­ber­ing through rain­forests or across re­mote­moun­tain ravines in search of but­ter­fly eggs to hatch in her home-made breed­ing cages. Only the most per­fect but­ter­flies were kept for her im­mac­u­late col­lec­tion. The rest­were re­leased back into the wild, fol­low­ing prin­ci­ples of sus­tain­able wildlife­m­an­age­ment long be­fore they be­came cur­rent.

Once, back in Lon­don, a friend re­marked on her black­ened skin, to which she replied it was a re­sult of the cre­osote she bathed in to pro­tect against leeches. She was very tough in­deed. Mod­ern sci­en­tists would not dream of putting up­with the hard­ships she en­dured, nor would they have the time or fund­ing to reach the in­cred­i­bly re­mote places Fountaine ex­plored. In­stead, they can study the re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate sketches and paint­ings Fountaine made over a pe­riod of al­most four decades now held by the Nat­u­ralHis­to­ryMu­seum. Her unique knowl­edge of host and food plants is of price­less value to­day, while the beauty of her art­work at­tests to the skills she dis­played in her youth.

She once wrote that her world­was ‘the burn­ing track­less deserts of tor­rid lands, wherewild, wan­der­ing tribes sit round their camp fires at night’, and it is true that she al­ways felt more at ease with strangers than with ‘her own kind’. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the part­ner she even­tu­ally found in love and­work was not from her world, but a guide she met in a ho­tel in Da­m­as­cus in 1901. His name was Khalil Neimy – a vig­or­ous 24 to her 39 – but nei­ther age, race, class nor lan­guage stood be­tween them. Fountaine andNeimy­went on to live as man and wife in all but name for 27 years. In fact, he was mar­ried to some­one else, which is one of the many rea­sons why she could never ac­knowl­edge him dur­ing her life­time. In­stead, she recog­nised him posthu­mously, do­nat­ing her be­quest to theNor­wich Cas­tle Mu­seum on con­di­tion that it bear his name along­side hers. Thus the Fountaine-Neimy Col­lec­tion stands as a per­ma­nent mon­u­ment to one of the most re­mark­able, and un­likely, work­ing re­la­tion­ships in mod­ern sci­ence.

From leftfounta­ine and khalil neimy, her mar­ried syr­ian lover; the cou­ple rid­ing in al­ge­riabe­low‘pa­pilio tur­nus’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.