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
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’