Monday 10 September 2012

Love Among the Butterflies

One of my daughters took this photograph in the museum at
Plymouth. The butterflies on display are not from Margaret
Fountaine's collection, but I like the picture!
Margaret Fountaine was a feisty Victorian Englishwoman of independent means who travelled the world for 50 years collecting butterflies, and was totally unfazed by the unaccustomed situations and conditions she encountered, seeing off drunken men, robbers, fleas, snakes, mosquitoes, riots, wars, troublesome natives and the odd stray lion.

She visited 60 countries on six continents, journeying through mountains, marshes, tropical forests and deserts, and enduring excruciating heat, searing cold, drenching monsoon rains, bitter winds, mist and snow. Her accommodation ranged from palatial hotels and the homes of friends and fellow collectors to run-down boarding houses, remote monasteries, mud huts, and a beehive-like shepherds’ shelter, constructed from large, loose stones.

Victorian traveller and butterfly collector
Margaret Fountaine - I think she looks
very determined.
Sanitation and washing facilities were often 'unmentionable'; clean, comfortable bedding was rare and she slept – not always happily - on coconut matting, bamboo poles, and brushwood piled on bare earth and covered with rugs.

She began her travels after being abandoned by the man she hoped to marry, but seems to have attracted many other men throughout her long life (including a Sicilian bandit and a Hungarian nobleman). However, she found happiness with a handsome Syrian guide and translator who was 15 years her junior. and they lived,worked and travelled together, unmarried, for some 27 years.

Margaret recorded her experiences in a series of diaries, published by Collins in two parts, and then by Virago in one volume, Love Among the Butterflies, The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady, and this is the edition I found. Sadly, it now seems to be unavailable, but the story of how it came to be printed is the stuff of fairy-tales.

When she died in 1940, aged 78, Margaret left her vast collection of butterflies to Norwich Museum, together with a mysterious black japanned box, which was sealed and padlocked, and came with instructions that it was not to be opened until April 15th, 1978. On that date 12 ledgers were discovered, containing her diaries, dated from 1878 to 1939. They are annual reports (written up from her earlier notes) and rarely mention a month, let alone a precise day, but they are surprisingly intimate in places, and reveal a woman who was obsessive, independent, and fearless, with a tremendous joy and enthusiasm for life.

As you read, it soon becomes apparent that Margaret, the daughter of a Norfolk vicar, had a penchant for unsuitable men. At 21 she developed an all-consuming passion for Septimus Hewson, a paid chorister at Norwich Cathedral. For seven years she pursued him with the relentless determination she later used to hunt butterflies. When he was sacked for drinking she followed him to Ireland, and considered herself engaged – but he thought otherwise.
She sought solace through travel, and while in Switzerland she tells us:

My 1997 edition of  'Love Among the
Butterflies'. If you see a copy, snap it
up, because it is a fascinating read.
I would often spend my afternoons at at St Jean and go out with an an English girl after butterflies, a pursuit which once once started became all-absorbing. I filled my pocket box with butterflies,s ome I had only seen in pictures as a child and yet recognised the moment I caught sight of them on the wing.

From that moment she was captivated, and spent the rest of her life hunting butterflies, often in the most inhospitable and inaccessible places. When her money ran out she accepted commissions from other collectors, and she bred many of the butterflies in her collection from from eggs or caterpillars, keeping notes and painting specimens (her sketch-books are in the Natural History Museum).

Despite her passion she was always aware that she caused the death of the creatures she loved, and in 1892 she wrote:

I caught a splendid specimen of male Brimstone, thinking that though it was common enough in England I should always love to think that it was caught in Italy. It gave me a pang of remorse to take this beautiful creature from her flowers and her sunshine, which I knew so well how to enjoy; the death of the butterfly is the one drawback to an entomological career.

But it's the human side of the diaries which is so fascinating: Margaret wrote about her feelings and relationships, and gave wonderful descriptions of the people she met and the places she visited, offering glimpses into worlds that have changed beyond all recognition.
Near Mesolonghi she gets caught in a shower of rain and gets wet through, so she seeks shelter at a mountain monastery:

The kindly monks had a sort of open stove filled with smouldering cinders placed at my disposal, and also provided me with a cassock, with many apologies that they were not in a position to offer me a more strictly feminine garment while my own dress was being dried. Then later on they placed before us a simple luncheon of poached egg and a kind of sweet confiture made from rose leaves mixed with sugar.

Margaret at Palm Springs, America.
In 1923, unable to continue with her travels in China, she gives us a sense of how chaotic things were:

China was in a turmoil from end to end; trains had been attacked by bandits on the main line between Shanghai and Pekin, and many foreigners robbed, and taken away by the bandits to be held for ransom. Even on the sea and up the rivers pirates were busy attacking boats, while in the interior civil war was raging.

Central to the diary – apart from her obsession with butterflies – is her relationship with Khalil Neimy, the dragoman (guide and translator) she met in Damascus on a late May afternoon in 1900 or 1901:

he had a crushed almost cowed look; though his hair was quite fair his eyebrows and eyelashes and mustache were dark, and it was almost a boyish face beneath the tarboosh which he wore thrown far back... All I thought as I looked at this man for the first time was that he was very fair for a Syrian, and I liked to see a really fair man for a change. I noticed that his grey eyes were always looking towards me.

Since European women cannot walk around on their own, she employs him, but his attentions annoy and entrance her in equal measure:

... I did not choose to have my hand kissed first thing in the morning – later in the day I would perhaps graciously submit to this humble act of adoration, though I could not help thinking sometimes that the kisses were a trifle more fervent than the occasion seemed to demand, and once I pulled my hand away, but he looked so awfully hurt that I never had the heart to do that again...

She finds his ‘untiring devotion and constant adoration' is 'decidedly pleasant’ and agrees to marry him, despite the differences in their culture, class and age - she is 39, he is 24. I thought her account of their engagement was very touching:
A page from Margaret's diary, with Khalil's photograph
pasted in.
And then – out there beneath the shadows of those great rocks neat Baalbeck, on that glorious summer morning I solemnly vowed to Khalil Neimy that I would be his wife, and the I said, ‘I have never kissed you once, but now I will give you one for the first time’, and I kissed him on the cheek, which was smooth and pink like a boy’s, and we held each other's hand and swore to be true. And all the time the big, brown butterflies flitted unmolested to and fro among the hot rocks.

Margaret makes it clear that they lived as man and wife, but the relationship was not always easy - it turned out that Khalil already had a wife and children, and he made frequent trips home to care for his mother. He died on a visit to his Damascus home in 1929, still proclaiming his love for Margaret and insisting that his divorce had finally been granted. How can I bear to tell it?” Margaret writes in her diary, adding: “Nothing could help or comfort me now.”

 She continued her work, on her own, and was collecting butterflies in Trinidad when she died in 1940. A monk discovered her collapsed on the roadside, her butterfly net nearby. She was carried to the guesthouse of the monastery, where she died, and was buried on the island.

I loved this book and thought it was a real 'find'. There is so much detail in the diaries – which are very readable and very enjoyable – that it's impossible to give a comprehensive view of Margaret and her life, but I must mention WF Cater, who edited the diaries skilfully, providing resumés of the sections which were left out. He tracked down people who had known Margaret and, thanks to his researches,the book includes some fascinating details about Margaret, her family, and Khalil. 
More butterflies from Plymouth Museum!


  1. Wow! This sounds so fascinating! I love learning about these spirited traveling Victorian ladies. They impress me so much--and her life sounds especially eventful.

    1. It was fascinating - I'd never heard of until I came across book, but she was a well respected expert, and her collection is used to identify specimens.

  2. What an intriguing story... and a progressive lady, way ahead of her time. Again, your post is so rich and full of in-depth info and historical accounts, I need to come back and read it again. That she's a naturalist (butterfly afficionado) and a diarist is so appealing to me.

    1. When she was young and living at home I think her family regard as 'difficult', but she was very much an individual, but in the end she did what she wanted, and lived life on her own terms - quite extaordinary really.