Love And Butterflies: The Adventures Of Victorian Lepidopterist Margaret Fountaine

For a young English woman of respectable lineage, the 19th century offered a clear, well delineated path from birth to death, full of tradition and routine and signifying not precisely Nothing, but not precisely Something either.  Three generations of British girls grew and settled under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria, taking their rightful places as Angels In the Household while their husbands bestrode the Earth, artificially magnified by technology and Imperial might to the status of world conquerors.  

Many women accepted their fate, inflicting the life curtailment that had been visited upon them in turn upon their daughters in a cycle of self-constraint that brought security if not happiness.  But for some, the very smoothness of Victorian expectations was an irritant, a sure sign that Life had been somehow arrested in its natural course, and some manner of orderly march deathwards substituted in its place.  The problem was that of those who did have an inkling that something was deeply wrong with the life they had been allotted, few had the resources to do anything about it, and fewer still the courage to employ those resources in search of something new and perhaps disreputable.  

Margaret Fountaine (1862-1940), Europe’s most famous woman lepidopterist of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, had the means to change her life and the will to employ them in that quest.  She descended from a distinguished lineage of intellectuals and art connoisseurs, men and women who corresponded as a matter of course with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.  Her near relatives possessed priceless works of art and vast financial resources, and the expectation was that young Margaret would sink gracefully into a life of unhurried leisure, marry well, and raise children worthy of the Fountaine legacy.  

She did none of those things.  One of six sisters and two brothers under the care of her exasperated mother, she spent her days exploring nature and gossiping with her siblings about the state of her various crushes.  These two drives, towards nature and love, were the poles of Margaret’s life from adolescence onwards.  She developed a habit of falling deeply in love with men she saw from afar, pouring out her emotions in her diary, imagining the details of their lives and then responding in anguish when reality didn’t meet her expectations, all culminating in six long years spent pining after an Irish chorister at a local church.  She spent months and years going to the church on the excuse of painting portraits of its interiors, just to get glimpses of this young man, never speaking to him, but memorizing his routine, following him in the streets like a shadow, and berating him in her journal if she saw him out and about with another woman.  

As it turned out, that chorister, graced by the Dickensian moniker of Septimus Hewson, was an inveterate drunk and swindler who was thrown out of Norwich in disgrace.  Margaret, her obsession with him growing with the possibility of never seeing him again, hatched a plan to meet him in his home town of Limerick.  She went to Dublin under the pretense of staying with a pair of respectable ladies there, but immediately set about slipping from their watch and boarding a train for Limerick, where she found Septimus full of professions of love.  She considered them engaged and, returning to England, wrote to him repeatedly of her joy that seven years of observing him silently from the shadows was to end in matrimony.  Days and weeks passed, and she heard no answer until finally a note from his relatives arrived informing her not to hope for anything from him.  He had betrayed everyone he ever knew, squandered every opportunity, and spent every last coin on drink, and showed no sign of changing soon.  Best to forget him.

And that was how it ended.  Seven years of pining and fantasizing, of putting off plotting a life’s course in order to chase somebody little more than a stranger to her, was thereby concluded with nothing to show for it.  Nearly thirty years old, a virtual spinster by the standards of the day, Fountaine had to consider what to make of the rest of her days, to stay home and interminably fight with her mother and sisters, or to strike out and explore the world.  The death of a wealthy uncle when she was twenty-seven had given her the financial stability to do more or less as she wished, the only question now was, what did she wish?

Across African deserts, South American jungles, South Pacific islands, German mountains, and Indian plains, Margaret Fountaine tracked the world’s most elusive species, writing up her finds and advice over the course of twenty-two articles written for butterfly enthusiast periodicals.

The first order of business was, simply, escape, to go to a place completely bereft of painful associations and, like so many young English before her, that meant a tour of the Continent.  In France and Switzerland she sampled at last true freedom, and developed a taste for enticing and then dropping a long sequence of men.  As she recorded in her diary, “I believe it is a terrible pain to a man to love a woman who scorns him, after having encouraged his affections for a time, and it was the pleasure of inflicting that pain that my soul was craving for. I could do it – I had the power. I had learnt it now at last.”  

She settled in Milan for some time to develop her musical ability, encouraged by her teacher that a career on the stage as an operatic singer could be hers.  She studied and improved, but balked at last before the grind of professional musicianship, the ceaseless slog of travel and performance with uncertain chance of success.  Until 1895, however, she had no greater prospect in mind, so she dutifully continued her studies, marking time until something more suitable came along. 

Prior to 1895, she had enjoyed trips out into nature and the collecting of natural specimens, particularly butterflies, as a casual revisiting of the pleasures of her youth, but in that year she met at last Henry John Elwes, whose massive collection of butterflies and passion for their categorization and study impressed her as the stuff of a life’s purpose.  Collecting butterflies was not a particularly unusual occupation for a Victorian woman – amateur lepidoptery was in fact something of a consuming passion of the late nineteenth century which was well on its way to utterly despoiling Europe of some of its most impressive species – but what did set Fountaine apart was her willingness to travel to the world’s most inhospitable climates even well into her advanced old age and seek out specimens not only to capture, but to breed and document.  

Across African deserts, South American jungles, South Pacific islands, German mountains, and Indian plains, she tracked the world’s most elusive species, writing up her finds and advice over the course of twenty-two articles written for butterfly enthusiast periodicals.  She was aided in this quest by Khalil Neimy, a dragoman (a sort of combination interpreter, guide, and travel arranger) whom she met in Damascus.  Fifteen years her junior, and secretly married, he fell deeply in love with her, or so he professed, and his presence would bring Fountaine alternately the most joyous moments of her life, free and happy times with Neimy collecting rare specimens in untrammeled parts of the world, and many of the most miserable, as when she watched him slowly give way to rage, madness, and jealousy during a long stay in Australia.  The height of their time together was spent on a collection trip in South Africa in 1904/05, when she decided to develop techniques to raise butterflies in captivity, in order to study each part of their life cycle and document them in a series of illustrations, much as pioneering entomologist Maria Merian had some two centuries previously.  

For some species, her observations still constitute the only available data we have about their life cycles and diets, and the experience and knowledge she built up during the endeavor was freely given to fellow lepidopterists, who incorporated it in their own work.  She was not herself given to scientifically writing up the results of her experiments, preferring a mixture of travel advice with natural observation in her articles, but the influence of her work spread steadily throughout the community, such that by 1912 she was invited to join the prestigious Linnean Society.  

World War I took a terrible toll upon her finances and for the first time in her adult life she had to worry about making ends meet.  Historically, she had pushed her money to its limits, finding ways to make it to each new location just as her cash ran out and a new letter of credit from London arrived, but now her investments were worth a fraction of their original value, and she took up work, first as a simple cataloguer for a private collection in California.  She was privately delighted by the idea of so many Americans disregarding her as a mere laborer when, had they known of her lineage, they would be falling over themselves in attempts to engage her in conversation, but soon work more fitted to her skills arrived in the form of collection commissions.  She had for two decades built up a reputation for finding species that nobody else could, and now she would turn that ability to the production of cold hard cash, charging handsome fees for the procurement of the globe’s most reclusive butterflies.

The work gave her money enough to survive and travel as she always had, and though her energy even into her seventies was hardly diminished, she found life an increasingly lonely and mooringless affair.  Neimy confessed to having a secret wife, and dragged his feet about obtaining a divorce that might at last allow the two of them to marry, until it was ultimately too late.  He died in 1928, most likely of malarial fever, and in the aftermath Fountaine discovered that not only had he not broken off with his wife, but had been having a steady string of children with her, all while proclaiming his love for Margaret.  His loss, combined with the steady decline of her brother into alcoholism, the death of her sister from tuberculosis, and the slide of her nephews into diffuse aimlessness, removed much of the zest from life.  There was always the field, but even there the commercialization of her expeditions somehow took the edge from the pure thrill she had known in her carefree first flush of naturalist passion.  

Though personally disappointed in her last decade and a half, she was professionally lionized, delighted to find herself the toast of academic gatherings where her adventures and findings were the common currency of a new generation of entomologists who viewed her as a legendary figure of a bygone age.  Through praise and loss, her one constant was ever the work, which led her at last to a monastery located in a rainforest in Trinidad which served as her base for her final adventure.  At age 77, she still loved the rainforest and its richness of life like no other environment, even as its unique challenges taxed her body and mind.  One day in April of 1940 (we do not know when), she suffered what was likely a heart attack while on her own in the forest, and died, butterfly net still in hand, to be discovered later by a monk.  

Her grave is unmarked, and her legacy dimmed over time until 1978, when the twelve volumes of her detailed and profoundly honest diaries were opened at last as per her request.  In their pages the world discovered again a life of frustrations and triumphs beyond the scope of her era’s restrictions, and a human being whose personal story was so full of interest and passion that it was easy to overlook the steady accumulation of 22,000 butterfly specimens, volumes of lusciously rendered butterfly life cycles, and twenty two printed articles, that she thought of as her true legacy.  She is a person cut to the pattern of a later century, and as such will be loved a bit better by each new generation until at last she’ll be regarded perhaps as what she was: a fearless naturalist and explorer for whom life was an adventure, and love a necessity. 

FURTHER READING: Natascha Scott-Stokes’s Wild and Fearless: The Life of Margaret Fountaine (2006) reconstructs Fountaine’s life as found in her journals and contemporary articles, and also brings the reader up to date on the fate of the places and species she discovered, telling the often sad story of the global impact of a continent’s fevered hobby.  Fountaine herself regretted the impact that collection mania and deforestation were having on insect populations, a view well ahead of its time, even if the allure of a field full of rare species often proved too tempting for her to forego in practice.  It is a page-turner of a personal story interwoven with a vibrant account of Victorian naturalism in one of its most inventive forms.

Photo: Margaret Fountaine, circa 1886; Public Domain – This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer


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