History Notes

WW – Margaret Fountaine, Lepidopterist extraordinaire

Margaret_Fountaine00

LepidopteristNoun: A person who collects or studies butterflies and moths.

Margaret Fountaine, Victorian lady, and a serious lover of butterflies. Margaret spent the best part of her lifetime collecting and creating illustrated guides to her vast collection of butterflies. She was part of the Victorian craze for collecting and cataloguing natural history, but few men or women came close to her obsession. Many historians love to portray Margaret’s hobby as a convenient way to travel and escape domestic duties, there may be truth to that, but the primary fact is that she just LOVED these winged creatures.

In 1978 a trunk, left by Margaret, was opened after one hundred years according to her instructions. Inside this trunk were twelve volumes of her personal diaries, from aged 15 to her death in 1940. Having literature alongside entomology collections isn’t rare, but the amount of detail in her diaries and collections are of outstanding quality. She isn’t a lady to be ignored.

Some writer has said (I think it is Bulmer Lytton[6]) that “a woman’s whole life is a history of the affections – the heart is her world.” And indeed, there is alas!

Margaret wrote this note to go with her diaries, presumably not too long before her death, in regards to her ill-fated infatuation with a man named Septimus Hewson. Yet, I think the quote says the same for her passion for lepidopertry – it was in her heart. Just because a Victorian woman chose to travel & study rather than marry does not mean her life went unfulfilled. In fact, Margaret writes fondly of her close companion, Charles Neimy,

whose love and friendship for me endured for a period of no less than 27 years, ending only with his death, I felt a deep devotion and true affection; and certainly the most interesting part of my life was spent with him.

In Charles, Margaret found a perfect unromantic but not dispassionate person to share her hobby and life with. Maybe today we would consider them soul-mates. But that’s enough of the men, back to Margaret.

Margaret was fortunately fairly comfortably off, which allowed her to travel across the globe for rare specimens. In fact, she managed to hop around 60+ countries, across 6 continents, in a time where women did not travel as freely as perhaps men did, and especially when unaccompanied by a husband. Her diaries from these study trips thus add to the growing plethora of women’s travel writing, a genre that provides us with an insight to the freedom of movement for oppressed women and the experiences that came with it.

As well as her diary entries, Margaret also wrote numerous papers for entomology publications, helping to further the knowledge and interest surrounding butterflies. Her diaries and her outstanding collection of around 22,000 butterflies are kept in the Fountaine-Neimy collection at Castle Museum, Norwich. Her beautifully illustrated entomological sketchbooks are kept at the National History Museum in London.

 

Leave a Reply