By Jaime Seltzer
“To the Reader – maybe yet unborn – I leave this record of the wild and fearless life of one of the “South Acre Children”, who never ‘grew up’…” – Margaret Fountaine
Margaret Fountaine was born in 1862 in Norfolk, England, a beautiful and talented woman who probably could have been an artist or a singer. However, an uncle had set aside a trust fund for her and her sisters on his death and, when Margaret was twenty-seven, she came into her inheritance. It was enough money that she could live comfortably in England until the end of her days, but Margaret was not content with staying at home, despite the urging of her mother.
When she was a young woman, she had fallen desperately in love with a chorister named Septimus Hewson. Hewson, who was by all accounts a good-for-nothing rake, had racked up debts and then fled to Ireland. Fountaine followed him to profess her love. Do you even need to read that this ended badly? This entire paragraph jumps up and down waving a sign that says, this is about to end badly.
Margaret was at loose ends, and decided to travel for awhile. It was while in Switzerland that she met with the well-known entomologist Henry John Elwes in 1895 and was inspired by his collection of butterflies from all around the world. It was at this time that Margaret decided to begin a serious collection herself, a hobby she had dabbled in when she was younger. She proceeded to travel all over the world over the next few years and, in 1897, produced her first scientific article, which was published in The Entomologist. That same year, the Natural History Museum added 44 of her butterfly specimens to their collection.
Over the next few decades, Margaret barely stayed in one place for a month at a time, visiting Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas. She travelled with her trusty guide, Khalil Neimy, and very little else: a true Victorian adventuress, she set foot on every continent, even trying her hand at farming in Australia. She traveled by horseback to the remotest parts of the world, refusing to ride sidesaddle. When she and Khalil caught malaria, they nursed one another back to health and continued to travel as soon as they were able.
Margaret donated her collection of butterfly specimens to the Norwich Castle Museum after her death – over 22,000 specimens in all. To put this into some kind of perspective, if Margaret had collected one butterfly every day, it would have taken her sixty years to amass such a collection! Many of the butterflies she collected are now extinct, in part through enthusiastic collection during the late 1800s, in part due to loss of habitat.
Another, more mysterious donation were Margaret’s twelve, leather-bound diaries, beginning from age fifteen and kept faithfully until her death. She donated them to the Norwich Castle Museum as well, under the promise that they be opened a hundred years after she first started writing them in 1878. The keepers of the museum kept their promise and, in 1978, the contents of Margaret’s diaries were revealed in their entirety for the first time. Margaret’s life story was at once an expression of awe and wonder at nature’s beauty and a giddy love of being in love, describing in detail all of her many flirtations. This included an account of her might-as-well-be-marriage to Khalil, who had a wife and four children despite his place at Margaret’s side.
Despite knowing of this betrayal after Khalil’s death, Margaret still asked for the butterfly collection to be named after both of them; and she named one of the butterflies she discovered after him as well. The affection between the two ran deep, despite everything.
Due to the contents of her diaries, Margaret Fountaine will always be remembered in part because of her passionate nature and her wholehearted romances. She will also be remembered as a fearless adventurer, scientist, and collector of the butterflies of the world.
Blodgett, H. (2015). Preserving the Moment in the Diary of Margaret Fountaine. In S. L. Bunkers & C. A. Huff (Eds.), Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays of Women’s Diaries (pp. 156-169). N.p.: University of Massachusetts Press.
Scott-Stokes, N. (2006). Wild and Fearless: The Life of Margaret Fountaine. London, England: Peter Owen.
Tarbrush, S. (2007, January 12). ‘Wild and Fearless’: the first biography of Margaret Fountaine. In the tanjara. Retrieved from http://thetanjara.blogspot.com/2007/01/first-biog-of-margaret-fountaine.html