I first became fascinated with Margaret Fountaine when I stumbled upon an amazing collection of 22,000 butterflies in Norwich Castle museum. And each one was collected by an incredible Victorian woman. For over fifty years, her passions took her to sixty countries. She even raised butterflies from caterpillars or eggs so her collecting would cause no harm to the environment. And if that wasn’t enough, she also produced four volumes of sketches of butterfly life cycles that are now housed in the Natural History Museum in London.
Of course Margaret had something that’s a common theme among these intrepid Victorian female travellers that fascinate me so much. Money. An inheritance from an uncle, when she was 27. It was her passport to a world outside the confines of Victorian society, a world she recorded in twelve volumes of diaries that remained sealed, at her instruction, until 1978, a hundred years after she started them. And they revealed that she’d had quite a life – not many Victorian women could boast of hanging out with a gang of bandits in Corsica and speeding along a road in Tenerife crammed into a car with eight young Spaniards. Not bad for a woman who began life as a clergyman’s daughter.
Margaret never married, but she had her fair share of admirers. While collecting butterflies in Syria, she hired a local man fifteen years younger than her, Khalil Neimy, as her guide and translator. This arrangement worked well, so well in fact that they spent the next twenty-seven years together, until Khalil’s death in 1928. He even proposed to her and she accepted. Their adventures took them to North Africa, Australia, Central America, The Far East, India and the USA. But Khalil had forgotten one tiny detail. His wife in Damascus, whom he was going to divorce, of course. Nothing changes, does it? Only after his death did Margaret discover just how many lies he’d told her. After he died, Khalil’s wife bombarded Margaret with begging letters asking for support for his five children.
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Khalil. There was no doubt that he was devoted to Margaret; he offered to work for her for no wages, just to be close to her. Margaret acknowledged him in naming her butterfly collection the Fountaine-Neimy collection. But her heart, it seems, already belonged to an Irish scoundrel, with whom she fell in love in her twenties. Here’s an extract from her diaries.
‘The greatest passion, and perhaps the most noble love of my life, was no doubt for Septimus Hewson, and the blow I received from his heartless conduct left a scar upon my heart, which no length of time ever quite effaced.’
Sadly, history doesn’t record exactly what scurrilous Septimus did to poor Margaret. We know he was slung out of the Norwich choir for drinking and went home to Limerick, where he died.
Altogether more romantic was Margaret’s end. She died in 1940, aged 78, of a heart attack while collecting butterflies in Trinidad. And that’s why I love her story so much. Could there be a more appropriate and happy ending to her story? I’m sure we’d all like to die doing the thing we love, so maybe we should increase the odds and spend more time on things we actually enjoy.