Monday 16 May 2022


 Born on this day in 1862 was Margaret Fountaine, a woman who has been aptly described as ‘one of the strangest lepidopterists Britain has ever produced’. A Norfolk clergyman’s daughter, she was brought up conventionally enough, but, having had her heart broken by an Irish singer whom she pursued all the way to Ireland, she left England to travel in search not of love but of butterflies – a pursuit that was to lead her through various parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East, the Americas and the Antipodes. A dauntless traveller who seemed to fear nothing and to thrive in the most basic living conditions, she probably covered more ground than any lepidopterist has ever done, even in the age of jet flight. Though she sent frequent reports to the entomological journals, it was her other, more private writings that were to secure her posthumous fame...
  When she died – in 1940, while hunting butterflies in Trinidad – she left her collection of some 22,000 specimens to Norwich Castle Museum, and with it a mysterious black box which, she stipulated, was not to be opened until April the fifteenth, 1978. The day came, the box was duly opened, and it was found to contain twelve thick volumes of her journal, covering six decades and more of her life – and containing an astonishingly frank account of her emotional life, notably her relationship with her Syrian dragoman (guide, interpreter and, in Margaret Fountaine’s case, a great deal more). Khalil Neimy had fallen in love with her on their first meeting, despite being fifteen years her junior, and he became her ‘dear companion, the constant and untiring friend’ on her travels for many years. They exchanged rings, and planned to marry and settle in America, but Khalil sadly died on a return visit to Syria in 1929. Wisely, in view of the attitudes that prevailed at the time, they kept their feelings concealed from the world, and Margaret Fountaine equally wisely chose to keep her intimate diaries under embargo until the hundredth anniversary of the date on which she began writing them. When their contents became known, they caused a stir far beyond the world of lepidoptery, and their contents were adapted into two successful books by W.F. Cater: Love among the Butterflies and Butterflies and Late Loves. Margaret Fountaine became, along with Eleanor Glanville (whose life even inspired a romantic novel, Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain), one of the two romantic heroines of butterfly collecting – and that is two more than there are romantic heroes among the men.


  1. Thank you. I had never heard of this remarkable person. I looked her up instantly. There is a photograph of her with a smiling man with a moustache that is held at Norwich - - where she doesn't look very happy although he does. I hope she was just apprehensive about the truth of their friendship being discovered.

  2. Thanks, Zoe. Yes, the funny thing is there doesn't seem to be a single photograph of her smiling. I wonder if she had bad teeth?