Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (born 16 May 1862 in Norwich, England; died 21 April 1940 in Trinidad), a Victorian lepidopterist and diarist, was born in Norfolk, the eldest of seven children of an English country clergyman, Reverend John Fountaine of South Acre parish in East Anglia. John Fountaine had married Mary Isabella Lee (died 4 July 1906) on 19 January 1860 - she was the daughter of Reverend Daniel Henry Lee-Warner of Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk.
She was an accomplished natural history illustrator and had a great love and knowledge of butterflies, travelling and collecting extensively through Europe, South Africa, India, Tibet, America, Australia and the West Indies, publishing numerous papers on her work. She raised many of the butterflies from eggs or caterpillars, producing specimens of great quality, 22,000 of which are housed at the Norwich Castle Museum and known as the Fountaine-Neimy Collection. Her four sketch books of butterfly life-cycles are held at the Natural History Museum in London.
Margaret Fountaine was an exceptionally courageous and talented woman who travelled the world, collecting in sixty countries on six continents over fifty years, and became an expert in tropical butterfly life-cycles, while coping with an extremely complex emotional life. Her diaries were unsealed, as stipulated by her, in 1978, 100 years after she had started recording the details of her life. She filled twelve large volumes of leather-bound books with some 3203 pages and more than a million words, displaying a blend of Victorian reserve and startling candour, beginning each year on 15 April with a studio photograph of herself. 15 April was reserved as her special day by the family, a day with favours shown, but no presents given.
Living in Norwich, where they had moved after her father's death on 25 December 1877, with a domineering and conservative mother, Margaret made use of every opportunity to escape the close confines of home. From the date of her coming of age, she showed a remarkable love of travel and, much to the alarm of her family, an inclination to form relationships with unsuitable men.
At the age of 27, Margaret and her sisters became financially independent, having inherited a considerable sum of money from her father’s brother - Margaret's parents were both from affluent families. She had in 1883, at age 21, become infatuated with Septimus Hewson, a young Irishman and chorister at the Norwich Cathedral. He had been tardy in returning her affection, despite their meeting in Dublin in 1890 following his dismissal from Norwich Cathedral for immoderate drinking. When it became clear that no marriage would ensue, Margaret felt that there had been an understanding between them and that she had been ill-used.
She spent a few days visiting the noted botanist and entomologist Henry John Elwes in 1895, and was inspired to start her own serious collection, leading to her first collecting trip to Sicily.
The arrival of the modern bicycle gave her a newfound freedom, and saw her cycling in France in 1897, and a year later accompanied by her sister Rachel on a cycling holiday through Italy.
When she visited Damascus for the first time in 1901, she met Khalil Neimy whom she employed as a dragoman (guide and translator). Neimy was a Greek Orthodox Syrian, born of Greek parents in Cairo on 15 July 1877, who had received an education at the hands of American missionaries and had lived in Wisconsin for four years. He subsequently became her constant and helpful companion, despite its soon becoming apparent that he had a wife in Damascus. Thus started an affectionate relationship which would survive 27 years of turbulence, ending only with Khalil’s death from fever on 7 July 1928. Their quest for butterflies led them to Algeria, Spain, the Caribbean, Central America, the Near East, the Far East, Turkey, India, the United States, Fiji, New Zealand, East and West Africa, and the rainforest of Queensland in Australia, where they spent the years between 1914 and 1917.
Margaret attended the Second International Congress of Entomology held in Oxford in 1912 and took Khalil along, since he was her collaborator and deserved to be recognised - to her great delight, he was made to feel welcome by all.
In 1940, at the age of 78, she died, while collecting, of a heart attack on the slopes of Mount St. Benedict in Trinidad. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Woodbrook Cemetery, Port of Spain, Trinidad. She had covered immense distances in her travels, by air, sea, rail, road, on horseback and by foot. She was a fearless air traveller, flying from Havana to Santiago in 1931, fortified by sips of brandy - an essential part of her travel gear. Her unquenchable spirit enabled her to enjoy the company of a gang of bandits on a Corsican mountainside or speeding along a road in Tenerife crammed into an ancient car with eight young Spaniards.
A note that accompanied her diaries, reads:
"Before presenting this – the Story of my Life – to those, whoever they may be, one hundred years from the date on which it was first commenced to be written, i.e. April 15: 1878, I feel it incumbent upon me to offer some sort of apology for much that is recorded therein, especially during the first few years, when (I was barely 16 at the time it was begun) I naturally passed through a rather profitless and foolish period of life, such as was and no doubt is still, prevalent amongst very young girls, though perhaps more so then – a hundred years ago, when the education of women was so shamelessly neglected, leaving the uninitiated female to commence life with all the yearnings of nature quite unexplained to her, and the follies and foibles of youth only too ready to enter the hitherto unoccupied and possibly imaginative brain.
Some writer has said (I think it is Bulmer Lytton) that “a woman’s whole life is a history of the affections – the heart is her world.” And indeed, there is alas! much that is only too true in this statement, for are not these loves, so fondly cherished and so dearly clung to, often merely as it were so many gates leading on, through paths of sorrow, to ultimate disaster and final loss?
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.
For 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. The dear companion – the constant and untiring friend and assistant in our Entomological work, travelling as we did together over all the loveliest, the wildest and often the loneliest places of this most beautiful Earth, while the roving spirit and love of the wilderness drew us closely together in a bond of union in spite of our widely different spheres of life, race and individuality in a way that was often quite inexplicable to most of those who knew us.
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’ - & who enjoyed greatly and suffered much. - M. E. Fountaine"