Love Among the Butterflies – Margaret Fountaine (W. F. Cater, editor) (1978)

Full title being “Love Among the Butterflies: The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady”, this was a beautifully produced book, a collection of the diaries from Margaret Fountaine, a fairly wealthy Victorian/Edwardian woman who started a serious butterfly collection which led to her traveling widely around the world.

Fountaine was a vicar’s daughter (I think) who grew up at the tail end of Victoria and the beginning of Edwardian days, and as she was not married, she found herself somewhat unoccupied. She started to collect butterflies, and after a while, became a serious entomologist and traveled across the world adding pieces to her large collection. (Lots of overlaps with Edith Holden here minus the world traveling.)

So – clearly, this is an unorthodox woman for the times: she travels widely to countries not familiar to a lot of people back then, she ends up having a long-term relationship (and traveling with) a man from Syria, she becomes an expert in butterflies… It’s quite admirable just how far she pushed acceptability in female terms back then, but it did come with a price. She really struggles to reconcile her love of freedom with the cultural expectations of the time with regard to spinsters and marriage and “suitable” partners.

Despite all her travel experience, she stays curiously unhappy throughout her life (at least as told in these entries). She is very defensive all the time, but was heartless to those who kept her close to their hearts.

Her Syrian lover could not be publicly acknowledged for many years, and although they travel and work well together, she insisted on them having different rooms and standards (despite their relationship), and she could never grasp that he was in love with her for realz. In their rather frequent separations, she would drive herself to distraction imagining various horrible scenes involving him and an accident or another woman etc., and facing such pressure, I am surprised the guy ever came back (apart from the fact that she was rather wealthy and they traveled with her money paying for everything.)

Fountaine does acknowledge in her diaries that she adores her freedom, but anything that seems to threaten that state of affairs immediately puts her into a tailspin of being mean to her family, friends and lovers, of acting selfishly and generally being a bit of a pinhead.

However, just because she was rather an unkind person doesn’t make this book any less fascinating. The illustrations taken from her diary pages are intriguing to look at: her writing is immaculate with very few errors and she justifies her handwriting margins on every page. (Goodness – how to do that without making a crossing-out every now and then, who knows?). She had volumes of diaries and numerous boxes of butterfly specimens that she bequeathed to a museum, but only with the condition that the museum administration do not open the diary box for 40 years after her death. This agreement was stuck to, and so they waited for the correct time. Thus were found the diaries.

A lovely book to look at, with gorgeous illustrations. The editor also slips in very funny comments about Fountaine every now and then, and these clearly add some sparkle to the read (at least it did for me). It’s all a bit serious otherwise.

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