BUTTERFLIES AND LATE LOVES;The Further Travels And Adventures of a Victorian Lady
By Margaret Fountaine
Edited by W.F. Cater
Salem House. 141 pp. $16.95
IF INDEED MAN is at bottom a nomad, then Margaret Fountaine's life history is a vigorous argument in favor of the theory. Born in England in 1862, she died in 1940 on a mountainside in Trinidad. Between the beginning and the end, she roamed the earth with ungovernable enthusiasm, living rough, capturing some 20,000 species of butterfly, and loving many men. Her butterfly collection went at her death to an English museum and with it a tin box containing diaries kept since 1878 in an unfalteringly clear hand. Their content, when they were examined, proved so extraordinary that excerpts covering her first five decades were published as Love Among the Butterflies. But at 50, Fountaine had hardly got into her stride. Thirty more years of adventure and passion lay before her.
Her first wanderings, made possible by a small annual income, were undertaken to heal a broken heart; one of her consolations thereafter was to do some heartbreaking of her own. In this she had some success, throughout Europe and the Middle East, where besides lovers she collected butterflies with equal zeal. In Damascus, fate intervened in the shape of an amorous dragoman named Khalil Neimy. "I didn't care a damn about him. But I began to find his untiring devotion and constant adoration decidedly pleasant." He was 24, she 39. They embarked on a 25-year "engagement," while pursuing exotic lepidoptera in Algeria, Spain, Corsica, Yugoslavia, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Ceylon, Tibet and, on the eve of the Great War, Australia. Here the present diaries begin.
They had come to Australia not so much for butterflies as to acquire British nationality for Khalil so as to facilitate their marriage. A year of intolerable waiting produced Khalil's papers but no marriage. A timely dream warned him against it. In tears Fountaine departed alone for California. And so they met and parted innumerable times over the course of a quarter century, she eagerly searching for his face on a gangplank or a station platform, then making the best if it. "No rice, no old slippers," she wrote after one more disappointment, "but only the old unsatisfactory relationship, traveling together for the sake of collecting entomological specimens."
She passed her companion off as her cousin -- though no one can possibly have believed it -- and worried like any woman of her class lest people should guess they shared a bedroom. But the time would come when Kahlil (now "Charles") was suddenly eager to return to his old mother (who may or may not have existed, though a wife certainly did) and Fountaine would be obliged to resume her solitary adventures, though her readiness to tie the knot was never dampened by repeated disappointment.
On her 58th birthday she reflected on the passage of time. "I knew that youth with its mighty passions was dead at last." ("In this," the editor drily comments, "she was mistaken.")
Passions long dormant reasserted themselves during an African trip. She realized one day, "like a flash of lightning across the calm serenity of a summer day" that she was in love with her German host at a cocoa plantation. "I was mad! I loved that man, and I had loved him all the time . . . The air was singing with a thousand rapturous voices . . . I tried to reason with myself, recalling that my advanced years must stand as a barrier between all possibility of this passion being returned." The only cure was redoubled activity "lest I should go melancholy mad."
A readiness for new adventure was as much a part of her nature as falling in love. In Spain one day she found herself unperturbed in a "Hudson motor-car with eight young spaniards flying at headlong speed over the mountains . . . rather a unique position for an old woman over 60 to be in." A few days after a mild stroke, followed by a bout of malaria, she saved her life by leaping from a monorail trolley about to smash into a rock wall. Needless to say, she accepted with aplomb bloodthirsty Indians in the Amazonian jungle, puff adders, stinging ants, a lion growling outside her bedroom, nameless shapes in murky waters, and an amorous Brazilian passenger on a riverboat ("I presently became aware that he was now in his pyjamas and the next thing that forced itself on my obtuse, unsuspecting brain was that very soon he would be out of his pyjamas").
She was an early devotee of what she called "auto-mobiles" and "avions." Though Khalil had prevented her flying from the south of France to London in the '20s, she made up for it in Venezuela and the United States, where she would fly between New York and Virginia when visiting a black sheep brother, enjoying a tot of brandy en route. While in Virginia, she became a keen pool player, with her nephews, in the local saloon. She no longer went so far as to quaff six liters of beer at a sitting as she had done in Hungary in her youth, but in the evenings, wherever she might be, liked a little drink and a few cigarettes (cigars she saved for Sunday).
Fellow lepidopterists tended to be a helpful lot, though one in Siam told her no more than that she would require a large body of coolies with tents "at an expenditure of about
100 a week! I presume this would include elephants." Evidently he wanted no competition. In England she visited another collector, a shy man living in a fine mansion. Before long, the strange people on the lawn and the hectic notes of a distant piano suggested to her that the house had a private lunatic asylum and her collector an inmate -- "not a very bad case," it turned out. A later visit, this to the great collector Lord Rothschild, went off more smoothly, though she was sorry to learn that the burden of his wealth had made him think of suicide. As she grew older, killing newly hatched butterflies with a fatal drink of gasoline became distressing. Her specimens were uniformly perfect, but she began to feel the cost of the perfection. She was still on the track of butterflies in Trinidad when at the age of 78 she was found lying by the road with her net.
There had been moments when she wondered why she wasn't like the well-dressed women she sometimes saw in hotels, mothers and grandmothers of happy children: "I loved the wild life I had chosen, but sometimes I feel a longing for what my fate might have been otherwise." The zest with which she lived up to the last moment, however, renders that longing superfluous. She sometimes dreamed that she was young again, but didn't mind waking to find herself an old woman -- a remarkable one, however, one who walked 12 miles the day after her 71st birthday and on a cold day ran three miles in 31 minutes to keep warm.
A few years before her death, she met in Uganda yet another attractive man, a Scottish botanist. "Had I been some forty or fifty years younger, I should certainly have fallen in love with him," she wrote. The young botanist, by 1980 an old man, read the first volume of Miss Fountaine's published diaries and wrote to the editor: "She may not have been a great scientific lepidopterist -- whatever that may mean -- but I doubt if anyone to this day has unravelled so many butterfly life histories as she did, or collected such wonderful material . . . She was, so it seemed, devoted only to her butterflies, and to travel, to see new places. She never spoke of the past and of all she had done, and I never suspected she was other than a Victorian lady straying very late into the next century."
Eve Auchincloss is senior associate editor of Connoisseur magazine.