'Wild and Fearless': the first biography of Margaret Fountaine
When the English traveller and butterfly collector Margaret Fountaine visited Damascus for the first time in 1901, a young Syrian man, Khalil Neimy, was her guide and translator. Khalil found good butterfly hunting grounds for Margaret and she was thrilled to catch Syrian species of butterfly she had never seen before.
Margaret then employed the young man on a weekly wage to accompany her to Baalbek to look for butterflies. At the time, Margaret was 39 years old and still a virgin, while Khalil, at 24, was 15 years her junior. Yet despite the differences in their age and backgrounds, Khalil was soon pressuring Margaret with his charm and amorous intentions. While they were visiting the ruins of Baalbek he asked her to marry him and she agreed to become Mrs Neimy.
Khalil was Greek Orthodox, so at least he was a Christian like Margaret, but she soon realised that he had traditional views of marriage. As she refused to think of becoming a Turkish subject, they agreed they would live in America after marriage.
She then hired him for a trek on horseback to Jerusalem. In their seven-week trip through Palestine they passed through Nazareth, and went across the plain of Jenin to Nablus and Jerusalem and then travelled to the coast and went to Beirut by steamer.
These were the beginnings of a loving relationship that would last 27 turbulent years until Khalil’s death in 1928. The couple’s many journeys to collect butterflies took them to places including Algeria, the Caribbean, Central America, the Far East, Turkey, India and the USA. They also spent a disastrous period of nearly three years in Australia trying to farm in the rainforest of Queensland.
Sometimes they travelled as “brother and sister” to enable them to share a room, sometimes as “cousins”. He was known as Karl, and then in her later diaries she always called him Charles.
But despite his marriage proposal early in their friendship, the two would never marry. Margaret received a major blow after their first trip together when she discovered that he was already married to a wife in Damascus.
Over the years Khalil would assure Margaret that he was aiming to get divorced and marry her, but it was not until the mid-1920s that he wrote to her from Damascus and said his uncle, Bishop Neimy, had dissolved his marriage and thought English ladies made very good wives. Only after Khalil’s death did Margaret realise the extent to which he had deceived her and led a double life throughout their relationship.
Although Khalil deceived Margaret about his life in Damascus, it is clear from “Wild and Fearless” that he was very helpful to Margaret in her travels around the world and in her work with butterflies. When they were both stricken with malaria in Algeria and she became extremely ill, she said his devoted care had saved her life. In the international world of entomology [ie the scientific study of insects] Khalil became accepted as her companion on her trips, and she always referred to him as “Bersa” in the papers she wrote for entomological journals.
The extraordinary story of the love affair of Margaret and Khalil, is told by the British travel writer Natascha Scott-Stokes in her biography “Wild and Fearless: The Life of Margaret Fountaine”, published recently in London by publisher Peter Owen.
The book is the first biography of a remarkably adventurous, courageous and gifted woman who travelled the world collecting and breeding butterflies and making important scientific discoveries about them, while at the same time having a complicated emotional life.
Although Margaret wrote a detailed account of her life in her diaries, she stipulated in a letter written in 1939 that the box of her 12 leather-bound diaries, kept in Norwich Castle Museum, should not be opened until 1978. This would be 100 years after she started writing them at the age of 15.
After the diaries were opened in 1978, two edited volumes were published, both edited by WF Cater: “Love Among the Butterflies” (1980) and “Butterflies and Late Loves” (1986).
Scott-Stokes is like Fountaine an exceptional solo woman traveller, and she has an enthusiasm for, and sympathy with, the subject of her biography. Scott-Stokes was the first woman to travel alone from the river Amazon’s source high in the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. She wrote about this in her first travel book, “An Amazon and a Donkey” (1991).
Scott-Stokes tells Margaret’s story with spirit and liveliness. She says that when she started reading Margaret’s diaries “I was absolutely fascinated by her experiences and how many similarities there were in our experience, even though there was a hundred years’ difference.” One similarity is the problems the solo woman traveller encounters with men.
The Fountaine family into which Margaret was born in 1862 was one of the oldest families in the county of Norfolk in eastern England. Margaret was a woman of many talents, and she could have been an artist or a singer. The illustrations of the various stages in the life cycle of a butterfly from Margaret’s sketchbook, which are reproduced in Scott-Stokes’ biography, show her gifts as an artist.
Margaret’s twenties were dominated by a hopeless love for a chorister at Norwich Cathedral, Septimus Hewson. He would according to Scott-Stokes “leave a wound in her heart and soul from which she would never really recover.”
When Margaret was 27, she and her sisters inherited a large sum of money from her father’s brother. In his will the uncle said that the money should be held in trust, so as to give each girl an income for life. Margaret was now able to leave Norwich and travel. As Scott-Stokes puts it, the money gave her a unique opportunity to escape the limits society had set.
She went to Ireland in pursuit of Septimus Hewson, who had fled there from Norwich after running up debts. She thought she had become engaged to him, but it ended badly.
On her travels Margaret had many male admirers, as she describes in her diaries. But although she enjoyed flirting and playing games, she never fully succumbed to the attentions of men.
Her travels took her first to countries in Western Europe, and in Switzerland she rediscovered the delights of butterfly collecting. She wrote that it was then that “the love of natural history was strongly implanted in me.”
After she spent three days visiting the great butterfly collector Henry John Elwes in 1895 that she resolved to build up a serious butterfly collection. Her first major butterfly-collecting trip was to Sicily.
Scott-Stokes writes that by the time Margaret was 35 in 1897, she entered the entomological world “fully formed, and in perfect condition, just like one of her butterflies.” Her first article, on Sicilian butterflies, was published in the journal The Entomologist and the Natural History Museum in London added 44 of her butterfly specimens to its collections.
Queen Victoria died in 1901 after a 64-year reign and this marked the end of an era also for Margaret. Scott-Stokes writes: “From now on Margaret would live most of her life far away from England, spending long periods of time in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. It was going to be a time of great personal and professional success, and though Margaret’s path was never straight, even she would have been astonished to hear what fate had in store for her.”
Margaret was very keen to visit the East, particularly the Holy Lands, and she travelled by sea via Marseilles and Alexandria to Beirut, where she spent 10 days at the Hotel Allemand. She also visited the mountains, where she was distressed by the situation of women. In Damascus she was booked into the Orient Hotel, whose proprietors were brothers Georges and Elias Kaouam. They came to collect her by a horse-drawn carriage with their guide and interpreter Khalil Neimy, who had been educated by American missionaries and had then spent four years living in Wisconsin.
Even though Margaret discovered, after her trip to Palestine with him, that Khalil was married, she asked him to be her guide on her first visit to Asia Minor (Turkey). He wrote to say he would tell her his side of the story about his marriage, and he even offered to serve her all his life for no wages at all, just to be close to her.
It was during the trip to Asia Minor that, at the age of 41, Margaret finally lost her virginity to Khalil. He explained his marriage by saying he his father had insisted that he return home from America to marry a young girl of 15, but she had turned out to be the daughter of a prostitute. He claimed his wife had then turned to prostitution and had abandoned their first baby daughter who then died. He told Margaret that when he proposed to her in the ruins of Baalbek he had been sure of getting a divorce, which was why he had not mentioned his marriage, but that the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Damascus had now refused to give him one.
Scott-Stokes notes that Khalil became Margaret’s husband in all but name. At the Second International Congress of Entomology held in Oxford in 1912 Margaret took Khalil with her, for he was her partner in her work and she wanted him to be recognised. She was delighted when he was welcomed by everyone. But then the sister of one of her best entomological friends told Margaret that everybody had been talking about them and wanted to know if she was married to “Bersa”.
Margaret would never know all the details of Khalil’s marriage and family circumstances in Damascus, but she had a terrible shock after his death when she received letters from his mother, sister and a friend Margaret had never heard of. The sister claimed that Khalil’s wife had been very cruel, abandoning him while he was ill and taking their five children with her.
Margaret had believed Khalil when he told her he had finally got a divorce. Nor had she had any idea of the existence of these five children, the oldest of whom was supposedly a son of 22. The sister, Poling, told Margaret that Khalil had promised that Margaret would continue supporting her and their mother. Margaret then she started to get letters from his wife asking for money. Margaret ignored all these requests.
After Khalil’s death, Margaret remained loyal to his memory and recognised his contribution to her work. Her huge collection of 22,000 butterfly specimens in Norwich Castle Museum is called the Fountaine-Neimy Collection. After Khalil died Margaret travelled in the Amazon, and found two new butterflies. She allowed Norman Riley of the Natural History Museum in London to name the butterflies after Khalil, and wrote in a letter to Riley: “Poor Mr Neimy, how pleased he would have been.”
Published in Arabic translation in Al Hayat 9 January 2007
[the photographs of Margaret in 1886 aged 24 (top) and of Khalil at the same age (the latter photo is shown pasted into Margaret's diary) are among the many images reproduced in 'Wild and Fearless' courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum]