Sunday, 18 September 2016

Book-dowsing: Butterflies and Late Loves, the diaries of Margaret Fountaine

Margaret Fountaine, Edited by W. F. Cater

I was going through my unread books and came across this and couldn't remember ever bringing it home. I don't know if it was given to me or if I picked it up and brought it home and I picked it up with a 'who are you? How did you get here?' impulse.

Born in England in 1862, dying in Trinidad in 1940, Margaret Fontaine offers a glimpse into history that we don't often see - i.e. into the life of a woman of late 30s and upwards out on her own living an independent life and travelling the globe. The book has large passages written by W. F. Cater and these are in italics so it's easy to discern whose voice is whose. He fills in the blanks of where she is and what she's doing and then her diary narrative takes over. Fountaine was a butterfly collector and she travelled the world to both enlarge her collection and supply other collectors who were not as mobile as she was. She had some money but wasn't rich. Sometimes she stayed in hotels when she was flush; other times she would stay in less salubrious accommodation. 

The main late love of which the title refers is the man she spent decades almost marrying, Charles (Khalil) Niemy. As far as I can determine from the text they never actually consummated their relationship, always appearing to have separate bedrooms, but he did live with her at times in a way which would not have been quite acceptable at the time, the pair of them even going so far as to say he was a relative while they lived in Australia and he sought British citizenship. They never did get married for one reason or another and though she was very attached to him she nevertheless did not list him as the great love of her love.

America, Rangoon, the South Seas, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, West Africa, Canada,Guadaloupe, Martinique, the Amazon, Cuba, Cambodia, Singapore, Uganda - Miss Fontaine was a voracious traveller! This was partly due to her work but also down to the fact that she disliked English weather intensely and tended to grow ill if exposed to it for too long. She views the world at times through the lens of Empire and makes sweeping statements about whole nations and races - some positive, some not. Later in life she began to lose some of her love for her work. I'm not exactly a fan of the practice of butterfly collecting - killing any animal for display is not something I would ever endorse - and this passage towards the end of the book stayed with me:

I never before felt more sorry for any butterfly I have ever bred that for a poor little Dardanus female. She stretched out her long proboscis, and she seemed to be feeling about to find something to suck - and I? I gave her petrol, till she died.

Miss Fountaine did feel depression at times and regret but in the way that we all do, catching glimpses of how life might have been had we made another choice. Beneath these moments was the core of a woman guided by common-sense - when she had to have silk dresses made as she was going somewhere where she would be expected to attend social functions, she had the dressmaker put large pockets in the dresses for her equipment so that when their public function was done she could use them on her butterfly expeditions.

Mr Cater is a bit dry and lacking in personality for me so I was always eager to get past the italics and get my teeth into Margaret's own words. She was determined and self-sufficient, able to support herself with her work when she needed to. I was glad that a previous, forgotten me had picked up this book as I love coming across the tales of these real-life women and seeing what life was like for those 'Victorian Ladies' who didn't end up getting married, having children and subordinating their lives to their husbands and social activity. It was also interesting to get a glimpse of what life was like in the various places she travelled to. This is the second book by Mr Cater and I have discovered a copy of the first in the library and will be reading that when I am able.

Recommended for those who like reading diaries, biographies and early twentieth century history. Also for those who like their woman tenacious and adventuring.

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