From Lagertha on “Vikings” to Elizabeth in “The Crown” and Masterpiece’s “Victoria”, historical women are having A Moment—a long overdue moment. For millennia, women’s accomplishments have frequently been overlooked, relegated to dusty corners of archives and the odd footnote in monkish chronicles. Not anymore. Writers like Mackenzi Lee and Anne Thériault are digging up their stories and putting them on display in books like Bygone Badass Broads and features on Longreads. Rachel Hawkins explores forgotten royal romances that changed history in her tweetstorms hashtagged #dirtysexyhistory. And I’ve taken one neglected explorer and used her as the inspiration for an entire mystery series.
I first discovered Margaret Fountaine through her diary—a grubby out-of-print copy I picked up in a library sale for a quarter. It has a dreadful title (Love Among The Butterflies), but the story was absolutely riveting. Margaret was a Victorian “lady explorer”, one of the brigade of women who packed up their petticoats and parasols and set out to see the world. The 19th-century was full of these intrepid figures who decided there was more to life than tatting and tea parties. Some ventured off with husbands, but most set off alone, voyaging to parts of the globe that had never before been visited by Western Europeans, often in the name of science.
Margaret was a lepidopterist by trade, hunting butterflies as a way of making a living. While a lady’s maid could earn 90 guineas a year working her knuckles to nubbins, a single quality example of a rare butterfly species could fetch three guineas. One trip to the tropics, net in hand, and Margaret could earn enough to keep her in stockings and fans—as well as food and shelter–for the rest of the year. She was tireless, crisscrossing the continents until her death, still searching for the perfect specimens. She left her personal collection of butterflies and her travel diaries to an institution in England with the provision that the diaries be untouched for seventy years. When they were opened, they were an absolute bombshell. Not only had Margaret been collecting butterflies on her travels—she had been collecting men.
For decades as she trotted around the world, Margaret had availed herself of whatever temptations were on offer, whether fellow traveler or local guide. From innocent flirtations to fully-blown romps, Margaret enjoyed it all before settling into a long-standing interracial relationship with her Lebanese dragoman. When she was back in England, she behaved with perfect decorum, singing in the church choir and sketching to pass the time. But on her travels, she was completely her own woman, doing what—and whom—she pleased.
Margaret could be difficult. She was audacious and willful and more than a little selfish, all the characteristics that make for a great heroine who is guaranteed to get in her own way on occasion. When it came time to create a new mystery series, choosing Margaret for my inspiration was a given. Who can resist a woman who carefully studied all the rules just so she could break them one by one?
In fact, Margaret’s own rules for living a large life are just as applicable today as they were a hundred years ago:
*Never travel unprepared. Margaret criss-crossed the globe with the original capsule wardrobe, a few curated pieces that would take her from meadow to music hall, from Switzerland to Sri Lanka and back again.
*Never apologize for your passions. In a world where ennui is cultivated like hothouse orchids, it’s unsophisticated to enthuse. Bollocks to that, Margaret would say. Her pleasure in butterflies took her to six continents and sixty countries. She made a name for herself because of what she loved, and she wasn’t shy about it. She would talk to anyone about lepidoptery and that passion led her to become a self-taught expert in her field.
*A partner should complement not complete you. Margaret was a fully-actualized individual before she met the man she would ultimately spend decades with. When one suitor asked if she meant to be married, she answered quite truthfully that it was a matter of perfect indifference to her. She had her interests and her studies and her friends, a rich and full life that welcomed romance when it came but never viewed it as the reason for her existence.
*Never let a stupid rule stand in the way of what you really want. Margaret knew when to obey society’s conventions and when to shatter them. In an era when a respectable lady wasn’t even supposed to write to a beau, Margaret would happily sit drinking wine unchaperoned with men she met on her travels. She kissed whoever she liked, and did more than that with more than a few. She wrote impassioned letters, engaged in clandestine meetings, and questioned everything.
*Believe in your own resilience. Margaret wrote once that some traveling companions worried too much about her because “they would not be aware of my faculty for always turning up all right.” From bedbugs to bandits, Margaret faced down every travel catastrophe imaginable. But she always landed on her feet, perhaps in no small part because she always believed she would.
There is also a fair bit about Margaret to make a modern reader wince. She was a product of her time, and almost all natural historians of the Victorian age wrote with the smug certainty of the glories of Empire and at least a whiff of racism. In spite of her relationship with a man of a different race and religion, Margaret was far too invested in stereotypes and far too secure in the belief in her own primacy. Where Margaret shines is as a woman who dared to look at the limitations of her sex and refuse to accept them. Whatever her flaws, Margaret Fountaine chose to live a large life in a time when women were too often shoehorned into suffocation.
In the process of reading and writing about Margaret, I have come to like her a little and respect her hugely. I even have a bit of a platonic girl crush on her. And she deserves every bit of it.