Butterfly collectors have not received a good press over the years. Perhaps the man in the street perceives any occupation whose main aim would appear to be pinning a beautiful insect to a piece of cork, as somewhat suspect, and these days - at any rate - the wholesale slaughter of any creature for predominantly aesthetic purposes has become viewed as morally dubious. The renowned author John Fowles wrote a spectacularly nasty book called The Collector, which all the story of a sociopathic loner who has a low-level clerical job, and who collects butterflies in his spare time.
He falls in love with an upper-class art student, but is too shy to approach her, and when - by chance - he wins a large amount of money on the football pools, he spends it on an isolated house deep in the countryside, and becomes obsessed with his plans to kidnap his inamorata, and somehow manipulate her into falling in love with him. Obviously, it doesn't work out like this, and all ends nastily. However, Fowles's novel inspired a host of tributes ranging from a single by The Jam to at least two majorly unpleasant serial killers.
Butterfly collectors have often been treated with distrust over the years. Eleanor Glanville (c.1654–1709) was a 17th century entomologist who lived in Lincolnshire, and later Somerset. She was particularly interested in butterflies. She collected large numbers of butterfly specimens, many of which survive as some of the earliest specimens kept in the British Museum (natural history), and has been immortalised for British entomologists by being one of the only two people to have a native British butterfly - the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) named after them. The other, by the way is Real's Wood White (Leptidea reali), a species only discovered in 2001, which appears to be endemic only to parts of the Emerald Isle.
In 1776, the year of the American revolution, Moses Harris, usually described as the father of British entomology wrote of the discovery of the Glanville Fritillary: "This fly took its name from the ingenious Lady Glanvil, whose memory had like to have suffered for her curiosity". Thus started the only two facts that most historians know - or think that they know - about Eleanor Glanville. However, like so much that appears in print each year, both `facts` are completely wrong.
Firstly, although nearly every book published since refers to her as `Lady Glanville`, she had no title. Harris had merely given her the honorific of `Lady` because she was a gentlewoman - the female equivalent of a `Gentleman`. Secondly, her memory had not "suffered for her curiosity". Harris went on to write: "Some relations that was disappointed by her Will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies".
Poor Eleanor Glanville. The pursuit of Natural History was not the socially acceptable, genteel occupation that it would become a century or so after her death, and women who were perceived as having an unhealthy relationship with the natural world were still accused of witchcraft. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, nine year’s after Eleanor’s death, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged, so Eleanor’s researches into things that were either ignored, or worse ridiculed, by her peers, were actually very brave indeed. To – as her neighbours were quoted as claiming - beat the hedges for "a parcel of wormes", was actually, for a seventeenth century woman, a very brave thing to do.
It appears that Mrs Glanville's interest in the natural world seemed that began in maturity, in the aftermath of a disastrous second marriage to Richard Glanville, a violent psychopath who threatened to shoot her again on several occasions. Quite possibly her life with her second husband drove her towards her eccentric behaviour. As well as threatening to kill her, he also organise the plot to kidnap one of her sons with the aim of getting him to withdraw any claim against the property that he stood to inherit upon the death of his mother. Eleanor withdrew into herself and embarked on a love affair with nature, and in particular British butterflies, which took priority in her battered psyche over what she perceived as the rampant injustices of the real world.
Because of the behaviour of her estranged husband, she arranged for her estate to be dealt with by a board of trustees after her death, and when her will was finally published, her eldest son entered into litigation seeking to set her will aside on the grounds that his mother had gone mad, "for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of butterflies" and according to Michael Salmon writing in The Aurelian Legacy, had believed that her children had "all been changed into fairies!"
Writing as someone who has very little faith in the rule of law, it is comforting to be able to report that this outrageous legal gambit failed spectacularly.
Moses Harris wrote: "fortunately and Mr Rae defended her character. This last gentleman went to Exeter, and on the trial satisfied the judge and jury of the lady's laudable inquiry into the wonderful works of Creation, and established her will".
Eleanor's posthumous reputation, and indeed her estate were secure. But this story is far more than a mildly interesting 18th Century legal anecdote. I can understand what happened to Eleanor, because much the same has happened to me over the years. My love for the natural world has got me through more bad times, than my fondness for hard liquor or the fruit of the poppy ever did. I, too, fell in love with the natural world, and in particular British lepidoptera many years ago, and I, too have my share of mental health problems.