Eleanor Glanville: the butterfly collector
Today, insects are seen as a vital part of our ecosystem, but in the late 17th century, they were often overlooked by science. Patricia Fara tells the story of a groundbreaking lepidopterist whose research provided solace from a turbulent personal life.
Eleanor Glanville was in her early thirties when she made a terrible mistake. A wealthy widow, in 1685 she married a second husband who was more interested in her fortune than in marital bliss. He became increasingly violent, kidnapped their own son and turned her family against her.
After she died, a judge rejected her will on the grounds that she was “not in sound mind”. The evidence offered for her supposed insanity was that she collected butterflies: apparently it was obvious that “none but those who were deprived of their senses, would go in Pursuit of Butterflies”.
Over three centuries later, Glanville remains the only British naturalist to have bequeathed their name to a native butterfly species, the Glanville fritillary. The science of entomology had not yet been established, but she was an early pioneer who helped to make the study of insects a rigorous academic discipline – one that is now recognised as being crucial for environmental protection.
Long before the label ‘Anthropocene’ was coined to summarise the deleterious impact of human behaviour, Glanville was carefully documenting the prevalence of butterfly populations and aiming to ensure their longevity.
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Glanville captured her first specimens of fritillaries in Lincolnshire. The wings of these pretty butterflies carry striking brown and yellow chequerboard patterns that reminded people of a dice box, or fritillus in Latin.
They used to abound all over Europe, but in England they are now mainly confined to the Isle of Wight, having succumbed to the double ecological pressure of hotter weather and a decline in their favourite food, ribwort plantain.
Modern ecologists have devised an injunction for creatures who want to survive: “Move, Adapt or Die”. Glanville’s fritillaries are failing to follow that advice – and ironically, the acronym MAD matches the verdict that was pronounced upon Glanville herself.
Frustratingly, many women from the past have left only scant traces of their existence, but tangential evidence can often be retrieved through records of their menfolk, their money and their marriages. For Glanville, this approach reveals that her father was a major who fought in Scotland for Oliver Cromwell, but that her wealth descended from the maternal side of the family.
Her second marriage was a prolonged disaster, while her earlier one proved too brief to be judged a success. Her first husband, the portrait painter Edmund Ashfield, presumably appreciated moving into Tickenham Court, a large property in Somerset that she had inherited, but he died after only a very few years, leaving her with two small children.
After a suitable interval, she married Richard Glanville, a clergyman’s son from Suffolk who was around 10 years her junior, and they had four children together, two of whom survived infancy.
A spirit unbroken
At a time when divorce was virtually impossible, many wives were ill-treated by physically abusive husbands, yet Richard Glanville’s behaviour was exceptionally atrocious. After they separated because of “great discontent arising between them” (a polite euphemism that glossed over threats with a loaded pistol), he found another woman and dedicated himself to securing a substantial financial settlement.
He abducted their son Richard, secretly farming him out to various unwilling relatives before forcing him to sign incriminating documents and then abandoning him.
Eleanor Glanville refused to cave in: instead, she appointed trustees for her properties and willed most of her estate to a cousin. But after she died, her avaricious husband persuaded numerous witnesses to testify against her in court. Even her son by her first marriage accused her of believing that her four surviving children had been turned into fairies.
Unlike many rejected wives, Glanville did not have to worry about money. During that long, solitary period of her life, Glanville sought solace by turning her attention once more to her childhood fascination with the natural world, especially moths and butterflies.
Her mental stability may well have deteriorated under her husband’s prolonged persecution, but diagnoses of insanity often provided convenient excuses for silencing women who dared to deviate from social expectation, and Glanville’s passion for butterflies exacerbated accusations of derangement.
Roaming the countryside with a collecting net was deemed bizarre behaviour for anyone, let alone a woman, and she was castigated for venturing out dressed “like a gypsy” while she scoured the hedgerows to retrieve insect larvae.
Conventionally, butterflies were regarded not as fascinating subjects for close observation but as symbols of shallowness and frivolity – although a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis also provided a metaphor for a soul that has escaped its bodily residence on Earth and flown up to heaven.
In contrast, Glanville approached her studies with scientific seriousness. Endowed with a substantial legacy, she could afford to continue living at Tickenham Court, as well as to indulge her passion for moths and butterflies.
Like present-day ecologists, she realised that it was crucial to actively rear moths and butterflies, in order to protect them as well as to study the stages of their development. With the help of local girls, she travelled round the countryside beating bushes, equipped with a sheet to catch falling larvae.
After bringing her specimens home, she meticulously logged their growth, providing some of the earliest detailed accounts of insect lifecycles.
Making her mark
Glanville also recruited her servants as assistants, paying them with unusual generosity to deliver butterflies that particularly intrigued her. Issuing detailed instructions, she only accepted insect specimens that had been carefully protected by being wrapped in folded paper so that they arrived in tip-top condition.
Since she was willing to pay up to a shilling (the equivalent of about five or six pounds today) for a fine specimen, she managed to accumulate a substantial collection.
As well as conducting her own extensive research, Glanville regularly exchanged letters and butterflies with England’s most eminent butterfly expert was James Petiver, and Glanville came to know him so well that he took on her son Richard as an apprentice.
Sadly, this arrangement ended after three months when her husband enticed him away with a bribe of three guineas; only later did Richard realise that his father “was then acting the part of butcher who first tickles his ox then slaughters him”.
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Petiver was compiling an authoritative Latin catalogue of British insects, and he gave full credit to Glanville for her contributions. She sent him boxes of carefully pinned butterflies from all over the country, including several that had been previously unknown, and notably the one that was later dubbed the Glanville fritillary.
Eleanor Glanville must forever remain an elusive character. No portraits survive, and no documents exist that convey her experiences and emotions in her own voice. Most of her precious specimens have been eaten away by mites and moulds, but three – two moths and a butterfly – are still preserved in London’s Natural History Museum.
Despite the turbulence of her life, she has not been silenced: her name lives on in the butterflies she loved, documented and preserved.
Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Life After Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career (OUP, 2021).
This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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