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National Insect Week - Celebrating The Lady of the Butterflies

During the Royal Entomological Society’s National Insect Week, who better to celebrate than Eleanor Glanville, who I came to admire so much when I was researching and writing my novel about her life, ’The Lady of the Butterflies.’

The Glanville Fritillary is the only British butterfly to be named after a person and that person is Eleanor. She was a pioneering seventeenth century entomologist who studied butterflies extensively at a time when it was unusual for anyone, let alone a woman to pursue entomology. Her surviving collections and some of her correspondence with leading entomologist James Petiver are preserved in the Natural History Museum. James Petiver (1663-1718) is known as the 'father of entomology’ and was the first to give butterflies English names, many of which - Brimstones, Admirals, Agues, Tortoiseshells - are still used to this today.

But anyone who took an interest in butterflies was the subject of pity and derision and often misunderstood, or worse - one of Petiver's butterfly hunters was suspected of practising witchcraft and necromancy, since butterflies were thought to represent the souls of the dead. The process of metamorphosis was still a mystery, and was cause for much speculation. It was put forward as proof that alchemy was possible. When Eleanor died her relatives tried to overturn her will on the grounds that she was insane, because ‘nobody who was not deprived of their senses would go in pursuit of butterflies.’

But in one way her story has resonances with present times. Her biographer described how she, perhaps like many in 2020, ‘gained happiness from natural history in the midst of great fear and sorrow.’


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