Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Climbers who wrote

"Its besetting sin is triviality. There is too much talk about the details of travel...."
Woodcut from Edward Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps in the years 1860-69

An appreciation of English alpine literature from the start of the last century

From 1840 onward this literature began to grow at an increasing pace. The early awe of the mountains gave way before achievement. Achievement gave birth to a new and more intimate knowledge or the Alps. Between 1840 and 1870 practically all the highest peaks of Switzerland were conquered. Region after region delivered up its secrets - first the Oberland, then the Engadine and finally the Dolomites. A whole body of Englishmen mastered the secrets of snow-craft, and on their heels came another and even more adventurous band who developed a new school in crag-climbing. 

The men who performed these feats began to describe them. The people who remained behind had an eager curiosity to know what these heights were like, and there was a continuous demand for the literature of Alpine adventure. Thus there grew up a new literature of the Alps, the literature of the Alpine Journal and its writers; the books of Whymper, Mummery, Forbes and Conway; and, perhaps most distinguished of all, the sketches of Tyndall and Leslie Stephen.

What is the value of this literature as a contribution to English prose? Like the mountains with which it deals, it is strangely unequal. It rises to great heights and sinks to great depths. Its besetting sin is triviality. There is too much talk about the details of travel; about the meals, about the discomforts, about beds, about blisters, and above all about fleas. If all the passages in Alpine literature written on these topics were collected together, they would easily fill a volume bigger than the present. 

But in spite of these grave defects, the English climbing literature of the last fifty years has given us some great passages. It can even be said, indeed, that mountain climbing has actually created writers. Men like Whymper and Mummery were not literary men. They were climbers who took to writing. But they had a great theme and a great experience. The mere greatness of the theme has made them conspicuous writers. They have been raised by the subject to a higher level. They have ascended with the mountains themselves to greater heights.


From the foreword to the anthology In praise of Switzerland: being the Alps in prose and verse (1912) by Harold Spender (1864-1926)


Iainhw said...

Mountain books with references to fleas? I always think of Walter Weston's accounts.
Mountain sketches? The best I've seen are those of Adams Reilly. Coincidentally in the same box of artifacts as Weston's diaries in the Alpine Club library in London.
As for Victorian climbers being elevated to great writers, I'm not so sure. I suspect the author of this blog has a very valid opinion on this?

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Hoi, Iain. Yes, I seem to remember plenty of fleas in Weston's books. The pilgrims' shelters on Mt Fuji were particularly notorious. I think Weston recommended taking along flea powder - see the chapter mentioned in "Was Walter Weston a gear freak?" As for the sketches, I think Harold Spender meant literary sketches rather than drawings - I don't see Leslie Stephen in particular having much time to deploy pencil and paper during his meteoric career of daring first ascents... But one of these days I must come with you to view these priceless original documents at the RGS....