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The Victorian Mountaineers

The Victorian Mountaineers, by Ronald Clark. 8vo., 232 pages with 45 photographic illustrations. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1953. Price, 18/—.

The author’s paper in Cornhill Magazine, from which the present volume has been elaborated, was a remarkable one, and there are many courses to the resulting delectable feast. It places the Victorians in a true and surprising light, apart from their caricatures, as the bearded gentleman of family albums, who nevertheless developed the first considerable group of mountaineers. Without them, probably there would have been no Alpine Club, or other British climbing groups, and few of the English books of mountain exploration. The stage was set by the scientific activity of Forbes, by the original thought of Ruskin, and, not least, by the showmanship of Albert Smith. It was a part of the quest for fact, particularly physical knowledge, that drew the Victorian out of his sedentary life. Less complex than a desire for conquest, it was an actual escape, in many instances, from luxury, a revolution against ease. In a period of questioning, the scientist and the clergyman, climbing for the same reason, each sought his own answer in contact with Nature. Only slowly did mountaineering become recognized as a sport; but the Victorian on a summit was from the beginning certain that his adventure separated him from the ordinary mortal. If it did nothing else, it convinced him of his physical hardihood.

You who would live for a moment in the Golden Age will read this book, and many will be the great and lesser names that greet you: John Ball, Charles Hudson, Alfred Wills, John Tyndall, Leslie Stephen, C. E. Mathews, Edward Whymper, W. A. B. Coolidge, and others. It is indeed a new Tyndall who delighted picnic parties by hanging from his heels from the highest tree to be found, and who would climb floating icebergs in the Märjelensee until they overbalanced and gave him a freezing bath. It is odd to hear from John Ball of American travellers at the Grimsel parting company through dispute on the theory of glaciers. Coolidge, the controversial figure from our shores, “The Boswell of the Alps,” will be the subject of a future volume. Will D. W. Freshfield make a satisfying Dr. Johnson? It is a pity that Coolidge’s contemporaries have all departed this life, for his biography would (and may yet) arouse as much controversy as did the publication of Whymper’s Scrambles.

The portraits used for illustration, part of a larger collection shown publicly in London, are of utmost interest. That of Miss Brevoort is the most attractive yet to appear; other of the ladies are less favored. Yet all belie their abilities. It is interesting to note that the courier standing behind young Arthur of Connaught at the Grands Mulets in 1864 is the same Louis Peter who accompanied the American party of the Wilkinsons in the following year.

J. Monroe Thorington