Menlove: The Life of John Menlove Edwards. Jim Perrin. Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1985. (Distributed in the United States by David & Charles, Inc., North Pomfret, Vermont.) 344 pages, photographs. $34.95.
Jim Perrin has found a difficult, indeed a problematic biographical subject, with whom he has had a long but ultimately rewarding struggle. Why should J. Menlove Edwards be so difficult to write about? “The pioneer explorer of the Llanberis pass,” as Joe Brown has called him, Edwards was considered, with Colin Kirkus, the finest British rock climber of the 1930s. He made numerous new routes in Wales, as well as the first unaided climb of the central buttress of Scafell when he was only twenty-one. But his achievement was all on rock and all in Britain. There were no dramatic expeditions, no foreign exploration of any kind. Relatively little was written about him in his day, and much of that, for reasons that Perrin makes clear, was fragmentary or evasive. Unlike the protagonists of so many climbing biographies and autobiographies, Edwards was more interesting than his accomplishments.
Edwards had a quirky but genuine literary gift; in his text and appendix, Perrin includes the best of his work—poetry, some classic imaginative climbing narratives. He quotes perhaps too heavily from the former, which he terms “inescapably minor,” but whose biographical significance is undeniable. If Edwards’ life had had more drama, if there had been more witnesses to its inner concerns, such reference would have been less tempting. Whatever their interest, these frequent block quotations do impede the narrative.
Edwards’ early adulthood seemed more than promising. Apart from his climbing achievements, he studied medicine at Liverpool University and became an enthusiastic—and apparently very humane and successful—clinical psychologist. But already his family life was shadowed by tragedy: a father incapacitated in a freak accident while using the fork of a tree to break a piece of driftwood; a brother killed in a motorcycle smash. Edwards’ own tragedy was interior, a decay of his faculties that brought him, after a long and harrowing descent into paranoia, to self-destruction. His fate was not simply of his own making. Perrin regards him as “a victim of social circumstance, as courageous and unfortunate in his social endeavour as he was unique in his activities on rock and water.” His pacifism made him an embattled conscientious objector in World War II. His abandonment of this position in early 1945 was, as Perrin plausibly argues, a sign of flagging moral and emotional strength.
While the relationship between the social and the psychological is always hard to analyze precisely, the center of Edwards’ dilemma was his homosexuality. He did not feel guilty or ambivalent, but he lived in a country where “any act of gross indecency with another male person” made one liable to two years’ imprisonment at hard labor. Although his sexual impulses were not stifled, their expression was necessarily guarded. Such repression must have been the worst thing for Edwards, whose natural introspection it intensified to a degree seemingly pathological. He did have a few rather short-lived affairs, about which Perrin is understandably able to provide relatively few details. Perhaps the most important of these was with the seventeen-year-old Wilfred Noyce. Noyce, who became a well-known mountaineer and writer, reveals little of his relations with Edwards in his Mountains and Men (1947) or even, according to Perrin, in Samson, memoir that Noyce and Geoffrey Sutton published privately two years after Edwards’ death. In a brief foreword, Edwards’ older brother Stephen says that Menlove never spoke to his family about his homosexuality. His life bears distressing comparison to that of Alan Turing, the great English mathematician, whose recent biography (by Andrew Hodges) Perrin mentions. The men were contemporaries and both rather innocent in their sexual leanings. Arrested for “gross indecency,” Turing was placed on hormone treatment to remedy his “inversion.” While in his early forties he took cyanide, as Edwards was to do four years later. As Hodges remarks, “there was no concept of a right to sexual expression in the Britain of 1952.”
For all his growing bent toward self-destruction, Edwards seems to have been not at all suicidal in his climbing. While one of his most celebrated essays, “A Great Effort,” testifies to the climber’s struggle with lethargy and self-doubt, on the rope he was strong and reliable, especially on the steep, loose and vegetated rock to which he was often drawn. He rarely fell, in contrast to Noyce, who took some real screamers, including one of nearly 200 feet on Scafell. (He was killed in a fall in the Pamirs in 1962.) Edwards’ activities with water—he rowed to the Hebrides, for example, and swam a rapids swollen with cold spring runoff—were far riskier than his climbing, which continued until the end. His last new route, a characteristically hard line up a waterfall, was done the summer before he died. When his partner tried to beg off, “the only reply I got was a bald head and a red face, glowering down from the black, dripping rock, looking like the very devil.”
By the time he was thirty-four, Edwards’ professional career, once so very promising, had ended. His ambitious and at times grandiose work was never published—another area in which expression was denied him. Increasingly unstable, “he harboured the delusion that he was being sent young male patients by his superiors in order that they might find out about his sexual leanings.” His last years were, with some dwindling exceptions, isolated and unproductive. One of the book’s photographs is particularly poignant: Edwards at the beach with his sister and her numerous children. They surround her; he is a little by himself, diffident. Astonishingly, this is “the last known photo of Menlove,” although he lived another ten-and-a-half years. That sad and desperate time was punctuated by two failed suicide attempts and concluded, on February 2, 1958, with the successful one. Edwards was forty-seven years old.
Perrin’s view of his subject changed as he worked on the book: “he is not the simple hero of the spirit I knew ten years ago.” Perhaps he still idealizes him, if just a little. Edwards seems to have been a difficult man long before his terrible last years, when he turned on his friends in bitterness and irrationality. He could certainly be angry and difficult even in earlier times. In retrospect, such behavior seems part of the pathology that finally dominated him. Yet he was also immensely patient, as well as capable in medicine and physically powerful. Just the man for a hard route or a crisis. His loss, which began long before his death, was a major one for the world of climbing—and also, less visibly, for that larger community which he had struggled to serve. Jim Perrin tells this unhappy story with sympathy and restraint.