Triumph and Tragedy: The Life of Edward Whymper

Publication Year: 2012.

Triumph and Tragedy: the Life of Edward Whymper. Emil Henry. Matador (U.K.), 2011. 428 pages. B&W Sketches taken from Whymper’s published works. Hardcover. $29.95

There are two justifications for a new account of a historical figure marbleized by time and previous biographies. One is new information from the attic or basement. The other is to see the life through the prism of a modern sensibility. The latter appears to be Emil Henry’s intent with Triumph and Tragedy. Unfortunately he lacks the psychological depth or freshness for the task. As to the writing, when he deals with Whymper’s late-life unhappy marriage to 21-year-old Edith Lewin, his style reminded me of women’s magazines in the 40s and 50s. In the following passage Edith has just written a note to a family friend, the young American H.E Montangier, thanking him for a present to her daughter. Henry speculates on the woman’s state of mind: “Edie had made the bed she lay in, but the poignancy of her words was touching. Between the lines of her letter was a longing, a wish for more than she could give or receive in her hapless marriage to Whymper. Her joy as a new mother shone clearly but not brightly enough to conceal her loneliness. The warmly expressed thanks were tinged with sadness—for Edie’s plight and from concern for the future of young Ethel herself, to whom Whymper would always seem an emotionally distant grandfather. The cautious venting of those feelings provided some relief, including the bittersweet pleasure of making contact with Montagnier, the one person she might dare include in her fantasies.”

When he doesn’t stray from paraphrases of letters, diaries, and Whymper’s own books (Scrambles Amongst the Alps, Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator, and Ascent of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi), Henry is on the solid ground provided by Whymper’s superb style and force of personality. From this he weaves a capable vade mecum of the life and adventures, alongside classic illustrations that appeared with the original texts. One of his justifications for the book is that the last effort, F.S. Smythes 1940 Edward Whymper, is out of print and unbalanced besides. Smythe “grudgingly praised the grit and determination that made Whymper’s remarkable climbing career possible,” Henry writes, “but painted a poorly illuminated picture of him as an arrogant, alienated loner.” Its true. Smythe wrote: “A climbing Robot, egoistic, self-centered and incapable of deep feeling towards men or mountains. He was not happy, not a lover of beauty.” Smythe would have liked his Whymper to be a romantic, enthralled by Ruskin and Turner—both of whom Whymper loathed.

Is Henry’s character analysis any better? Well, he probably tried to be more empathie, but comes down as hard on Whymper as Smythe did. Following the words “journey to an understanding of Whymper’s heart and soul, as tortuous as his most difficult mountain passages,” Henry opines that “The Matterhorn tragedy seems to have aggravated an inherent depressive condition in him. His brusque manner alienated many, and he became emotionally abusive as his marriage disintegrated. But he made friends among those who refused to be intimidated, and there were times he showed kindness. He stayed, however, relentlessly self-contained. Sadness was also a part of his post-Matterhorn make up, arising out of increasing loneliness and perhaps a realization that he was his own worst enemy.”

Piffle! Merde! Poppy Cock! Fiddlesticks!! Bollocks!! shouts a voice from a bestirred grave at the Chamonix cemetery.

John Thackray