Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Sir Leslie Stephen: Spirit Of The Age


Father and Daughter : Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf.

Fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood’ Edward Whymper

This country is almost unique in the number of climbing clubs that exist throughout Britain, unlike other countries where the sport has a major presence, France, Italy, Germany etc; almost every city in the UK has its own climbing club. There are also the long established organisations which draw their membership nationally, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, the Climbers’ Club, the Fell and Rock, and the Alpine Club. The BMC has 280 clubs in membership and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland 160.

How did this come about?; it really has its origins during the Victorian era when so many organisations were formed and the world’s first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club was founded in 1857. The men (and they were all men in what was then still a most patriarch society) who were responsible were all from the upper/professional class. They were the ones who had the income and leisure time to follow what was then seen as a new sport; a new challenging activity in what they believed themselves to be the experts. It was a Golden Era for many of the peaks were still unclimbed in the Alps, and the Public’s interest was aroused by the 2000 performances over 6 years by Albert Smith in the Egyptian Hall Piccadilly, of his illustrated ascent of Mont Blanc which began in 1862, and was attended by thousands of people.

One of the earliest mountaineers to join the Alpine Club was Leslie Stephen, the year after it was formed. He was already a mountaineer, who with the Mathews’s had pioneered ascents in Austria and North Italy. He was educated at Eton and Trinity Hall Cambridge where he had also been ordained as a priest. At school he had been somewhat sickly and physically weak but at Cambridge he took up rowing and this built up his physique and he started to visit the Alps.

The first ascents which he made in the years 1858 to 1871 stand out, especially in the Valais and Oberland, and mark him out as one of the outstanding early pioneers, but he did not always win favour with his fellow alpinists, who believed in his writings he gave his guides too much praise who he credited with so much of his success. Melchior Anderegg born near Meiringen was one such, who was lauded as the ‘King of the Guides’. In 2014 a statue of Anderegg and his adventurous ‘Herren’ was unveiled in that town.

I suppose Stephens success in completing the Eiger and Jungfrau Joch’s in 1859 made his fellow Alpine Club members aware that a new force was in membership. The number of first ascents he was to make over the next decade highlighted this, Mont Blanc from St Gervais, the Schreckhorn, Zinalrothorn, Alphubel, Wildstrubel, Monte Disgrazia, Obergabelhorn, Bietschorn, Rimpfischorn, Mont Mallet, and he made many second ascents the Weisshorn, Obergabelhorn, and the Fletschorn plus many other successful climbs. He was elected Vice President of the Alpine Club 1863 to 1865 and President 1866 to 1868.

In 1862 he had a personal rejection of being a clergyman; he resigned his position at Cambridge, his fellowship depending on this. Eventually he was to publish a book on this change in belief, ‘Agnosticism and Aetheism’ confessing he had never really believed in the Christian message, swayed by his family, who were evangelicals of the Clapham sect. His father had been the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies for which public service he had been knighted. Stephen moved to London and from thereon was a journalist and editor of some renown, initially contributing to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. 

1865 occurred, the accident after the first ascent of the Matterhorn when four of the party were killed on the descent. Alan Lyall’s impressive book of almost 700 pages gives full details of this, especially the aftermath; the enquiry, the main figures who were involved and the media reaction. I do not think any event in mountaineering history has received such coverage, even the Monarch was reported to comment as one of those who died was distantly related. Much of the media coverage initially was anti, so much so that Whymper the sole survivor of the amateur climbers had to defend himself and write a full account of the disaster in the ‘Times’. Stephen, who was then a Vice President of the Alpine Club spoke up for the sport, and he defended the role of the senior guide who to survive was accused of either cutting the rope, or purposely using a weak one to save his own skin.

In 1871 appeared two books which had a large affect on the subsequent development of mountaineering. Edward Whymper had published ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ which included his many attempts to climb the Matterhorn and his eventual success, clouded by the accident on the descent, and the ‘Playground of Europe’ by Leslie Stephen both of which became instant mountaineering classics and played a part in popularising the activity. The first of these ran to five editions in little more than a decade and both books are still in print. In 1868 Stephen became editor of the Alpine Journal, and he was well suited for such a role, his knowledge of the Alpine ranges was probably unsurpassed at that time in Britain, for in 1861 he had translated from the German the best selling, in that country a book which also covered widely many of the less visited areas, ‘The Alps’ and may have led him on to make the first ascent of Monte Disgrazia? He was an early enthusiast for winter ascents, but he made it obvious that he took a very serious view of the dangers inherent in mountaineering, besides the enjoyment and challenge of the sport. Many of the early pioneers suffered serious accident or death who had become friends or rope mates with him. Most of the volumes of the Alpine Journal he edited are still available on the internet.

During the Victorian period the Alpine Club gained in numbers and influence, some of those who joined were enthusiasts for mountain scenery, and commented on this but preferred to view this rather than climb to summits; John Ruskin, Mathew Arnold and the well known publisher John Murray (Byron was one of the poets who he published) were some of these. Stephen became editor at this time of the Cornhill magazine and the writers for that organ were amongst those who were to become household names; Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and William Makepeace Thackeray. Stephen married one of the the latter’s daughters, known to everybody by the nick name ‘Minny’ who bore him four children, two who were to become more famous than him, but who cruelly died whilst the children were still young.

Stephen is best known now as the founding editor and contributor to the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ of which he edited many of the volumes. This incredible academic work is still being updated and published by the Oxford University Press and is referred to almost daily, particularly in our University and Public Libraries. The original publisher was the same as the Cornhill magazine, and that explains Stephen’s involvement in the whole project? an editorship which was to lead, amongst his other works to a knighthood. At the death of his first wife, Stephen eventually married a lady, a close friend of his wife, a widower who also had four children. One can imagine the noisy atmosphere at his house in Hyde Park Gate, now a blue plaque site, with so many children growing up there. But he did employ several maids to look after this brood.

Obviously with such domestic demands and sadness at the loss of his first wife, plus editorial work, his involvement in the world of mountaineering was limited. But every Sunday along with like minded friends he took off on what became legendary long walks amongst the South Downs and further afield. His band of Ramblers became known as ‘The Tramps’ and 20 to 30 miles were often covered on their outings. In a history of walking in this country, ‘Ramble On’ by Sinclair McKay full detail of ‘The Tramps’ can be found. What is memorable about this was a list of all who took part in these walks, everyone from those who made their living by their pen to Judges and Queen’s Councils.

Stephen died in 1904 but the family’s fame was to rise, and rise for two of his daughters eclipsed his memory. His oldest Vanessa married Quentin Bell, and moved to Bloomsbury, where they were joined by Virginia who had married Leonard Woolf. And this was the beginning of what became known as the Bloomsberry set which included E.M.Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and so many other prominent figures of that time. Vanessa Bell and Virgina Woolf in their respective fields are lionised for their achievements, Vanessa in the field of art, particularly abstractions. Virginia is one of the most famous novelists worldwide, a leader of modernist fiction and an archetypal figure in the feminist movement. I was surprised to learn that now her biggest fan base is in the USA. Her father is very much caricatured in her most famous work ‘To the Lighthouse’. He is the Mr Ramsay who leads his family on an adventurous holiday to the Isle of Skye.

Leslie Stephen was very much a product of his time, when everybody had beards like the Taliban, and Victorians of his background did not worry too much about their privileged existence. But they did leave a society that was capable of change. The Alpine Club is a prime example of this, to be a member now depends on ones climbing record, not social standing. And so Sir Leslie Stephen set the sport on its path for which today’s climbing fraternity should be grateful.


Dennis Gray: 2021.