Mountaineering and Leslie Stephen

Maggie Waz

Dr. Catherine Hollis gave a lecture titled “‘Where does Mont Blanc end and where do I begin?’: Leslie Stephen’s Empirical Sublime” as part of the Main Hall Forum series Thursday, April 16. In addition to being an avid climber herself, Hollis is a former faculty member in Lawrence’s English and gender studies departments.
The lecture contrasted Victorian opinions on mountaineering and the philosophical writing of Leslie Stephen, who is perhaps best known as Virgina Woolf’s father and the basis for Mr. Ramsey’s character in Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse.” He was also one of the fathers of modern mountaineering as a member and later as president of the Alpine Club of Britain, a mountaineering club which emerged as travel to the Alps became easier and more fashionable in the 1850s and 1860s.
Hollis stated that in the Victorian Age this club “climbed peaks for God, the queen and science.” Members often took strange instruments with them to measure the conditions at the tops of these peaks, ensuring that their excursions weren’t merely for pleasure or sport. Even before Stephen began his career, the Alps had a strong reputation in English literary circles. Romantic poets including William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley toured the Alps and were particularly struck by the sublimity of the peaks, whose greatness and vastness evoked strong emotional reactions of awe and terror.
Stephen broke from British Imperialist conceptions of mountaineering when he insulted fellow members of the Alpine Club for claiming to elevate their country’s status through questionable scientific experiments, rather than simply climb for its own sake. He did not believe that climbers should essentially conquer mountains, or virgin peaks, for their country, or preoccupy themselves with reaching summits. Instead, they should strive for deeper connection with the mountain, a move away from what Hollis considers a masculine conception of mountaineering.
Though he was progressive in his opinions on mountaineering, Stephen still emphasized climbing as a manly activity. On the Swiss Alps, there was not much room for female climbers, who were still required to wear their skirts. Hollis found the feminization of mountains by traditional Victorian mountaineers particularly troubling, in which the mountain was framed as a thing to be conquered. In contrast to this view, Hollis mentioned a quote from contemporary climber Lynn Hill – “I do not conquer that which is my partner.”
Hollis’ lecture focused on the implications that Stephen’s writing has on our understanding of the world around us. His first book, 1871’s “The Playground of Europe,” is a classic of mountaineering. His writing advocates intimacy and connection with the mountain, reflecting his belief that one could only gather knowledge about a mountain from the physical experience of climbing. He offered a radical departure from traditional interpretations of nature, emphasizing that it is something we have to work with rather than against.
The prevalent opinion about climbers now is that they do not work with mountains, but instead destroy them. Many people believe mountain climbers are selfish, looking simply for an adventure at any cost, especially when word of a climbing accident makes it onto the news. Hollis argues that while this may be true in regards to climbers preoccupied with scaling Mt. Everest, most climbers today work from Leslie Stephen’s understanding.