Above the kissing line
- BuyMy Ascent of Mont Blanc by Henriette d’Angeville, translated by Jennifer Barnes
HarperCollins, 132 pp, £17.99, December 1992, ISBN 0 00 215717 9
- Backwards to Britain by Jules Verne, translated by Janice Valls-Russell
Chambers, 227 pp, £14.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 550 23000 9
It calls for a certain robustness of spirit to embark on an escapade which, with ill luck, could create six widows and 27 orphans. Such robustness was possessed by Mademoiselle Henriette d’Angeville, the first lady (repeat, lady) to climb Mont Blanc. She claims to have weighed the human odds beforehand, but it is hard to picture her with her six guides, on that bright September morning in 1838, ticking off the potential casualties on her fingers and then, in the face of tout Chamonix, boldly crying: ‘Excelsior!’
Henriette d’Angeville, château-reared and in good physical shape, was then 44. Her account of the climb, published in France in 1987, contains only as much as she wants to tell us, omitting ‘those emotions which are too near and intimate to permit of general perusal’. According to Dervla Murphy’s preface, Henriette was a fervent royalist and the first thing she did on reaching the summit was to drink the health of the Comte de Paris in lemonade (other Alpine annalists confirm this). Of that ceremony, surprisingly, there is no mention in her narrative, though she confesses to having been in a state of high exaltation, in which ‘my soul framed an ardent invocation for the glory and good fortune of France.’ This was the France which had imprisoned her father during the Revolution and cut off her grand father’s head. It is odd that Murphy, who obviously knows a thing or two about Henriette, does not comment on the omission of the royal toast. Why was the incident deemed unfit for general perusal? Was it belatedly seen as a bit vulgar? Or had there been too many jokes about quaffing a bumper of lemonade?
Even in a day when howling wildernesses were losing some of their ‘horrid’ aspects, Mont Blanc was an object not to be mocked. In Shelley the sight of it had produced ‘an undisciplined overflowing of the soul’; Coleridge addressed a solemn hymn to its ‘bald awful head’. For most tourists the slopes were to be admired or apostrophised rather than climbed, though Dr Michel Paccard had pointed the way for the adventurous with an ascent in 1786. In 1809 the first woman, as distinct from lady, reached the top – a maidservant of Chamonix, Marie Paradis, who had been persuaded by her friends that she could make a useful income for life by telling tourists of her experiences, as eventually she did. Another woman volunteer was turned down because she was married. Marie was carried up the last stages in a crippling torpor induced by altitude. Thus, as Henriette says, the mountain had not been ascended ‘by any woman capable of remembering her impressions.’ Nevertheless, Marie deserves her modest place on the same roll of honour as Junko Tabei, the Japanese woman who in 1975 climbed Everest, nearly twice as high as Mont Blanc.
In Henriette’s day the Alps had not been seriously vulgarised, though the echo-raising cannon fired by tourists for a small fee were mounted at many vantage-points (one of ‘the sorrowfullest spectacles’ known to Ruskin). The fashion had even spread to the English lakes, where the Reverend William Gilpin, founder of the cult of the picturesque, claimed that the ‘mixing and commixing’ of reverberations produced ‘a wonderful effect on the mind’. Henriette d’Angeville, on her way to Chamonix, was not too proud to pause at a well-know grotto to honour it with a cannon shot. She also records the presence of child trumpeters who, for a few coins, were ready to raise more melodious echoes; comparable, no doubt, to those celebrated by Tennyson on the waters of Killarney (‘Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying’). Henriette was not a person to suffer importunities from children with no echoes to offer, still less did she tolerate grasping innkeepers. Rather than be held to ransom by a hotelier called Lafin she slept in her carriage and, one is glad to hear, got him into serious trouble with the authorities. There is no need for Henriette to tell us that propriety forbids a lady to describe her own character; it stands out on every page.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.