Above the kissing line
- My 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.
Why did Henriette want to ascend Mont Blanc? Not ‘Because it was there’, and not to make a giant step for womankind. Dervla Murphy tells us that in later life Henriette did herself an injustice by her ‘much-quoted remark’ that her motive had been to gain as much publicity as George Sand, who had scandalised Chamonix by turning up in her ‘ideologically significant male garb, accompanied by a youth dressed as a woman’. In her book Henriette’s explanation runs to waffle: ‘The soul has needs, as does the body, peculiar to each individual; and a desire to subordinate these needs to the general rule is as unreasonable as an attempt to bring up the weak on precepts laid down for the strong, or vice versa ... each of us must arrange his life according to his moral or intellectual inclinations.’ And so on. Such aspirations, she warned, imposed a great strain if entertained by the weak. ‘Happy a thousand times those who are not impelled to flee the disillusion of life’s trivial round and to seek refuge in fantasy.’ She did not want it thought she was out for ‘puny fame’: what sustained her was ‘the awareness of the spiritual well-being that would follow’. If it meant leaving a trail of widows and orphans, she seems to say, then amen and tant pis.
The weather was ideal at Chamonix and the thought of delay threw Henriette, who pays copious tribute to her resolution, into ‘inexpressible physical and moral distress ... My heart beat furiously, my breathing was impeded and deep sighs burst from my breast.’ If she was like that at the foot of the mountain, what would she be like at the top? She had already thought of conditions up there – ‘The rarefied air would make blood spurt from my eyes, nose and ears.’ Undeterred, she demanded an instant start, on a Sunday, a proposal which brought ‘clouded expressions’ to the guides’ faces. ‘It goes without saying,’ she assured them, ‘that we shall ask the curé’s permission, that we shall hear Mass before leaving.’ This was the worst thing she could have said. All Chamonix knew that in 1820, while High Mass was being said, an expedition led by Dr Hamel came to grief and three guides were lost. Still Henriette pressed for action. ‘If we succeed,’ she said, ‘everyone will say that we were quite right to go; if we perish, we shall not hear the imprecations that you tell me will meet our misfortune.’ There was a distinct strain of Dogs, would ye live for ever? in this address. But the six fathers held firm; the expedition did not set out until the Monday.
The details of food and equipment carried, with the aid of a train of porters, would adorn one of those books of lists. Invited to add any special item of food for herself, Henriette plumped for a blancmange (what more appropriate for Mont Blanc?). The extra equipment she requested included ‘an enormous fan, in case I had to be given air’, ‘a small fan, to fan myself’, ‘a friction brush, in case of numbness’ and ‘a black velvet mask’ to protect the complexion. Surprisingly, Henriette regarded an account of her underwear as fit for general perusal. Next to the skin she wore English flannel combinations, though whether with an American-style ‘trapdoor’ at the back we are not told. The outer items were fleece-lined Scots wool trousers, a plaid, a pelisse, a feather boa and a wide straw hat with four retaining strings. The book-jacket has a splendid picture of Henriette in this puffed-out rig traversing a ladder over a sinister chasm.
Two other parties were making the ascent and there was a proposal for a general merger. To buttress her opposition Henriette fell back on the rules of etiquette, which dictated that ‘a woman travelling alone, unaccompanied by a male relation, could not, and should not, associate with strangers, even fortuitously’ (she was already in breach of the proprieties by travelling up a mountain without her maid). As it turned out, some polite fraternisation occurred with the other groups; one of them was led by a Polish count and Henriette, as it happened, was the sister of a count. After the first day’s climb there were dinner parties and sing-songs out there on the bare mountain.
On the way up Henriette remembered from time to time to implore God’s protection for the party and strove hard to think sublime thoughts; but sublime thoughts are hard to generate in a thin air. Those who have suffered altitude sickness will know the sleepy prostrations to which Henriette was at length reduced. In Andean lore there is a ‘kissing line’ above which the act of love, for the stranger, is too much like hard work (hence, perhaps, ‘Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height’). Henriette, near the summit (15,782 feet), was beyond the kissing line and into the fainting line, reduced to ‘taking a regular sleep every ten paces’, sometimes napping back-to-back with a guide, while the other guides also nodded. The hardy fathers, whose faces were splitting and temples pounding, offered to carry her to the top, but that form of cheating was strictly for the servants. How Henriette, in her reduced state, was propelled up an ice-ladder of 354 steps passes comprehension.
At the summit, if her account is believed, Henriette’s spirits completely revived. She freed from its cage a young pigeon borrowed from the Chamonix curé, with a triumphal message attached to its leg. The ‘pretty messenger’ failed to report back to base and appears to been later eaten by another curé on whose roof it was captured. Henriette now began writing a series of wish-you-were-here letters to various of her friends, until the fidgeting of her guides, ‘noble’ fellows though they were and impeccably mannered, became too apparent to ignore. Henriette had rather hoped that ‘the great mystery of Creation would be revealed’ to her on the mountain, but she was so busy with her correspondence and the Naming of Peaks that she probably missed it. In a weak moment she allowed herself to be ‘chaired’ by two guides who lifted her to a height of four feet, so that she could boast of having been higher than Mont Blanc. This was probably one of Fifty Things to Do on Top of a Mountain. When it was all over Henriette remembered that she had omitted to fall on her knees in thanks to God.
It would have made a better story if things had gone wrong. Avalanches were seen and heard, but not experienced; a threatened storm held off until they had descended. One would have relished a candid account of the three days’ exploit by the guide who laced Henriette up at the back, or the one whose duty was to keep her six pencils so beautifully pointed. Perhaps they were able to supplement their incomes by telling tales to tourists. It so, did they also tell of the moment when Henriette spied a scurrying white mouse, whose pelt she coveted as a trophy, and urged her party to stone it? They missed; the mountain did not yield up its mouse.
Today’s Himalayan trekkers may feel that Henriette exaggerates the rigours of the high places, but in the conditions of the day it was a formidable feat. George Sand and her shaggy rabble would never have got to first base. No wonder that (according to the Annual Register, 1838) Chamonix fired salvos of cannon on Henriette’s return. Among the excited spectators was white-haired Marie Paradis, the heroine of that earlier climb, ready to exclaim: ‘Oh, who would think a real lady would climb it!’ As a guest at the celebratory dinner in the Union Hotel Marie got a little carried away by the wine and said to Henriette: ‘To your very good health, my duck!’ The guides found their ‘emoluments’ tucked under their napkins, but we are not told the rate for the job. To mark her feat Henriette was given a signed certificate of the type which today is earned merely by sitting in an aircraft as it passes over the Equator.
My Ascent of Mont Blanc has been a long time on the way to the printers. Though no literary masterpiece, it is a welcome addition to the annals of Alpinism, feminism and general eccentricity. To borrow Belloc’s words: ‘It contains all the morals that ever there were. And it Sets an Example as well.’ All too soon after Henriette’s exploit it would be the muscular Christians of the Alpine Club who would be badgering guides to risk their lives; the peaks would be treated by Cook’s tourists like ‘soaped poles in a bear garden, which you set yourselves to climb and slide down again, with shrieks of delight’ (Ruskin again). It remains to add that Mademoiselle d’Angeville (dubbed, according to one authority, Regina Alpina and la Fiancée du Mont Blanc) carried on climbing and ascended to 10,250-foot Oldenhorn at the age of 69. Sadly, she would never see in action the noble fellows who, in the grip of altitude sickness, contrived to build all those cats’ cradles of high-rise téléfériques without pausing to sleep back-to-back every few seconds.
Jules Verne’s Backwards to Britain has also been a long time on the way. Written in 1859, it was first published in France in 1989. In the introduction by William Butcher it is described both as a time-bomb and a time-capsule, but it is neither of those things; nor is it ‘a newly-discovered classic’ as the publishers claim. It is simply a piece of Verne juvenilia which his publisher Hetzel sensibly refrained from printing, knowing his author could do much better. Over the years biographers of ‘the best-selling novelist ever’ have milked the manuscript of such modest interest as it contains. In 1859 Verne, then a stockbroker in his early thirties, was offered a free cargo boat passage to Britain with his composer friend Hignard, and leapt at the chance to visit the country of his hero, Sir Walter Scott. This book is a ‘lightly fictionalised’ account of their travels, written in high-spirited style. Whereas Mademoiselle d’Angeville strove too hard to think sublime thoughts, Verne, writing as ‘Jacques’, tries too hard to convince himself that he is enjoying every minute. It is very much a young fogey’s book, with a good deal of showing off; a seaman is ‘a worthy son of Amphitrite’ and a cup of poor coffee is ‘obviously extracted from a perennial fusiform tap root of the chicory family’. There are insufferably laboured jokes built around confusions like ‘good mourning.’
The purpose of publishing this book was to show whence Verne derived inspiration for many scenes in his novels, but the examples given are in the main unremarkable; every author processes the experiences and sights of his youth. What the book does show is that Verne had a bit of a down on the English, their Protestant religion and ‘repulsive’ missionaries. English women, he thought, had long busts and lacked grace. But he was a strong admirer of English engineers and was delighted to visit the Leviathan (later Great Eastern), then under construction. William Butcher claims that ‘the ultimate mechanical metaphor, sex, throbs everywhere in the text,’ but the illustrations he gives fail to convince. Is it all that suggestive to talk of ships that ‘couple in the river’? Would a tart with ‘creamy plums hidden in its moist golden sides’ have sounded sexy if it had been called a pie? What is spicy about sandwichmen parading? If anything, Jacques’ description of the turbulent whores of Liverpool is prudish.
How much of the travelogue is fiction? In Glasgow the two men marvel at a steam-operated machine in which a live pig goes in one end and sausages come out of the other. Well, that is easily dismissed. But what are we to make of a statement that Dumbarton Rock was considered as a place for imprisoning the ‘betrayed’ Napoleon after Waterloo? (Incidentally, a Scots publisher should not have printed a picture of Dumbarton Rock with a caption siting it on Loch Lomond.) There are other mysteries in Jacques’ tale. We are told that during the Crimean War ‘a serious company was set up, with substantial capital, to tender for the siege of Sebastopol, offering to take the town within an agreed period of time, past which it would pay millions in compensation for every day that elapsed. But could there be any glory in a war reduced to a company transaction?’ Perhaps somebody had been pulling Verne’s leg. Or did he mischievously throw in his own dream of privatised warfare as part of the Jules Verne visionary service?