Posted by: zhiv | October 1, 2008

Leslie Stephen and Mountaineering

This is meant as a general introduction to this topic, one which is going to require some filling in of dates and fact-checking, and for now we’ll just see where it goes.  Verbivore, who lives in Schweiz, suggested a while ago that it might work and be semi-interesting as a blog post, so I blame her.

Leslie Stephen arrived in Cambridge in 1851 with a fair amount of emotional and intellectual baggage.  His father, James Stephen, was the Colonial Undersecretary, something like our Chief Deputy Secretary of State.  This was a pretty big job, obviously, at the height of the British Empire.  His older brothers, Herbert and James Fitzjames, preceded him at Cambridge.  Herbert had recently died of a fever in Dresden, on his way home from Constantinople, a tragedy that rocked the family confidence and strength, especially that of the overworked father James, who began a steady decline afterwards.  The death of Herbert, a promising and interesting 26-year-old, was remarkably similar to the death in 1906 of Thoby Stephen, the older brother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, but Leslie Stephen had children later in life and he was gone by the time of Thoby’s death.  James Fitzjames quickly stepped with his characteristic vigor and authority into the role of eldest son.  He was an Apostle at Cambridge (Leslie was not), and moved swiftly to follow in his father’s footsteps towards a distinguished legal career.  James Stephen played a central role in abolishing slavery in the British Empire; James Fitzjames Stephen went on to write singlehandedly the criminal code of India. 

Leslie Stephen was cut from different cloth from his brother Fitzjames:  he was a skinny weakling who had become addicted to narrative poetry in his early adolescence.  He rested and learned to read more soberly in his later teens, but he was clearly the most sensitive of James Stephen’s sons, which caused the father to mark him for the clergy.  James Stephen was a legal and political animal produced by the Clapham Sect, raised by his father James and trained by Wilberforce and Venn to get deep inside the government to fight slavery.  He married Venn’s daughter, and his two surviving sons seemed to represent the two competeing sides of his personality.  James Fitzjames was bluff, hearty, legalistic and political; Leslie would be sensitive, religious, reflective, retired, and scholarly. 

We took our daughter back east to start college a few weeks ago, and this has prompted all sorts of thoughts about this specific, massive transitional moment, both for her, and my own very different experience of leaving home 32 years ago.  I’ve been forced to remember, amongst so many other things, the sense of liberation that I felt in getting away from my parents, the idea that I was now really about to begin to shape my own life on my own terms.  The parents’ point of view is of course quite different, and in my own maturity–such as it is–I have a better understanding and greater sympathy for James Stephen and his anxieties and expectations.  While he was ever respectful towards his family, Leslie Stephen seems to have been immediately liberated and invigorated upon his arrival at Cambridge, quickly setting out on a journey of self-discovery that turned out to be quite different from his father’s expectations.  He flourished, and began the process of building a life and career of which any father would be quite proud, even though it didn’t go quite the way that James Stephen planned.  It must be obvious enough that I’m writing out this little section at some length for my own reasons.

At any rate, Leslie Stephen did flourish at Cambridge, and it began with a passionate interest in the rowing team of his college, Trinity Hall.  He wasn’t a competent oarsman, but he became shockingly good at running down the path alongside the river.  There was already a strong Stephen walking tradition, in which Leslie’s frailty hadn’t allowed him to participate fully, but he was a late bloomer who found his strength at University.  The connection to rowing provided the impetus for distance running, which was an extremely obscure pursuit at the time, especially in relation to our own day.  He might just as easily have studied Eastern Philosophy and become a yoga enthusiast.  There were no Olympics, no organized track and field meets or, really, sports of any kind outside of hunting and horseback riding.  A little American perspective:  I don’t think baseball had been invented yet.  Boxing and horse racing were at a rudimentary stage, although of course horse travel (and fighting in general, for that matter) was a part of the daily culture in a manner that is hard to imagine now.  Most importantly, people routinely walked prodigious distances, or at least they seem to be such to us.  It was a form of travel, as well as exploration.  This was the era of the mountain man, the African and Asian explorer, and the heroic archaeologist discovering ancient civilizations that had been buried by the sands of time.

Leslie Stephen began his course of adventure with a philosophical bent.  He developed into a competent mathematician and was a “wrangler” at Cambridge, received a fellowship at his college, and studied philosophy and German.  In 1857 he went on a walking tour through Germany, and at the end of it he got his first view of the Alps.  At this moment, in his full strength and the current Cambridge (and thus, the world) record holder in the mile run, his inclination was to exercise and climb, rather than to experience the sublimities of the high peaks by gazing at them from afar.

The story of the birth of mountaineering is known well-enough, but few people and scholars realize or care that Virginia Woolf’s father was a key participant in this great saga of exploration and adventure.  Three factors, and probably more, came together to get things going:  railroad travel, which made the Alps accessible; the Romantic development of the concept of the Sublime, which drew tourists to the peaks; and the hard-driving Victorian development of exploration, technology, science, muscularity, and leisure.  Stephen found himself standing around Interlaken–I’m not sure of the exact location at the moment, but I don’t believe it was Chamonix–just as the first English tourists were hiring local Swiss as guides to try to climb on the glaciers and into the high country.  25 years old, a Cambridge Don who was running 10 or 20 miles a day along the river, and who had just breezed through a 200+ mile tour of Germany, Stephen’s timing was impeccable.  He returned to Cambridge, thinking he might return the next summer and have a go.

LS had a relatively brief, but intensive career as a mountaineer, but it happened to coincide perfectly with the so-called “Golden Age,” the initial phase of the conquering of the Alps.  Stephen climbed for seven summers, arriving in late July and returning to England by early September, and each season consisted of a tour of “peaks, passes, and glaciers” that would still be ambitious by any standard.  He came to the sport with an outstanding level of fitness, unperturbed by walking 30 to 40 miles or more in a single day, and from spring onwards he would have spent a day or two each week rising at dawn and walking until well after nightfall.  In his first season he also found an extraordinary guide, Meclchior Anderegg of Meinringen, a small Oberland village near Interlaken, who would become acknowledged as one of the very best climbers/guides of the era.  Stephen and Anderegg were full partners, and they were a self-contained team, spending weeks on their own exploring the high country, establishing new routes, climbing peaks and bagging first ascents.  These included the Rothorn and the formidable Schrekhorn, and they brought Stephen some fame.  As I continue to recover my earlier studies, it will be easy enough to pull out the list of Stephen and Anderegg’s expeditions and notable climbs, which also include being members of the second party to climb the Eiger.

One of the best and most interesting things about Leslie Stephen’s mountaineering pursuits is the role it played in helping him become a writer.  He was a charter member of the Alpine Club, and one of its early presidents.  I’ve always meant to follow up my surmise that Stephen was elected president of the Club in the aftermath of the infamous Matterhorn accident, which caused Queen Victoria to suggest that the new sport should be banned.  The son of James Stephen was well-qualified to explain why Englishmen should  be allowed to continue conquering the Alps.  Others will know or have a better sense of the early years of the Club, but my vague impression is that in its first formation it consisted of a small group of pioneers gathering to discuss their tours and plans for the following season.  This was done with a standard Victorian formality, and members read their accounts, and the classic form of the mountaineering narrative took shape.  The best and most characteristic accounts were published by the Club in an annual volume, initially called “Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers.”  Shortly afterwards, individuals began to publish the first classic books about mountain travel, and the explosive bestseller was Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles Amongst the Alps,” which tells the tale of his single-minded conquest of the Matterhorn, and the terrible accident on the descent, when a rope broke and seven lives were lost.  Every student of mountain literature knows the story, but the trick is to bring those folks together with the enthusiasts for Lily Briscoe’s modernist approach to art and their cold view of Mr. Ramsay.

All of this is, for the moment, impressionistic and fairly inaccurate.  The first published work of “the Rev. Leslie Stephen, M.A. Fellow and Tutor of Tinity Hall, Cambridge,” is “The Allelein-Horn,” in “Vacation Tourists and Notes of Travel in 1860,” edited by Francis Galton.  This volume–god only knows when and how I found it, back in the time before internet book-hunting, but it must have been a banner day–contains entries on “Naples and Garibaldi,” “Slavonic Races,” “A Visit to Peru,” “Norway,” and “Syrian Travel and Syrian Tribes,” as well as “Partial Ascent of Mont Cervin (Matterhorn)” by F.V. Hawkins and “From Lauterbrunnen to the Aeggishhorn by the Lauwinen-Thor in One Day,” by John Tyndall.  The mention of Tyndall, another titan from the Golden Age, leads me back to my shelves, where I find an “Everyman’s Library” copy of his “Glaciers of the Alps” and discover that it is subtitled “Mountaineering in 1861,” and the table of contents is made up of expedition records of 1856-1859.

Tyndall and his study of glaciers raises the important scientific element in the early history of mountaineering.  In its specifics this wasn’t very important to Stephen, although he must have been broadly informed on scientific subjects.  It was crucial, however, in the way that it placed him in proximity to the larger scientific and religious controversy of the day, and the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”–if he wasn’t already in the midst of it.  I believe that Tyndall, just behind Huxley, was one of the leading proponents of evolutionary theory, and his study of glaciers was an extension of Charles Lyell’s geological studies of the 1830’s, which had started the revision of biblical time in earnest and began the revolution.

This essay began by noting James Stephen’s hopes for his son Leslie’s clerical career, but rambling across the glaciers with science-minded colleagues had an ill effect on Stephen’s precarious religious beliefs, and a professional career of studying philosophy at Cambridge in the early 1860s wouldn’t have been much help.  He soon found the necessity to resign his fellowship, declare himself an agnostic, and move to London to become a professional writer.  The days of “the Rev. Leslie Stephen” mark a rather short span, but they do have a significant overlap with his brief, spectacular career as a mountaineer.

Stephen, as I mentioned, had been writing accounts of his expeditions over the years.  As he was giving up his fellowship, his first professional writing consisted of a series of essays published in the Pall Mall Gazettte in 1865 as “Sketches From Cambridge, by a Don.”  The small book was reprinted by the Oxford UP in 1932 with a foreward by G.M. Trevalyan, and the first two chapters are “The Rowing Man” and “Athletic Sports,” which says something about the author’s concerns.  In 1871 he collected his mountaineering essays for the first time and published “The Playground of Europe.”  The book is a mountaineering classic, and it has been published in different editions over the years, with certain essays falling in and out.

So this entry should serve as a basic introduction to this generally neglected side of the generally neglected Leslie Stephen.  The blogging format is a good one for reading or rereading of some of these essays and expanding on these intial thoughts.  It’s refreshing, actually, to write anything at all about my old interests, especially while feeling no academic or professional pressure.  We’ll see where this goes, as I said, but it has already taken me back with great enjoyment to some forgotten nooks of my bookshelves.  I’ll say, once again, that in a different lifetime I would have written a dissertation on Leslie Stephen as a biographer, and a master’s thesis about his mountaineering.  The DNB/biographies discussion is already underway, and it is in some ways more obscure than his mountaineering, but I’ll follow that up elsewhere.  Stephen’s mountaineering story is told, somewhat incompletely, in a few different places.  F.W. Maitland’s “Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen” can be pricey because it contains his daughter’s first appearance in print, in a letter to Maitland which is one of the many different times and moods in which she approached him as a subject.  Noel Annan wrote the first, highly serviceable study of Stephen in 1952, and then he revised it thoroughly and with the benefit of some perspective on the explosion of interest in Virginia Woolf in 1984.  I met him at Berkeley in that same year, a story that I’ll tell another time.  It’s a very good book, with the subtitle “the Godless Victorian” added in the revision.  I have two good mountaineering histories on my modest shelf of mountain books, that I’ll have to look at again now.  The first is “A History of Mountaineering in the Alps,” by Claire Eliane Engel, and the second, and more specific, is “The Victorian Mountaineers,” by Ronald Clark, published in 1953.  Clark has gone on to write a number of biographies, and years ago I read one he wrote about Einstein.  I think he might still be around, but I don’t know that there have been any more recent books on Victorian mountaineering.


  1. Thank you once again for a wonderful essay about someone I had heard of but knew next to nothing about! I am looking forward to reading more about your explorations into the life and works of Leslie Stephen!

  2. […] Blogged] Leslie Stephen and Mountaineering From the post “Leslie Stephen and Mountaineering” on a blog called zhiv (1 Oct. 2008): Tyndall and his study of glaciers raises the important […]

  3. Wow, this is certainly the week of finding important pieces of writing on LS and mountaineering that I didn’t know about before and should have! I too am so curious about LS inheriting the public relations disaster that was the post-Matterhorn kerfluffle when he assumed the Alpine Club presidency in 1865. I’ve found articles in the Alpine Journal where he speaks to safe rope use, but no overt statement from him on the Matterhorn, apart from the fact that he never climbed it and Minnie hated its “pokey nose.”

    Also: yes, we have to get in touch since (besides the mountaineering interest) I too should have written my dissertation on Bloomsbury and biography (hence old notebooks filled with stuff on the DNB)! What’s the best way to leave an email address for you here in a non-public way? Can you obtain it when you moderate the comment?


    • Hey there–I got it.
      Always tech challenged, but it was easy enough when I looked.
      Sending you an email.

  4. I see that your blog was last moderated in 2011, so whether you’ll ever see this reply submitted in April 2016 is anyone’s guess! Thank you for this most interesting and informative article. I’m an avid collector of books signed or inscribed by members of the Bloomsbury Group, their families and close associates. I have been chasing a book signed/inscribed by Leslie Stephen for years but with no luck.

    I would also mention that The Rev. Leslie Stephen was the translator from the German of the book “The Alps or Sketches of Life and Nature in the Mountains”, by H. Berlepsch, first published in 1861. The book includes his 2-page “Note by the translator on the Explorations of 1861”.

    As far as I know, that would have been the last time Leslie Stephen used his “Rev.” title in a publication.

    I found a copy of this for sale by a Paris bookseller. It had been inscribed by Stephen to the children of the book’s photographer, but, alas, it was being held for a regular customer who was about to call and collect it!

    – Don

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