- The New Mountaineer in Late Victorian Britain: Materiality, Modernity, and the Haptic Sublime by Alan McNee
Late Victorian British mountaineers wrote about an intense rush of overwhelming sensations experienced climbing in mountain landscapes. Unlike the visual gaze on distant sublime objects among earlier writers, the “New Mountaineer” was in close contact, feeling and sensing the sublime in mountains. Imperialism has been read as an impetus for Victorian mountaineering and masculinity, but another driver was the sublime. Alan McNee turns to writing by Victorian British climbers to reposition their experience as embodied movement and privileged subject knowledge. His book is a study of literature and sport in the nineteenth century that demonstrates how writing and the body continually redefined mountaineering and sublimity, which McNee also asserts still shapes an inherited sensibility toward mountain landscapes.
McNee argues that the New Mountaineer emerged with a shift toward materiality and the haptic sublime expressed in mountaineering literature during the last two decades of the 1800s. Physicality and sensation were embodied knowledge in climbing and tied to [End Page 383] a new expression of the sublime. Accordingly, haptic sensations such as “hand-eye-body coordination” and proprioception made sense of the mountaineer’s world (152). Proximity to risks and dangers produced a haptic sublime that simultaneously awed and empowered climbers with a greater sense of agency. Ways of sensing and expressing the haptic sublime were significant in the writing of British climbers and a late Victorian cultural lens on mountain landscapes.
McNee’s opening two chapters describe British mountaineers as a well-educated professional class with beliefs in purposive leisure, physical exertion, and refined skills. The rise of the New Mountaineer revamped model sportsmen with more emphasis on technical expertise, equipment, and writing to themselves as readers of club journals. Resistance to changes and a Romantic backlash provoked debates within the alpine academy, as discussed in chapter 3. Chapter 4 examines climbers repositioned as physiology and psychophysiology emerged to configure the body as a human engine and how they responded with pleasure and grim humor to their own pains and fatigue. Facetious writing also flagged their self-awareness as liberal subjects challenging more orthodox tradition.
Discussion of the haptic sublime in chapter 5 reveals the sublime as a literary thread between the English Romantic movement and late Victorians. A fascinating survey of the sublime reaches back to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant and forward to John Ruskin and Leslie Stephen to understand its theory and use, especially in mountaineering literature and among British mountaineers in the nineteenth century. Debates expose tensions between a Burkean sublime of mysterious mountains that mortals can never fully know, as propounded by Ruskin, and the later haptic sublime of embodied knowledge espoused by Stephen in The Playgrounds of Europe (1871). But Ruskin—who likened climbers to gymnasts on greased poles—ultimately had little impact on their praxis. Bleeding fingers, muscular effort, cold, pain, and fatigue—physicality and sensations—were central to the valorization of mountain pursuits for the New Mountaineer. Stephen’s early and perceptive repositioning of mountaineering knowledge and the sublime as it was measured and embodied by climbers had far more influence, according to McNee.
Alpine railways, funiculars, and mass tourism rendered the Alps a new mountain landscape after the 1860s. Chapter 6 assesses the varied reactions and strategies of British mountaineers in the face of these changes and their own class prejudice toward “trippers” and “cockneys.” One strategy was going farther afield to avoid them; another was writing such tourists out of the narrative. At the extreme was the padlocked “Locked Book” kept as a guest book exclusively for mountaineers’ comments at Pen-y-Gwryn, near Snowdonia’s Llanberis Pass, from 1884 (206).
Classic books authored by celebrated mountaineers are combined with mountaineering journals—The Alpine Journal, Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, Cairngorm Club Journal—to achieve a close reading of primary sources written by climbers, also including lesser-known writers and a few women writers, such as Mary Mummery and Elizabeth...