Laid Bare: The Secret Sexuality of George Mallory, First Great Hero to Die on Everest; in the First Extract from a New and Intimate Biography of the Legendary Climber, Peter and Leni Gillman Reveal the Flirtation Which Tested His Love of New Experiences to the Limit

Article excerpt


When the body of George Mallory was found last year on Everest, many were moved to publish photographs taken during this great adventurer's life.

One was especially striking: Mallory, naked but for a rucksack, about to ford a stream. It was the look of bravado, the macho exhibitionism which amazed. Just what sort of man was Mallory? Now a new book reveals the untold story of his remarkable life and last climb.

Using newly discovered letters, it reveals the most shadowy period of Mallory's life: his fascination with homoeroticism that led him to pose naked, and the homosexual encounter which profoundly disturbed him...

The love of George Mallory's life was his wife, Ruth.

From their marriage in 1914 to his doomed attempt on Everest in 1924, she was a steadfast and affectionate partner, mother to their three children, full of admiration for his integrity and determination to be true to his ideals.

He adored her in turn, particularly for her honesty and compassion, and he shared her pain when they were apart.

But five years before he was married, Mallory had a relationship of a very different kind. In 1909, while at Cambridge University, he became embroiled in a dramatic entanglement with some of the most celebrated literary and artistic figures of the age. They included the writer and critic Lytton Strachey, Strachey's brother James, the poet Rupert Brooke, the future economic guru John Maynard Keynes, and the artist Duncan Grant.

The truth about what became known as l'affaire George has never been established. Some writers hinted that Mallory was gay, others denied it. Now, a new cache of letters, unearthed at the British Library, goes a long way towards resolving the issue.

Mallory's descendants insist he was not homosexual, and by any reasonable definition of the word, this is true. Yet his letters reveal that for a year he was infatuated with James Strachey.

Strachey remained lukewarm towards Mallory, as he was more interested in Brooke.

Eventually, a chastened Mallory retreated to France, telling Strachey: 'I think you had better forget we were ever lovers.' Even then the complications persisted as Strachey's brother, Lytton, was pursuing Mallory.

The episode casts Mallory in an intriguing light. Already a hero when he died at 37, his disappearance near the top of Everest made him a legend.

L'affaire George, which swung between high drama and near-farce, confirms his relish for new experiences and adventure. But it also brought him anxiety, anguish and a rare loss of composure.

Born in 1886, one of four children, Mallory grew up in the Cheshire village of Mobberley, where his father was the vicar.

His father was staid and conventional but his mother was chaotic and impulsive, and the children were often beyond their parents' control. Mallory displayed a precocious taste for risk by climbing on to the roof of his father's church.

At school and university he was gifted and enthusiastic, determined to live life to the full. He won a maths scholarship to Winchester College, then a history scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge. Here, he embraced the new political ideas. He became a socialist, campaigned for women's suffrage and moved away from the church. He enjoyed writing, took up acting, was a keen sportsman and became a talented and audacious rock-climber.

He also had an abrupt introduction to a Cambridge that had a strong homoerotic ambience.

His tutor, Arthur Benson, was struck by his 'extraordinary and delicate beauty - a simpler, more ingenuous, more unaffected boy I never saw'. Benson was a confirmed bachelor who engaged students in emotional but non-sexual courtships.

In a secret diary, Benson admitted he was in love with Mallory and longed for a reciprocal sign. Unable to reconcile the conflicts at the core of his personality, Benson had a nervous breakdown. …