Victorian Writing about Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World

By Elaine Freedgood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The uses of pain: cultural masochism and the
colonization of the future in Victorian mountaineering
memoirs

“The view is superb, but you dare not look at it. ”

Albert Smith, The Story of Mont Blanc (1854)

In the previous chapter, we saw that the pleasures recounted in ballooning memoirs disrupt the idea of risk as predominately painful and therefore deserving of reward. In canonical adventure stories from The Odyssey to Heart of Darkness, rewards for risk generally come only at the end of the story. In ballooning memoirs, by contrast, rewards for risk are continuous: pleasures of various kinds are experienced by balloon travelers even in the midst of considerable danger. Mountaineering memoirs disturb canonical stories of risk by suggesting that the pain of risk has its pleasures and uses; indeed, for some, pain may be its own reward. In the memoirs of five mountaineers – Leslie Stephen, A. F. Mummery, Edward Whymper, Amelia Edwards and Frederica Plunket – pain makes and unmakes the subject and the world, providing pleasure and power to those who are willing to risk experiencing it.

The mountaineers considered in this chapter are a diverse group, but they shared everyday lives that were socially and economically secure, and largely sedentary. Edwards was a novelist, traveler and Egyptologist; Stephen was a major Victorian intellectual, the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and the author of numerous volumes of history, biography and criticism. Mummery was a wealthy businessman and political economist who co-authored a book on industry with J. A. Hobson. 1 Whymper is exceptional in the group in that he was neither middle class nor intellectual; he was an engraver who first came to the Alps to do sketches on assignment from the publisher (and Alpine Club member) William Longman.

The memoirs are as diverse as are their authors. Mummery, in My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus (1895), and Plunket, in Here and There Among the Alps (1875), confine themselves to mountaineering material (although

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