Peter H. Hansen


"British Mountaineering, 1850-1914," (Ph.D., Harvard, 1991)

Dissertation Abstract

My thesis explains why mountaineering began in mid-Victorian Britain, and examines its wider historical significance before 1914. The first half of the dissertation uses narrative chapters to locate the origins of mountaineering in the period 1850-1871. The second half employs analytical chapters on aesthetics, gender, class, and power to evaluate the influence of the sport on Victorian culture and society in the period 1850-1914. An introduction examines mountaineering from the 18th century to 1850.

Mountaineering was the creation of an urban middle class culture in mid-Victorian Britain. Albert Smith, an entertainer, popularized climbing Mont Blanc by giving the static literary forms of romantic worship of nature a new narrative structure. Mid-Victorian society created an ambitious professional middle class who formed Albert Smith's audience and became the founders of the Alpine Club. By adopting the language of exploration and adventure from imperial explorers in Africa and the Arctic, the members of the Alpine Club imposed upon themselves the task of climbing the major Alpine peaks; the pursuit of science played a minor role. The fatal first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 brought this heroic period of Alpine climbing to an end, and unleashed widespread debate about risk, danger, and death in mountaineering. These themes demonstrate the ambivalent attitude of the professional middle class toward Victorian prosperity and power and utilitarian calculations of risk and reward. The ascent also marked the last of the major Alpine ascents, and a decisive turning outward to climb in the rest of the world.

Thematic chapters discuss the impact of commercialization on the climbers' aesthetic judgments, their definition of masculinity, the costs of climbing, and the imperial meaning of the sport. The chapter on art and aesthetics assesses the ways in which mountaineers reinterpreted the earlier romantic writers amid the increasingly commercialized Alps in new aesthetic and religious terms. The chapter on men and women climbers reveals the importance men attached to climbing as a means of developing manliness and explains how this association was threatened when women began to climb in large numbers before 1914. The relationship between English climbers and their Swiss guides raises issues of broader economic interest. The falling cost of climbing, and of Swiss tourism more generally, made mountaineering accessible to a wider variety of people and devalued its social cachet.

The final chapter discusses mountaineering as an imperial sport. As the British climbed outside Europe, they often aligned themselves with the imperial effort, especially in India and the Himalayas. Mountaineering became an informal means of exercising British power overseas and of inculcating loyalty to the imperial mission at home. Climbing enabled professional men to experience the thrill of imperial exploration vicariously and to develop masculine virtues, even if they had neither the time nor the money to travel to the deepest corners of the empire. This study of mountain climbing thus examines the broader significance of the history of leisure, sport, science, and tourism in Victorian England.

This thesis is available from University Microfilms International, publication number AAC9211688.


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