Swiss chalets glitter'd on the dewy slopes,
And from some swarded shelf high up, there came
Notes of wild pastoral music: over all
Rang'd, diamond-bright, the eternal wall of snow. — "A Dream," 1853, by Matthew Arnold

Peaks from the Jungfrau

A view from the Jungfrau. [Click on this and the following pictures for larger images.]

The Birth of a New Sport

While many Victorians loved to be beside the seaside, and, to a large extent, created the seaside resort, others loved to be among the mountains. These hardier souls were not factory workers on their annual leave, but young men drawn from the upper classes, those who might in the past have gone on the Grand Tour, and who still, in this new age, had the leisure and resources to explore the larger world. Previous adventurers of this kind had found the mountains an obstacle rather than an attraction. The seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn, for example, had reacted to the Alps "as if Nature had here swept up the rubbish of the earth ... to form and clear the plains of Lombardy," and hated crossing their "strange, horrid, and fearful crags and tracts" (335). Not so those educated Victorians who had read their Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley. Book VI of Wordsworth's The Prelude, for instance, takes in the poet's journey through the Alps, and finds in their different aspects the

      workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity

Similarly awed and challenged by the Alpine ranges, the travellers of the early Victorian period opened up the region to the new sport of mountaineering — and, increasingly, to tourism of a kind that the area had not known before.

Sir Leslie Stephen

Leslie Stephen in 1861

Leslie Stephen, by Camille Silvy. Albumen print, 9 October 1861. © National Portrait Gallery, London, by kind permission.

Foremost among these adventurers was Leslie Stephen (1832-1904; later Sir Leslie Stephen), who would be most famous as editor and contributor to the massive Dictionary of National Biography, and perhaps most famous of all as the father of Virginia Woolf. First published in his late thirties, one of his own books, The Playground of Europe (1871), was put together from essays in the Cornhill and other magazines, and is a classic account of mountaineering experiences. Having married Thackeray's younger daughter Minny (Harriet) in 1867, he added to the essays his meditations on his favourite sport at a time when domestic responsibilities were forcing him to give it up. The result was "a combination of adventure with wit, charm and intelligence" (Ring 98).

Stephen had been frail as a child. But after leaving King's College London, and entering Trinity Hall Cambridge, he took up rowing and blossomed into an athletic young man. This was the age of muscular Christianity with its promotion of sports, and he caught the spirit of the times, proving remarkably energetic and enviably tireless. Alfred Wills (1828-1912; later Sir Alfred Wills) is often said to have given the impetus to climbing as a sport when he made his ascent of the Wetterhorn in the Bernese Alps in 1854 (Braham 27). Stephen himself first went out to the Bavarian Tyrol in 1855, and was soon drawn to the higher altitudes, going out to Courmayeur in Northern Italy, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, in 1857, and from then on notching up a whole series of first ascents — Mont Blanc from St Gervais in 1861, and many more later, including the Jungfrau, Lyskamm, and Zinal Rothhorn in 1864 (see Bell). According to fellow-pioneer Edward Whymper (1840-1911), he was "fleetest of foot of the whole Alpine brotherhood" (234).

Peaks from Meiringen

A view from the Alps above Meiringen, a small town popular with the Victorians in the Bernese Oberland region. On a clear day, as many as 400 peaks are visible from here. Shown above, from left to right, are five that Leslie Stephen knew well: the Shreckhorn, Rosenhorn, Mittlehorn and the Wetterhorn itself, with Engelhörner in the foreground.

Influenced both by Wordsworth (whose poetry meant more to him as the years passed) and by the more recent writings of John Ruskin, Stephen found the mountains inspiring, and spiritually as well as physically elevating. For example, he loved the Shreckhorn, shown at the left of the picture above, which has two peaks connected by an arête, because it stands "in the very centre of the regions of frost and desolation," finding in such a view "a certain soothing influence like slow and stately music" (81); on the other hand, he also loved the Wetterhorn, far right in the same photograph, for its "sheer cliffs" at the end of this range (129). He thought the latter "one of the most impressive summits in the Alps," and asserted:

Every visitor with a soul for the beautiful admires the noble form of the Wetterhorn — the lofty snow-crowned pyramid rising in such light and yet massive lines from its huge basement of perpendicular cliffs.... It is not a sharp pinnacle like the Weisshorn, or a cupola like Mount Blanc, or a grand rocky tooth like the Mount Rosa, but a long and nearly horizontal knife-edge, which, as seen from either end, has of course the appearance of a sharp-pointed cone. It is when balanced upon this ridge — sitting astride of the knife-edge on which one can hardly stand without giddiness — that one fully appreciates an Alpine precipice.... [290-91]

He goes on to talk about precipices more generally, and about the sensation of terror that inevitably fills the climber at the thought of tumbling down "the awful slopes," but explains that from the summit of the Wetterhorn only the first little bit of the descent can be seen, before it "curves over and disappears," just leaving the vast view of the valley below. "It was like the view which may be seen from the ridge of a cathedral roof, where the eaves have for their immediate background the pavement of the streets below; only this cathedral was 9,000 feet high" (291-92). This, he says, makes the terror much worse:

Now, any one standing at the foot of the Wetterhorn may admire their stupendous massiveness and steepness; but to feel their influence enter in the very marrow of one's bones, it is necessary to stand at the summit, and to fancy the one little slide down the short ice-slope, to be followed apparently by a bound into clear air and a fall down to the houses, from heights where only the eagle ventures to soar. [292]

Here was a young man fully in thrall to the heights and to the range of sensations that they aroused in him.

The Influence of Ruskin

View from the slopes of the Brienzer Rothorn mountain Ascent of the Rothorn

Left: A subject for contemplation: the lower slopes of the Brienzer Rothorn, with a river winding down through the valley. Right: The active route: "The Ascent of the Rotthorn." Source: Stephen, frontispiece.

It is easy to see the influence of Ruskin in the passages above, in the particularity and inwardness of his response and to some extent in the word-painting. Indeed, Stephen acknowledged his debt to Ruskin himself: "When long ago the Alps cast their spell upon me, it was woven in a great degree by the eloquence of Modern Painters" (qtd. in Maitland 80). But the relationship between the two men was a complex one. Understanding how Stephen felt about Ruskin and his writings helps to define his own attitude to the mountains, and how he himself presented them in his work.

Stephen had written earlier of "Ruskin's eloquence" (42), so well exemplified in that author's description of a storm in the Chamonix, where Ruskin, like Wordsworth before him but with a new self-effacement, had seen beauty of the highest order in the awesomeness of wild nature:

The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids [the mountains] stood calmly — in the very heart of the high heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned — what till then I had not known — the real meaning of the word Beautiful. [See George Landow's discussion on this website]

Stephen met such accounts with a mixture of admiration and reserve. He opined that "most humble writers will feel that if they try to imitate Mr. Buskin's eloquence they will pay the penalty of becoming ridiculous. It is not every one who can with impunity compare Alps to archangels" (268). In his opinion, mountains "deserved critical appreciation" rather than "gush" (qtd. in Maitland 97-98). Thus he himself generally eschewed such language. But he found earlier examples of "what is now called 'word-painting'" in other writers' descriptions of mountain scenery (53), and he too wrote memorably about the Alps, as in the passages quoted above. In fact, despite his agnosticism he could not avoid references to cathedrals and church spires — "The cathedral and the granite peaks have indeed many qualities in common," he admitted (13) — and wrote with more spiritual feeling here than in his other works (see Hansen 28).

John Ruskin

Ruskin lost in contemplation amid mountain scenery, in the famous painting by John Millais. [Click on the image for a larger picture and more information.]

Nevertheless, his and Ruskin's personalities were very different. "I could not be at ease with him," wrote Stephen after one meeting: "I was afraid of contradicting him, lest it should annoy him, and of agreeing, lest I should be lying, and indeed inclined to treat him as a dangerous compound which might explode in any direction without notice" (qtd. in Maitland 291). Not surprisingly, then, Stephen deliberately distanced himself from this source by insisting that "the charm [laid on him by Ruskin] operated rather perversely. It stimulated a passion for climbing which absorbed my energies and distracted me from the prophet's loftier teaching" (qtd. in Maitland 80). There is more than a touch of irony in those last few words. To Stephen, the inclination to "gush" over the mountains existed, but was restrained. He preferred to climb them. The more active route was the one that appealed, and this was the one to which he devoted himself in the prime of his manhood.

Photographs and scan by the author, except for the photograph of Leslie Stephen as a young man, and the image of Millais's painting of Ruskin. You may use the other images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.

Related Material


Bell, Alan. "Stephen, Sir Leslie (1832–1904)." Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 October 2014.

Braham, Trevor. When the Alps Cast Their Spell: Mountaineers of the Alpine Golden Age. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2013.

Evelyn, John. The Diary of John Evelyn. Vol. 1 (1620-1646). London: Routledge/Thoemmes Pres, 1996.

Hansen, Peter H. The Summits of Modern Man. Cambrige, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Maitland, F. W. The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen. London: Duckworth, 1906. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 1 October 2014.

Ring, Jim. How the English Made the Alps. London: John Murray, 2000.

Stephen, Leslie. The Playground of Europe. London: Longman, Green & Co., 1871.

Whymper, Edward. Scrambles amongst the Alps. 6th ed. London: John Murray, 1936.

Last modified 1 October 2014