The Wild Woman of Carshalton
It may be Robert Cooke’s story I tell in Small Eden, but his mother Hettie undergoes a transformation of her own.
Hettie’s parents were mountaineers, who named her after the ridge route in the Scottish highlands where they first met. After her father meets his end traversing that very same route, this proves too much for family members, and so she is known by her middle name. Hettie’s response to her father’s demise is an excessive avoidance of risk. She communicates her fears to her family and limits her own possibilities in life, until eventually she is galvanised into setting off on a pilgrimage to see the place that claimed her father. The place she was named after.
I climbed my first mountain – Snowden – at the age of eighteen. My then boyfriend thought that I shouldn’t have reached the summit on my first attempt. I’d had it too easy. I made up for it on my second attempt, when I was lifted by the wind and landed facedown looking over a cliff edge, but that’s an entirely different story. We needn’t concern ourselves with it here. Despite this – or perhaps in spite of it – I was bitten by the bug. I didn’t know of any climbing clubs (admittedly I didn’t do too much research) and so I attached myself to my local scout group. Although I was the only female with a group of boys and men, it was never suggested to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a woman.
For Victorian women, things were very different. Firstly, Victorian women were discouraged from taking part in any strenuous activity. And as for going about unchaperoned – it simply wasn’t the done thing.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the climber-photographer brothers George and Ashley Abraham began to document their mountaineering expeditions. From their photographs we can see how little equipment they used. The men dressed in tweed jackets and hob-nailed boots, and they were roped together. If one man fell, all those roped to him would be pulled off as well. We know from the brothers’ photographs that women also climbed mountains, but they were a rarity.
One of these exceptional women was Lucy Walker (1836–1916). Although Lucy’s doctor recommended that she take up walking – a gentle exercise – to ease her rheumatism, the last thing he would have had in mind was mountaineering. But when her family took a trip to the Alps, Lucy wasn’t content to remain in the valley. She joined her brother and father and became a regular climber.
At 10.15 am on 25 July, 1864, a party of 11 people perched on the narrow arête of the Eiger’s summit. Their progress had been hindered by poor visibility and ice, but Lucy’s fellow climber Adolphus Moore noted: ‘A repugnance to abandoning an undertaking once commenced…appears to be naturally inherent in the breasts of Britons, male and female alike.’ 28-year-old Liverpudlian Lucy Walker was the only female in their party, and the first woman to climb the Eiger. She joined with the rest of the party in ‘howling themselves hoarse’ in celebration of their ascent.
Lucy claimed at least fifteen first female ascents, including the Matterhorn (4,478m). She regularly climbed for more than 14 hours a day, sleeping in barns high in the peaks, at close quarters with the men, and celebrating with a bottle of champagne at the summit. Famous mountaineer Edward Whymper said of her, ‘No candidate for election in the Alpine Club… ever submitted a list of qualifications at all approaching the list of Miss Walker.’
And what’s more, she did all of this in a skirt.
Advice on what women should wear for climbing came from a surprising source – Queen Victoria. After arriving at Balmoral Castle as a young woman, the Queen became at regular in the mountains of the highlands. In 1890 she wrote:
“Some ladies dispense with skirts altogether, and lay them aside with the other impedimenta when climbing really begins. But this requires some little courage, and by carefully arranging the length of the skirt, it may be worn without inconvenience. It must, however, be capable of being shortened so as to cover the knees; anything longer than this is certainly inconvenient, if not actually dangerous.“
When Lucy Walker returned to Liverpool, she returned to a life of respectability. But Hettie is an older woman and a widow. In Small Eden I gave her licence to misbehave. After her return to Carshalton she cares far less about public opinion than she did. With her newfound liberation and clarity she strides about freely in a pair of stout shoes looking like the Wild Woman of Borneo. After all, every English village needs its eccentrics!
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