A special post on the BARS Blog today to celebrate the new exhibition ‘This Girl Did: Dorothy Wordsworth and Women’s Mountaineering’ at Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Trust. Joanna Taylor presents an edited version of her recent talk at the Trust, ‘Dorothy Wordsworth, Mountaineering Pioneer’.
On October 7 1818, Dorothy Wordsworth and her friend Mary Barker ascended England’s highest mountain: Scafell Pike. Wordsworth’s account of the feat is among the earliest records of a recreational ascent of the mountain – and it’s the earliest written by a woman.
Wordsworth’s and Barker’s climb of Scafell Pike is notable for the daring it displays: this was not simply a mountain climb, but a rebellious act that opened up the mountain – and mountaineering – for successive generations throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. More than that, reading Wordsworth’s account today suggests new ways of understanding the mountains that go beyond tales of sporting prowess: as Wordsworth knew, examining the details of a mountainside can be as rewarding as the view from the summit.
Dorothy Wordsworth’s ‘irregular habits’
Walking was an important part of the daily routine in the Wordsworth household, but they were well aware – and proud of – the fact that their commitment to almost daily extensive walks was unusual. In September 1800, for instance, we find Wordsworth explaining to Jane Marshall that the frequency with which they walked – and the distances they travelled – was one of the household’s ‘irregular’ habits. The Wordsworth siblings walked together most days for the best part of four decades; Thomas De Quincey estimated that William walked between 175,000 and 180,000 miles over his lifetime, and Dorothy can’t have fallen far short of that. Wordsworth bragged about the speed with which she could walk, and how little fatigued she was afterwards, until her mid-fifties.
Walking was not something Wordsworth took for granted. Both at the start and end of her life, Wordsworth knew what it was like to not be able – or allowed – to walk. In her late teens and early twenties – before she moved in with her brother in 1795 – Wordsworth’s walks were restricted by her relatives’ views on social decorum. For instance, she defended herself against her aunt’s disapproval of her ‘rambling about the country on foot’ by writing that:
I rather thought it would give my friends pleasure to hear that I had courage to make use of the strength with which nature has endowed me, when it not only procured me infinitely more pleasure than I should have received from sitting in a post-chaise – but was also the means of saving me at least thirty shillings.
Wordsworth was justifiably proud of her walking prowess – in 1818, when she was 46, she boasted to Sara Coleridge that she could ‘walk sixteen miles in four hours and three quarters, with short rests between, on a blustering cold day, without having felt any fatigue’. That’s an impressive pace of a little under four miles an hour around the Lake District hills!
But the climb up Scafell Pike with Mary Barker was perhaps Wordsworth’s most significant walking achievement. The two women initially only intended on climbing Ash Course – but, on reaching that point, they decided to push on to the Pike, since ‘three parts up that Mountain’. Although the distance turns out to be ‘greater than it had appeared’, still their ‘courage did not fail’.
The letter in which Wordsworth describes this feat draws attention to different ways of reading the mountain. In one moment she describes a landscape that stretches out for miles from the summit on which she stands. But at the next, when she looks down, Dorothy realises that though the summit seemed lifeless at first glance, in fact beauty could be found clinging to the rocks if one looked closely enough:
I ought to have described the last part of our ascent to Scaw Fell pike. There, not a blade of grass was to be seen – hardly a cushion of moss, & that was parched & brown; and only growing rarely between the huge blocks & stones which cover the summit & lie in heaps all round to a great distance, like Skeletons or bones of the earth not wanted at the creation, & here left to be covered with never-dying lichens, which the Clouds and dews nourish; and adorn with colours of the most vivid and exquisite beauty, and endless in variety (quoted with permission from The Wordsworth Trust).
In focusing on these details close to hand, rather than rhapsodising on the distant prospect, Dorothy anticipates writers like Nan Shepherd: these women propose an alternative to more familiar accounts of mountaineering exploits that emphasise a victory over a feminised Mother Nature when the climber conquers the summit. Instead, Dorothy recognises that paying close attention reveals unexpected features even on a barren mountaintop.
Wordsworth’s account of the ascent of Scafell Pike was later included – without attribution, possibly at her own request – in William Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes. The implication was that it was William who had undertaken the ascent. As a result, Wordsworth’s legacy in climbing Scafell Pike is blurred into William’s, and many of the people who followed in her footsteps were unaware that it was her they were emulating.
Her ambitious walking practices established women’s walking as an accepted practice in the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families. Robert Southey, for instance, describes the delight which his daughter, Edith, and niece, Sara Coleridge, took from a young age in scrambling about on the fells around their home in Keswick, and Sara herself – not without some self-mockery – labelled them ‘expert mountaineers’.
But Wordsworth’s influence was much wider reaching. Harriet Martineau – a friend of the Wordsworths after she moved to Ambleside in the 1840s – seems not to have been aware that it was Dorothy who made the ascent, but her own account of an ascent of Scafell Pike closely replicates Wordsworth’s. Two decades later, Eliza Lynn Linton – the first salaried female journalist in Britain, though she’s perhaps more (in)famous for her notorious Girl of the Period essays – described Scafell’s intimidating appearance on the approach to it in her guidebook, The Lake Country, in 1865:
Scawfell rose up, and looked bigger and more formidable than ever. As we proceeded he grew, and our work seemed only beginning: all the climbing we have had mere child’s play to what was to come.
It did not put her off: Lynn Linton spent the night on the mountain. Lynn Linton’s description indicates what an extraordinary feat this climb was for Wordsworth to undertake at a moment when such ambitious routes were considered well beyond a woman’s capability. Wordsworth – like Martineau, Lynn Linton and countless others after her – made it clear that walking and other forms of mountaineering were as much for women as for men. Today, Wordsworth continues to offer a vision of the mountains that invites us all to look at, and move through, them in new ways.
This post is adapted from a talk given at The Wordsworth Trust on 1 September 2018; you can find a live video of the full paper here. ‘This Girl Did: Dorothy Wordsworth and Women’s Mountaineering’ opens at The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, on Saturday 1 September and runs until Sunday 23 December. A film about recreating of Dorothy’s climb up Scafell Pike will premiere at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Sunday 18 November; more details and tickets will be available here.