The Cockney Who Sold the Alps: Albert Smith and the Ascent of Mont Blanc by Alan McNeeAs someone with an aversion to the outdoors, I prefer to experience nature vicariously. Preferably with a G&T in my hand. Had I been shuffling around in the nineteenth century, I’d have no doubt found my way to Albert Smith’s ‘Ascent of Mont Blanc’ show at London’s Egyptian Hall. Audiences were mesmerised by a diorama that gave the impression they were participating in an Alpine adventure – all from the safety of a plush seat in Piccadilly.

Smith, in full evening dress, would appear on the stage giving a ‘rattling and rapid description of the journey from town to Dover; then the run across the channel and the Continent, till in a few minutes he brought the audience to Switzerland itself’. The proscenium was designed to resemble a two-storey Swiss chalet, complete with shutters and balcony. Behind it lay rocks and a miniature lake, stocked with live fish. Alpine plants adorned the display, along with appropriate accoutrements, such as knapsacks, alpenstocks, and Swiss hats. As Smith described the journey, the Swiss chalet would rise of sight to make way for the painted canvases, depicting scenes along the way. The interval was marked by the arrival of St. Bernard dogs bearing boxes of chocolates for the children. In the second act, the images moved in a continuous descending panorama to give the impression of the ascent in progress.

Audiences loved it. The first performance took place on 15 March 1852, and it ran for seven seasons – a total of 2,000 shows. Alan McNee estimates that around 800,000 people watched ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc’, placing it in the league of modern West End musicals. By the second season, The Times remarked that ‘the exhibition now seems to be one of the “sights of London” – like St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey and the Monument’. Initially sceptical of the show’s appeal, Thackeray later wrote to his daughters: ‘it was so amusing that you don’t feel a moment’s ennui during the whole performance – a thousand times more amusing than certain lectures and certain novels I know of’.

While many people were content to enjoy the ascent vicariously, others were inspired to pursue a hands-on approach. Smith’s show inspired ‘Mont Blanc mania’, encouraging participation in mountaineering as a popular pursuit. Tour operators such as Thomas Cook were quick to capitalise on the opportunity, conveying eager holidaymakers over to the continent. Smith might have spiced up the leisure time of the more affluent working classes, but not everyone was happy with this transformation. Leslie Stephen (more famous now as the father of Virginia Woolf) was horrified that the Alps were no longer the exclusive preserve of the upper middle class.

Smith’s own ascent of Mont Blanc is the most remarkable episode in this absorbing story. Rather portly in stature and no Bear Grylls, he nonetheless succeeded in scaling the highest peak in the Alps. Although he benefited from local guides, Smith was using equipment that would horrify a twenty-first-century mountaineer. And for much of the ascent he was three sheets to the wind. He probably wasn’t drunk, as such, but had certainly consumed an inadvisable quantity of alcohol (even a small amount of booze intensifies the unpleasant effects of altitude). Of course, in the mid-nineteenth century, there were no dehydrated meals or sachets of high-energy gel – all the provisions for the ascent had to be carried by the party. And what an impressive list of provisions it was:

60 bottles of vin ordinaire
6 bottles of Bordeaux
10 bottles of St. George
15 bottles of St. Jean
3 bottles of Cognac
1 bottle of syrup of raspberries
6 bottles of lemonade
2 bottles of champagne
20 loaves
10 small cheeses
6 packets of chocolate
6 packets of sugar
4 packets of prunes
4 packets of raisins
2 packets of salt
4 wax candles
6 lemons
4 legs of mutton
4 shoulders of mutton
6 pieces of veal
1 piece of beef
11 large fowls
35 small fowls

Clearly, an audacious attempt on an intimidating mountain was no reason to let culinary standards slip. Smith’s story shows how far you can get with determination, perseverance, and a large dose of chutzpah. John Ruskin, however, was unimpressed, noting with contempt that there had been a “Cockney ascent of Mont Blanc”.

Smith’s successes were legion, but he didn’t get to the top without making a few enemies along the way.  His bumptiousness made him a divisive figure, and his relentless drive to seize every opportunity often gave the impression of a grasping and ruthless nature. He numbered William Makepeace Thackeray, George Augustus Sala, and Charles Dickens among his friends, but fell out with all of them at different times. Most notably, he made an enemy of Dickens after becoming embroiled in the unpleasantness surrounding Dickens’s affair with Ellen Ternan.

Although he died aged only 43, Albert Smith managed to pack much incident into his short life. He was robbed by highwaymen in Italy, narrowly escaped death in a hot air ballooning accident, and dodged arrest in Paris during the June Days Uprising of 1848. Ever the showman, he made good use of these events in his journalism and also on the stage. Even Queen Victoria described him as “inimitable”, an epithet that Dickens famously liked to apply to himself.

I must confess that I’d never heard of Smith before I received the proposal for this entertaining and enlightening book. I was delighted to meet him, albeit at a distance of 150 years. As a man, he’s hard to like, but as a showman he’s impossible to resist.

The Cockney Who Sold the Alps: Albert Smith and the Ascent of Mont Blanc by Alan McNee is available in paperback and Kindle editions.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

by catherine on April 6, 2015

Harriet by Elizabeth JenkinsTrue crime isn’t usually my cup of tea, but I found myself completely transfixed by Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet (1934) last year. Based on the infamous Penge murder trial of 1877, the novel recounts the short life and pitiful death of Harriet Staunton, a middle-class woman with what we would now call ‘learning difficulties’. Although she struggled to read and write, Harriet took great pride in her appearance and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle with a comfortable income. Her loving mother did everything to make Harriet’s life normal, never imagining her daughter would become the victim of a merciless fortune-hunter.

The charming but callous Louis Staunton quickly wooed Harriet, motivated by the knowledge that wives’ assets were assumed by the husband on marriage. Soon tiring of her odd behaviour, he paid his brother Patrick and sister-in-law Elizabeth to care for Harriet and their baby. Louis then promptly moved in with his lover, Alice. Harriet was subjected to intolerable cruelty, the facts of which became chillingly clear in the sensational trial that followed. Fortunately, Jenkins manages to convey the horror of Harriet’s story without relying on explicit descriptions of torments she suffered. This is very much a psychological thriller, and one told with great verve and insight.

Valancourt Books has just published a new edition of Harriet and I was delighted that they asked me to contribute an afterword. While reading the trial proceedings and researching the background to the case was deeply uncomfortable, I felt that Harriet’s treatment says a great deal about the position of women in the nineteenth century and how easy it was to deny them subjectivity. Louis was able to take advantage of women’s legal vulnerability at the time and Harriet’s mother was powerless to prevent him. On marriage, Harriet’s considerable assets became his to do with as he pleased. She endowed him with all her worldly goods; he gave her nothing. In fact, it appears that Harriet’s plight lent impetus to the campaign for the Second Married Women’s Property Act, which finally allowed women to own property in their own name.

In my afterword I also explain what happened following the trial, and how Queen Victoria became involved in this extraordinary case. The transcription of the trial is full of revelations, contradictions, and outright denials, all of which Jenkins deftly constructs into a taut and compelling story. Such is the veracity and intensity of her novel, Jenkins actually came to regret having written it. She felt uncomfortable with exploring a real-life case as fiction, and Harriet’s sufferings were particularly difficult to read following the horrors of the Second World War. Notwithstanding the author’s reservations, Harriet remains a provocative and important novel. By placing her victim at the centre of the narrative, Jenkins gives Harriet the attention and respect she was denied as a wife.

For rights reasons, this edition of Harriet is currently only available in the US. For more information, please visit the Valancourt Books website.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Mrs Grundy’s Enemies: Censorship, Realist Fiction and the Politics of Sexual Representation by Anthony Patterson

March 8, 2015

Although originally a character in Thomas Morton’s play Speed the Plough (1798), Mrs Grundy has enjoyed greater fame as the arbiter of nineteenth-century moral standards. In Mrs Grundy’s Enemies, Anthony Patterson selects for his study a range of authors – including Emile Zola, H G Wells, and George Egerton – who courted controversy with their […]

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Life in the Victorian Asylum by Mark Stevens

February 14, 2015

The mention of Victorian asylums often evokes images of despairing souls, incarcerated by sadistic wardens. While we might sigh with relief at our good fortune at living in more enlightened times, archivist Mark Stevens’s insightful new book offers a completely different perspective. Cleverly written in the style of a handbook for new arrivals, Stevens deftly adopts […]

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Sowing the Wind by Eliza Lynn Linton

February 8, 2015

Eliza Lynn Linton is an unlikely heroine for me, given she is best known for her anti-feminist articles ‘The Girl of the Period’ for the Saturday Review. While her journalism alerted readers to the dangers of the New Woman in all her guises, Linton’s novels – quite literally – tell a different story. First published […]

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Elizabeth Gaskell and the Meanings of Home

January 13, 2015

Imagine if your house was given a £2.5m makeover and you weren’t around to enjoy it? Well, that’s what’s happened to Elizabeth Gaskell. Her home at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester has just reopened to the public after extensive renovations. The Grade II* listed villa had been languishing in a state of disrepair since the death […]

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End of Year Book Meme 2014

December 31, 2014

Twenty-fourteen is almost behind us, so it’s time for me to account for my reading activities over the past year. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of my visitors a very happy and bookish 2015. How many books read in 2013? Only 92 this year, which is probably the fewest since […]

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Life According to Literature 2014

December 24, 2014

The festive season is upon us once more, so it is time for the annual Life According to Literature blog meme. I’ve been rather slack with my reading this year – only 86 rather than the usual 100+ books – but there’s still a week to go. Wishing you a merry and book-filled Yuletide. THE […]

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Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger

November 15, 2014

One of the many joys of delving into the nineteenth century is meeting the numerous vibrant characters who inhabited it. I first encountered ‘Lord’ George Sanger when researching the Hyde Park celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s accession. Over nine days in June 1838, Sanger and his circus family thrilled the crowds with learned pigs and […]

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The Year of the Trollope

October 25, 2014

If you thought 2012 was exciting, hold on to your hat, as 2015 is the year of the Trollope. Yes, next spring marks Trollope’s bicentenary and the anticipation is palpable. Radio 4 has already started celebrating with dramatisations of some of his more popular novels, including The Eustace Diamonds. OUP republished handsome editions of the Palliser […]

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