Marjon News

It Went Down Into The Very Form And Fabric of Myself

Released: 21.05.15

Mountaineering Conference

How women's mountaineering literature inspired freedom, education and challenge.

Dr Karen Stockham shared her research on mountaineering literature at a prestigious global conference.

Her paper, ‘It went down into the very form and fabric of myself’ was presented at the University of Alberta’s tri-ennial ‘Mountains Initiative’ conference in the Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, a multi-disciplinary conference, which brought the very best of the world’s scholarship on mountains together.

Dr Stockham owns one of the largest collections of mountaineering literature in private hands, collected over a 30 year period.  Her research spans mountaineering literature from the early nineteenth century to the current day, but she has special interest in the inter-war period, an era which includes one of the University of St Mark and St John’s former principals, the poet and mountaineer Michael Roberts and his wife, the mountaineer and literary critic Janet Adam Smith. 

She said: “It was a period of watershed and change - mountaineering was opening up to women and men from all backgrounds, not just those who had the time and leisure. It was a particularly important period for women, where gains in terms of suffrage, work and leisure were being translated into mountaineering; for example, women were starting to climb ‘les cordees feminines’ without their ever-present male chaperones.

“It’s a fascinating subject which brings together literature, history and sociology – people find it both unusual and interesting due to the rare archival material I’m able to access and draw upon and I was delighted that my conference paper received very enthusiastic and positive feedback.  It was wonderful to represent the University of St Mark and St John in Jasper and I’m grateful to have received support which enabled me to attend.

“I have found my research sources are a wonderful way to ignite students’ interest in theory.  They make theory ‘real’ somehow - students loved seeing some of the archive source materials.”

Dr Stockham’s post-doctoral project is to continue to research the extensive diaries of mountaineering author Dorothy Pilley.  She has been invited to write an article for the Alpine Journal to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the publication of, Pilley’s 1935 memoirs, ‘Climbing Days’ which will be published in this year’s edition of the Alpine Journal and has written articles for the British Sociological Association’s Auto/Biography Journal. Another published paper is due out this spring and she has written a chapter for a book on nineteenth century women’s travel to be published in the spring of 2016 by the Cambridge Scholars Press.

“Dorothy Pilley was an influential character who encouraged women to write about their experiences through the Ladies’ Alpine Club Journal.  She found that getting women to write about their mountaineering and climbing was a challenge - women felt that their (considerable) exploits were not worth writing about!  The private diaries and published journals from this period share themes around freedom from domestic constraints and home life. For Dorothy, mountaineering was about finding an identity and a personality for herself, and about being a strong and talented mountaineer. Mountaineering gave her access into a world where she learned new things about the people, geography and landscapes. So, for her, it was an important form of education.

“By the post-War era, the Ladies Alpine Club Journal and the Pinnacle Club Journal were at the sharp end of writing women’s achievements in mountaineering.  It’s fascinating watching that history evolve through diaries and other unpublished sources – my goal is to make that unpublished history accessible to students and other readers of mountaineering literature.  It’s a largely hidden history, only apparent in diaries and letters.”

Pilley kept a private diary from the age of 12 until she died aged 92 in 1986. Diary writing was a discipline encouraged by many strict Victorian parents like hers. Throughout her diaries, a constant theme is the freedom mountaineering afforded her from her home life.  She was a strong willed girl who used to take every opportunity she could to leave the comfort of her home in London to go mountaineering in North Wales and the Lake District despite ongoing battles with her parents, who did not approve of her mountaineering. By the mid-1920s her Father conceded defeat and started presenting her with train tickets to the north of England.

She spent one year at a domestic science college in London training to become a wife, mother, and manager of a household.  She had a 53 year marriage with the mountaineer and literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards and found a career in writing and journalism.

The University of St Mark & St John is no stranger to mountaineers and climbers, and with its location on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, it has a number of Outdoor Education programmes and Forest School initiatives. The Sport Centre’s climbing wall has 150sqm of climbing space.

Back to Marjon News