Robert Macfarlane. (author of Mountains of the Mind.)
“Rosemary Bailey has written a charming, gentle, and deeply felt book, about a charming, gentle man who felt so deeply for the mountains of the Pyrenees that he eventually married one of them. This is, at one level, a biography of a little-known Victorian eccentric, Count Henry Russell: Bailey describes her own pursuit of this great adventurer, and the affection she feels for him, in all his sentimentalism, stupidity, bravery, innocence and wonder, shines through. But Bailey also uses Russell’s story to tell the wider history of a region and a landscape which he loved more than any other – the Pyrenees -and which she, too, has come to love and know, since she moved there in 1997.
Russell was so in love with wildness and natural beauty that he would spend weeks at a time living on the summits of the highest Pyreneean peaks, immersing himself in the rhythms and dramas of that upper world. His attitude to the mountains was very different to many of his nineteenth-century mountain-climbing peers; indeed, in its spiritual reverence for the landscape, it was most akin to Eastern traditions of thought concerning nature and place, which stressed the need to understand and to integrate into an environment. Ahead of his time, or perhaps just west of his place, Russell sensed that the natural world could not be dominated, or beaten, or treated as an enemy, but must be approached with modesty and wonder. As well as being a very entertaining story, Rosemary Bailey’s careful, passionate and unpretentious telling of Russell’s story also restores an early and esoteric chapter in the history of modern environmental thought.”
The Times March 26th 2005
The climber in the cravat
Reviewed by Celia Brayfield
THE MAN WHO MARRIED A MOUNTAIN
BY ROSEMARY BAILEY
ISBN 0 553 81523 7
Count Henry Russell-Killough was a Romantics’ romantic; in the words of this author, a proto-hippy. His yearning for the “paradise of snow” that beckoned from the high Pyrenees finally led him to realise his life’s ambition, to lie in his sheepskin sleeping bag in a cave at the edge of a glacier, enjoying a cigar and a mug of rum punch while ball lightning rolled down the mountain in a thunderstorm that felt like an earthquake. It was 1884 and he was 50 years old.
The son of an aristocratic Irish father and an athletic French mother, Russell was a backpacker before his time. He left home at 18 to travel most of the world before coming home to his family in Pau, the capital of the province of Béarn in south-west France, and surrendering to a passion for the Pyrenees.
Mountaineering was a new craze; the word entered the English language in 1860. Russell was not only a passionate climber but also a prolific and gifted writer. His books made the Pyrenees, whose jagged young peaks and surreal emerald lakes span the border between France and Spain, a hot destination for the Belle Epoque. The Béarn soon had the kind of reputation enjoyed now by north Australia — an extreme place for extreme people — and Tennyson, Flaubert, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Gustave Dore, Kipling, Trollope, Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and the Prince of Wales followed Russell up the valleys, on foot, on horseback or in sedan chairs.
Early mountaineers clamber through the pages in pre-Gore-Tex kit: frock coats, top hats, cricket flannels or, in the case of Miss Ann Lister, a lesbian icon known in her native Yorkshire as “Gentleman Jack”, a black merino dress with a muslin fichu. Russell favoured a Norfolk tweed jacket and a cerise cravat, plus the espadrilles preferred by the Basque shepherds.
Pau soon had a international community 6,000 strong, with a fox hunt, race course and golf club modelled on St Andrews. It was “a perfect storm of unending pleasure”, but Russell soon felt oppressed by the monster he had created. After the Americans arrived, a caravan of East Coast socialites straight from the pen of Edith Wharton, he wanted out. Or rather, up.
The book’s title comes from his symbolic marriage to Vignemale, the peak that most fascinated him, half-hidden above the famous rock amphitheatre of Gavarnie. Here he had caves blasted and, after an inaugural Mass, he lived there for several summers, organising champagne picnics and moonlight glacier walks for his guests.
The mountain was his only bride. His climbing companion was an English botanist, Charles Packe, who loved his Pyrenean mountain dogs so much that he had a life-size porcelain statue made of one of them. After Packe went home and married, Russell’s companions seemed to have been ever younger and handsomer. There is only anecdotal evidence that he was gay, and his brother destroyed most of his letters after his death. The family did not allow Rosemary Bailey to see what remains, which makes for a frustratingly formal portrait. The author compensates with gonzo-style scenes from her own second home in the Pyrenees, the only false note in an otherwise enthralling read.
French News May 2005
A Journey through the French Pyrenees
by Rosemary Bailey
Bantam Books, 2005 – 447p – softcover
Your French News price €12.50 €14
The pleasures of armchair travelling – or in this case climbing mountains in the literary equivalent of a chairlift – are compounded in this immensely enjoyable follow-up to the author’s successful memoir of living in a village on the eastern edge of the Pyrenees, ‘Life in a Postcard’ (Bantam Books, 2002).
The backbone of the present volume is an account of the life and travels of Count Henri Russell, a XIXc enthusiast of the then still largely unexplored Pyrenees (European mountain lovers are sharply divided into alpinists and pyrénéistes: you are either one or the other). Russell, who spelled his name Henry or Henri depending on whether he was feeling English or French, is said to have scaled every peak in the chain, from east to west, on both sides of the Spanish border. This is no mere historical account, however; and it is anything but dry. Enthralled with her subject, Rosemary Bailey retraces Russell’s steps (a task greatly facilitated by the abundance of his writings), visiting the hotels where he stopped and the flats he shared with his mother and brother. (A wealthy man, he never married, never owned property and remained something of a vagabond all his life.)
Not a seasoned mountain climber herself, she dutifully tramped the lower slopes of many of the peaks he scaled. On most of her forays into Russell’s kingdom she was accompanied by her young son Theo, whose spontaneity provides a counterpoint to her erudition. Not that she is ever dull: delighting in the quirks and crochets of the gentlemen and ladies of leisure who flocked to the Pyrenees in the Victorian era – from the Yorkshire lesbian known as ‘Gentleman Jack’, who was the first to climb Russell’s cherished peak Vignamale, only hours ahead of the Prince of Moskowa, to the stylish Baron de Lassus whose passion for automobiles effectively spelled the end of the pioneering era of poking around the Pyrenees – she is a vastly entertaining guide to a vanished era and to some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
Then, towards the end of her yarn, she becomes something more than a good travelling companion. Relating the astonishing episodes of Russell’s increasingly eccentric later years – his habit of holing up for days on end in caves which he had blasted just below the summit of Vignemale, the open-air masses he went to considerable trouble organising at 3,000m altitude and, on a more sybaritic level, the threeday banquet he hosted on the upper reaches of a glacier – Rosemary Bailey succeeds in conveying not just a series of remarkable doings and sights but also the depth of feeling that drives men and women to spend the night on mountain tops simply to view the sun sink and rise again in the morning.