John Burns’ Edinburgh Fringe play about George Mallory has been getting some good reviews. The piece starts from the premise that Mallory climbed Everest and survived and is looking back at his life as an older man through the device of a BBC interview.
My heart sank a little when I read that Burns had ‘bravely’ touched on Mallory’s supposed sexual interest in Andrew Irvine. Not that bravely. Pretty much every writer who goes near the subject speculates about it.
The origins of the theory go back to Mallory’s days at Cambridge and his entanglement with, among others, the Strachey brothers Lytton and James. I think the term here is ‘bi-curious’, swiftly followed by the firm (stiff?) conclusion that he was definitely, and quite boringly, straight.
How any of this applies to his climbing partnership with the rowing blue Andrew Irvine I’m not sure. If Mallory really were interested in Irvine sexually, then he would have been disappointed, given Irvine’s own quite impressive, and very heterosexual, relationship history, prosecuted with the same enthusiasm he applied to his oar.
I suspect Mallory liked his enthusiasm and optimism, and his ability to fix oxygen equipment.
Anyway, news of the play prompted me to look up Lytton Strachey’s letters, which are by turns wickedly funny and bravely poignant. He has such a delicacy of touch that you can’t bear the thought that treasures so precious and fine were left in the hands of the Royal Mail. And he had quite a lot to say about Everest’s most romantic legend.
Strachey tracks the arc of Mallory’s glittering potential as an undergraduate, through congealing disappointment and then, briefly, nemesis. His style is unforgiving; you can sometimes almost hear him tittering as he writes. But ultimately I think there’s a very human compassion for Mallory.
Peter Levi, who edited Strachey’s letters, suggests that Mallory flirted with several of Lytton’s circle. These included Charles Sayle, a founding member of the Climbers’ Club and a pivotal figure at Cambridge. (Levi adds, flatly, Mallory’s fate: ‘He became a schoolmaster.’ A humdrum outcome for someone who dazzled some of the finest young minds in England.)
Arthur Benson, his tutor and also in love with Mallory but someone whose own homosexuality was more discrete than Sayle’s, defined that pre-war Edwardian era at Cambridge as one of ‘books, music and beautiful young men.’ So it was almost inevitable that Mallory, hovering between a kind of self-righteous primness and genuine rebellion, flirted with being gay. It was all anyone worth knowing was talking about.
In April 1909, Lytton Strachey found himself ‘plunged into a throbbing world of romance’. In a letter to Clive and Vanessa Bell, he dwells on the ‘intensity and exquisiteness of what I felt. Mon dieu! – George Mallory! When that’s been written, what more need be said? My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words – oh heavens! heavens!’
Strachey maintains enough control to sketch the young Mallory’s appeal and he starts with the body, like that of an ‘athlete by Praxiteles, and a face – ah, incredible – the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an unimaginable English boy.’
Mallory had very recently declared himself to James and been rejected. ‘Poor George!’ Strachey sympathised. ‘I met him for the first time immediately after this occurrence, and saw in my first glance to the very bottom of his astounding soul. I was écrasé.’
And yet he isn’t so crushed that he can’t offer a very convincing argument for preferring to be in Hampshire in spring rather than Florence, where his friends are.
His infatuation lasted the summer. In August he wrote to Leonard Woolf, urging him to marry Virginia Stephen, before turning to his crush: ‘I wish I could give you a notion of George Mallory. My pen trembles as I write the name. He appeared at the psychological moment – so exquisitely, so incredibly! – I’d really thought that such a thing was an impossibility, and there was I in five seconds absolutely overwhelmed.’
Having wished he could give Woolf a notion, he then does just that: ‘The sheer beauty of it is what you’d have to admit! A refinement, a delicacy, a sort of Chinese grace, – and mingled with all the strength and health and flush of two and twenty. His body – vast, pink, unbelievable – is a thing to melt into and die. I have melted, but, so far, I haven’t died. Perhaps I hardly want to – kisses seem almost to be enough. Gracious heavens! That’s something to have lived for, to have known. Need I say that I’m not in love?’
By ‘dying’, Strachey of course means that he hasn’t had full sex, but more pertinent is the tone of this letter. He’s having fun, mucking about, striking a pose. It’s not meant seriously. Not that he didn’t want to sleep with Mallory: I’m sure he did. But the pleasure of writing an amusing and stylish letter about it was even greater.
By October, Lytton was living in Mallory’s old rooms in Cambridge, and writing to Virginia’s sister, the recently married Vanessa Bell – both daughters of a wittier mountaineer than George, the journalist and editor Leslie Stephen. When they met – remember this was written two months after Lytton’s rapturous account to Woolf – he was disappointed.
‘His beauty had vanished and he was seen to be absolutely complexionless and far too fat. I turned away in despair from his washy and bulbous face… but oh! I soon forgot all that in the contemplation of his exquisite soul; and now, as you may suppose, I haven’t the faintest idea of what he looks like.’
Two weeks later, and this interlude is over. Lytton writes to his brother James: ‘I’m most miserable. George has departed, and I find it very difficult to be consoled. The sunshine has gone out of my life. What made it doubly melancholy was that we parted in something of a mist. I suppose this was chiefly my fault, but that doesn’t make it any more cheering, and I’m oppressed by the agony of human relationships. It’s not only the love affairs that are bound to fail! – And now I shall never see him again, or if I do it’ll be an unrecognisable middle-aged mediocrity, fluttering between wind and water, probably wearing glasses and a timber toe. And you will only say that he’s always been like that…’
I wonder if Mallory thought the same thing, which is why he was back on Everest at the age of almost 38, leaving his young family behind forever.
By then, Mallory’s infatuation with James Strachey had ended in a deeply awkward encounter in a mutual friend’s borrowed rooms in Cambridge, at George’s instigation, which proved to Strachey that he had no real feeling for Mallory, and proved to Mallory that the long imagined sexual encounter with another man was not what he wanted after all.
You live and learn.
Mallory left Cambridge the following summer for an Alpine season with Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who was as enthusiastic to bed George as Benson had been, only without the diffident shame. ‘Will he come back alive?’ Maynard Keynes asked. Such was Young’s reputation, not the Alps.
That autumn, Lytton Strachey told Keynes he had had some letters ‘from the ever-faithful George’. He was training to be a schoolmaster at Charterhouse. ‘I wonder how long it’ll last. I deeply fear that he’ll be found to be too incompetent even for a public school, and then Piccadilly really will be the only thing left for him. After a year’s training he’s now almost fit for it, but by the time he is quite it’ll probably be too late, and he’ll be so fat and heavily bearded that I shall be the only person in England capable of erecting over him. Such is the way of fate.’
Casting Mallory as an intellectual dud and male prostitute seems rather harsh, but Strachey’s agenda to the gossipy Keynes was simply to show that the Mallory phenomenon was over.
There’s a small footnote. In 1927, three years after Mallory’s death, Strachey brought a suitcase of old letters to the famous Bloomsbury address of Ham Spray House in Berkshire. Rummaging around, he found ‘so many pasts. Hectic undergraduate days – absurdly melodramatic. George Mallory later – rather sweet. A bundle from Rupert Brooke – nice, decidedly… I’m afraid my biography will present a slightly shocking spectacle! In the middle of it all, as I was dreaming over a snapshot of George I’d forgotten all about – so alluring! – the door opened…’
And Strachey is off again, Mallory once more forgotten, to the next slice of gossip.
If you want to read a fuller account of Mallory's time at Cambridge, then you could do no better than Peter and Leni Gillman's biography, The Wildest Dream