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Climbers praised and a bishop condemned this novel about a female climber

Seventy years ago, a woman climber-writer created a gritty, gifted, slum-born character.

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“A rough, tough, amoral little guttersnipe from the Liverpool slums … eventually develops into a fine, strong person through her experiences and her relationships with others in climbing.”—from a 1952 American Alpine Journal review of Elizabeth Coxhead’s novel One Green Bottle, published in 1951, about a gifted female climber in Wales.

“In its modern, human and positive take on a slum girl, OGB was ahead of its time.”—from the publisher of the eBook, 2013.

“Miss Coxhead’s portraits are so well drawn, her honesty in describing the temptations of promiscuous intercourse so complete, that one follows her all the way.”—Books of the Month review, 1951.

“The novel would later be condemned for explicitness by Rt Rev Douglas Henry Crick, who was the Anglican Bishop of Chester.”—hinckleypastpresent.org history website.

“By far the best novel about climbing that I have read”—Jack Longland, early Everest expeditioner, who also established the hardest route in Wales (E1 when the top standard was Very Severe), in a cover line for the paperback edition in 1955.

 

Back cover from an early edition. Hardcover copies now go for anywhere from $80 to $800. But a Kindle version is $6.

Wait, what? And how—how did I only just learn about this climbing novel by Elizabeth Coxhead, a leading writer of her time? She was a climber and an incredibly able, productive and loving person … who gave and gave to others yet ultimately took her own life.

While long keen on climbing literature, with a special affinity for its women writers—plus, in one of the best times of my life I once lived and climbed in North Wales, the setting for the book—I’d missed this book and author. I stumbled upon the novel last week while writing about an upcoming climbing novel, and seeking context. Snagging a Kindle edition of One Green Bottle for $6, I read it in less than 24 hours. Its spirited and outspoken protagonist, Cathy Canning, stayed in my mind for a long time in ways both elating and melancholy.

Ian Smith, a former editor of the British High magazine, calls One Green Bottle, published in 1951, “an important book in British mountaineering literature: well-written, emotional and quite revolutionary.”

Cathy knows her own mind, and she is feeling and fervent, especially about learning to climb: “I’m a great wanter, aren’t I, Chris?” she says in one of many revelatory passages, here speaking to her love object. “Always grab, grab, grab.” She truly loves the mountains, knew it at the time of her one previous foray from Liverpool to the country, as a child: “It had been, though she could not explain it to him, like the cracking of a shell, the light pouring through.”

An early passage, characterizing Cathy’s father, showcases both the novelist’s insightfulness and her economy of expression: “Mrs. Canning, Cathy’s mother, had become a slattern perpetually on the whine. Mr. Canning, a left-handed riveter and for years aware of a precious skill rusting, knew now that the return of prosperity could bring him neither a better house nor a better wife, and he was consumed by the perpetual smouldering anger of the intelligent man who has not been given words to express and resolve his grievances.”

climbing in Wales
Cwm (Lake) Idwal, the Idwal Slabs, and The Devil’s Kitchen area, Snowdonia, Wales, United Kingdom. The area and formations feature in the novel. (Photo: Getty Images / FatManPhotoUK)

Elizabeth Coxhead as a climber herself proffers an abundance of authentic cliffside scenes. Elizabeth Knowlton, the American Alpine Journal reviewer, wrote that those parts interested her so intensely she almost forgot to appreciate the plotting: “There is rock work of every sort here, from the frequent humors of bouldering and taking out novices, to the high exhilaration of leading a ‘Very Severe’… Miss Coxhead observes sensitively and describes vividly the details of fact, sensation and mood.” Any climber, Knowlton wrote, would continually enjoy these “pleasures of recognition.”

Cathy chances into climbing, is taken up by kind mentors, and finds profound happiness and a sense of belonging in the hills and the hostel life of the era. With her hardscrabble background, she is an anomaly. The novel was written before the most visible working-class climbers shook things up in then class-conscious UK; Joe Brown established the groundbreaking routes Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner, both E1 (5.10), in Llanberis Pass, North Wales, in 1951 and 1952. One of Cathy’s new friends is the son of an earl.

Elizabeth Coxhead leading in Langdale, the Lake District. Few women led in the era. Note rope tied behind the back and an absence of protection. (Photo: hinckleypastpresent.org)

Among many of my favorite descriptions were: “The road shone like a steel ribbon under the light of stars that were enormous in the clear mountain air. The triple peak of Tryfan”—a classic rock peak I know well—“stood out like a black fretwork against them. Llanllugway was a line of bigger stars; then came a stretch where the river roared close to the road, and they descended into deeper darkness.”

And this, from a moonlight ascent of Snowdon: “Gripping the stones, they stared around. The scene was fantastic, toad-colored; ink blues, slate greys, livid green. The ridges stood out skeletal; stripped of its daylight trappings, the mountain showed its naked bones. Beyond, the lesser hills were smudges of dark grey against the milkily luminous sky. Only water showed bright, a filigree of silver where the moonlight caught it…An immense exaltation possessed her.”

Cathy is a great talent, encouraged by peers, spending every bit of money from overtime work at a laundry to buy boots and ropes, thinking all week about the weekend transition to her other world. She has various suitors, but it is in the mountain realm that she falls in love, and she is direct and an equal decision-maker in the supposedly racy scenes that shocked the bishop. A reviewer from the Cheshire Observer opined that the book’s “amorous episodes” should have been omitted.

Coxhead’s nephew, Richard Chesshyre, wrote in a preface to the 2013 digital edition that the author was defiant, “delighted” by the bishop’s censure, and that it boosted book sales. But oh, there are complications to Cathy’s love affair …

“To this day in mountain huts and youth hostels, readers argue into the small hours over the book’s controversial ending,” Chesshyre wrote.

 

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One clue as to that denouement comes from Terry Gifford, British poet and author of The Joy of Climbing, who spoke with Elizabeth Coxhead’s sister Alison. Gifford wrote in High magazine, as reproduced in Footless Crow in 2010: “It was Alison who gave me the key to understanding One Green Bottle when I suggested that the novelist seems to be firmly saying that there can be no easy happy endings in life. ‘But that,’ she said, ‘was the zeitgeist of the 30s. And we had that war which you’re too young to remember!’”

The era followed WWII, and was a time when home and hearth and domesticity were given as ideals, and women who followed interests outside of the realm were often considered selfish. In America in the 1950s the average age of a woman to marry was 20. Women in the UK gained equal voting rights with men on July 2, 1928, when the author (born 1909) was 18 or 19, and only about 20 years before she presumably was writing the novel.

I have my own (aghast, might as well say it) opinions about the ending, but the author must have found it true to the time and her own sense of duty.

This novel, too, contained climbing scenes, these in Scotland.

Coxhead was extremely enterprising, her life brimming: She climbed, though was at first dismissed at a glance (like Cathy, she found a kind mentor); she got a degree from Oxford at a time when almost no women did; she worked as a journalist for the Guardian and other periodicals; she wrote 10 novels (The Figure in the Mist also contains climbing, in Scotland) and four nonfiction books; and she was a radio broadcaster. The film rights to One Green Bottle were optioned twice in her lifetime—another of her books, A Friend in Need, did become a film—but the climbing scenes would have been unmanageable for the large movie cameras of the day.

She may have loved a climber who was killed on the Isle of Skye, or so believed her niece, Miriam (the author’s sister demurred, while acknowledging a friendship), as interviewed by Terry Gifford.

Independent as Coxhead was, she was yet equally if not more loyal. She ultimately spent many years as a dedicated caretaker of both elderly and very young relatives.

In 1979, she fell and fractured her femur, as the Hinckley archive above states. The text continues: “At the age of 70 she realised that she was probably going to end her days as a burden to others. In September Elizabeth took her own life on the train track at Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire.”

Gifford wrote that hers was “an act of caring.”

A copy of the first edition of One Green Bottle (sold online) contained the inscription: “To Mr and Mrs S. Cross, happiest memories of Langdale Sept 1953, Elizabeth Coxhead.” Sidney Cross was one of the leading Lakeland climbers, a rescue leader and a hotel operator in Langdale, all elements corresponding to the world of this novel.

“I was glad to draw attention back to that pioneering book,” Terry Gifford says in an email.

“The book sounds fascinating,” my friend Harriet Ridley, a top woman climber who lives in Wales, tells me. “I will hunt it down.”

And I walk away hoping those “happiest memories” sustained one brave woman climber who wrote about another.


The novel is reproduced in its entirety in the omnibus One Step in the Clouds, compiled by Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith and published by Ken Wilson as a Diadem/Sierra Club Books imprint.


See also: Native Air Looks at the Bond of Climbing—and the Void of Disaster.