Mountaineer, diarist and waspish commentator on society, Dorothy Pilley (known in Magdalene by her married name Dorothea Richards) was one of the most extraordinary writers associated with Magdalene. Born in 1894 , her connection to the College came first through her marriage to Ivor Richards, a Fellow of the College and one of the foremost literary critics of his generation (a blog post about I A Richards will appear in a few weeks), but developed into a special friendship through her presence in Magdalene for many years, and through her immense generosity towards her adopted College. Benefactor, friend and acerbic wit, Dorothea Richards was a phenomenon.
There are many anecdotes about the formidable Mrs Richards. The one most enjoyed in College is of the unprintable response she gave when invited (in the days before women were permitted to dine at high table) to join the master’s wife on the gallery and watch their husbands eat their pudding.
The Old Library at Magdalene houses a substantial archive of Dorothea and Ivor Richards. They knew many of the great literary figures of the age and Dorothea’s diary offers some wonderful vignettes, such as a report of T S Eliot arriving to stay somewhat worse for wear after a college dinner.
Her most important piece of writing is her vivid account of her mountaineering exploits, Climbing Days, published in 1935. Recently, her great-great nephew, Dan Richards followed literally in her footsteps; and his book, which shares the same title as hers, was published earlier this year by Faber and Faber.
For Magdalene Libraries’ ‘Literary Magdalene’ Blog series, we invited Dan to write a guest post on the experiences of researching the life of his great-great aunt, and of writing his extraordinary, engaging and eccentric account of her mountaineering exploits … and here it is.
As a child, I knew very little about my great great aunt, Dorothy Pilley.
I was aware of her, as a child knows the names of cities but could not place them on a map, but she seemed always to me mentioned in conjunction with her husband, Ivor Armstrong Richards: I.A.R. — impossibly enigmatic initialed academic and literary critic whose books we had in the house but nobody ever seemed to have read; revered abstruse relics from another age long past.
There were stories of ‘Royal visits’ to see my father’s boyhood home. Slightly awkward gatherings, the pair impossibly elderly to his young eyes. There were rumours that they were mountaineers but the walking sticks and wrinkles made it all seem so unlikely… and there was another enigma too, a name, a particular mountain: The Dent Blanche.
It was only much later, in my early 20s, intrigued, having encountered Ivor’s work in context and afresh at university — the wonderfully sacrilegious, practical toolkit of his pivotal book Practical Criticism having saved and rehabilitated him from the Futurama-style head in a vitrine — that I began to investigate the pair properly and discovered the significance of alpinism and The Dent Blanche in their lives.
In Richard Luckett’s succinct biographical preface to I.A.R.’s Selected Letters, Dorothy Eleanor Pilley/Richards is described as the daughter of a strict father… [who] achieved her independence by climbing mountains, writing for newspapers, and working as a secretary for the proto-feminist British Women’s Patriotic League. Her looks and vivacity ensured her the many suitors she periodically repulsed as threats to her hard-won liberty. Ivor Richards (whom she met in Wales in 1917 and married in Honolulu on 31. Dec. 1926), though a special case, had not only her disinclination to overcome, but her family’s as well… The marriage was an exceptionally happy one.
The biography goes on to say that Dorothy’s account of their early mountaineering feats together — Climbing Days (London, 1935) — is a classic of its kind, and her significance as a pioneer of women’s climbing well recognised.
I knew very little about the Ivor and Dorothy’s climbing, their life beyond academia in fact, so it was with a bit of a shock to discover a copy of Climbing Days and learn what adventurous, brave, pioneering people they were — and Dorothy in particular. It inspired me to go out into the mountains myself and learn to climb so that I could better engage and encounter them in the landscape they so loved. I would climb after them, with Dorothy’s memoir as my guide, to literally follow in their footsteps; my hands in their handholds, testing myself on their routes and pitches.
The first picture I ever saw of Dorothy was a posed shot which seemed to give little away, a face amongst other Edwardian faces. Timeless, serious, and distant. Old. But old in a very different way from my father’s memories; old in the way that pictures of football teams from that era, despite being composed of young men, show faces that are older than you’ll ever be. Hewn landscapes at the age of 30. She’s glamorous, certainly; with ivory skin, her gaze seeming to glide left beyond the camera and out of shot. Hair a tad dishevelled, a deep fur collar. The gown she wears has an academic air, the thin V of the neckline diving down to a silver brooch. All so buttoned up at first glance; an airless picture. The caption reads: ‘Dorothy Pilley, Secretary of the British Woman’s Patriotic League, c. 1922.’ She was 28 years old. My great-great-aunt, five years younger than I am now.
But looking again at the photograph, as I do often — the shot now pinned up beside where I write — her head held proud, she smolders; amorous and challenging — her lips slightly parted on the cusp of a smile, her eyes playful but steely. Transplanted onto a mountain, or a bar or running for a train, freed from the silver nitrate square, she possesses great possibilities of fun and explosive energy.
Dorothy, Dorothea as she was known within the family, began her independent climbing life at a time when women were often forbidden to go out to public lectures, galleries and libraries alone; to go out alone at all!
She took her knickerbockers and boots along to rock faces all over the UK and Europe in a sack, changed out of her skirts out of sight so as not to scandalise or affront the natives. She helped establish The Pinnacle Club in 1921, the first mountaineering club set up by women for women — a club which still exists and is thriving today. The lady who emerges from Climbing Days is an inspirational figure, possessed of an extraordinary courage, positivity, dynamism and love of the natural world. Not only were she and Ivor climbers, it turned out that they were phenomenally good.
So I began to follow and write — learning the ropes in Snowdonia and the Cairngorms, scrambling in the Lake District, marvelling at Ivor’s exploits on the spire and roofs of Magdalene College itself, and scaling summits in Spain and Switzerland, meeting people they’d known. In the process I discovered so much about their relationship with each other and the family — discovered so much about my father as well as myself.
And all the time I was closing-in on the Dent Blanche: that mysterious serrate peak in the high Alps of Valais; magnificent apex of Ivor and Dorothea’s climbing lives.
Climbing Days by Dan Richards, was published on 16 June by Faber & Faber (£16.99)