From the pen of Susanna Jones comes this intriguing novel, When Nights Were Cold, relating the little-known history of the first female mountain climbers through the twists and turns of a psychological thriller. Think Touching the Void in bloomers, or The Turn of the Screw does the Matterhorn, and you’ll be halfway there.
Our narrator is Grace Farringdon, a passionate woman who longs to be an intrepid explorer in the Arctic, but seems doomed instead to be an Angel in the House in Dulwich. Bored of playing at explorers with her father using an old map and darning needles, she escapes first to university, then later to scale the mountains of her wildest dreams.
She tells her gothic story on an appropriately dark and stormy night, shifting between the past and present, reality and fantasy, divisions that disintegrate in sympathy with Grace’s increasingly fractured mind. With almost claustrophobic intimacy, she relates her story to us from inside the confines of her parent’s creaking old house, where she passes the time playing solitaire and conducting animated conversations with her father’s bewhiskered portrait.
The central mystery of the story is what has brought about Grace’s transformation from a bold adventurer to a traumatised agoraphobic, but there are also tales of love triangles, family fall-outs and the spiky dynamics of competitive female friendship to be played out. Jones knows how to tease her reader with clues and allusions which only piece together at the end of her taut narrative.
There is an infectious sense of fun in the early depictions of the group Grace establishes, The Antarctic Exploration Society. Comprised of four rather mismatching women (a tough-as-old-boots hockey captain, a mild-mannered botanist, a bohemian actress and Grace herself), they prepare for future expeditions by conducting their meetings by candlelight and coasting down the college stairs with tea trays tied to their feet. Nevertheless, the tensions already in place in the quaint world of fireside chats and cocoa are brought to the surface once the women reach the mountains…
The novel is threaded through with the savage poetry of the mountain landscape, whose monstrous presence still haunts Grace’s dreams:
Mountains, like stars, come out at night. After a day’s deep sleep, knees bent, arms twisted
beneath rumpled sheets, dusk gathers and they shrug off the covers to take their proper
form. They breathe out icy air, grow a little, shed a little, may crack and roar to one another
or to the night. I have heard them. They know the tread and intrusion of the hobnail boot.
Mountaineering and the wilderness becomes a rich and ambivalent metaphor, representing an escape from the confines of society but one with ambivalent feminist connotations. To conquer mountains takes a singularity of mind that, it seems, does not always serve the sisterhood. In pursuing her alpine dreams, Grace leaves her more self-sacrificing sister, Catherine, to languish in their claustrophobic childhood home caring for their elderly parents, while fellow mountaineer, Cicely Parr, is horrified at the prospect of giving women the vote. ‘In the wilderness we are all the same,’ Parr argues, ‘But when we come back to normal society, we take on our roles again and that is that and nobody can help it. So we need the wilderness’. The problems of this ‘I’m alright Jacqueline’ attitude become apparent, not only in the political sphere, but on the mountainside.
A gripping and beautifully written historical yarn that suggests that the most frightening wilderness is the one that lies within.