Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Wildest Dream, by Peter & Leni Gillman

Peter and Leni Gillman write the authoritative biography of George Herbert Leigh Leigh-Mallory in The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory. David Pye's George Leigh Mallory was a stirring tribute and labor of love, but it had a limited perspective. David Robertson, as a member of the Mallory clan, released a well-written, but one-sided view of his life in George Mallory. Dudley Green does justice to the spirit of the man in Because It's There, but ignores uncomfortable information. The Gillmans sort through all the sources, including sour information, and illustrate a complex and fascinating individual whose full character is often lost in hero biographies. They relate the full breadth of Mallory's life and legacy, from his family's early history (including the derivation of his full name) to his children's growing up without a father.

The authors focus on the personal Mallory in this book. They tell much of his life through his letters and writings as well as a broad spectrum of the letters and writings of his friends and family. I thought they did a spectacular job of navigating the murky waters of his rumored homosexuality (see Walt Unsworth's Everest: The Mountaineering History for an extreme example), analyzing a number of first-person sources and coming to a logical, and surprising conclusion. By including so many perspectives throughout the book, the authors reveal more of his personality than I've previously encountered, including insecurities that he revealed in his letters to Young and his awkward relationship with Cottie Sanders. Even with his correspondence with Hinks, the permanent secretary to the Royal Geographical Society, the authors focus on the parts that describe his thoughts and feelings, rather than quoting lines that might have more bearing on the climbs. I think perhaps that Dudley Green overall paints a better picture of the professional Mallory, but I believe that a person's personal legacy and humanity is ultimately more important.

The authors of course cover his expeditions to Mount Everest. They do not reveal any startling new information here, largely because the sources have already been so thoroughly sifted through. They do track down the mysterious "Stella" from the letter found in his shirt pocket after his death and provide some insights into his role in the choosing of climbers for the 1924 expedition. The coverage on Everest is thorough and fair, and I enjoyed reading it. The Gillmans put the expeditions in the likely perspective of his life, with prescient analysis of his decisions to participate in each, and a focus on his family during each of the trips. I feel like I understand George Mallory more as a human being now than I did previously, and I hope you will as well!

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