A Stained Glass Window, a Bookplate and Death in the Alps
by Andre Gerard
Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.
— Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871)
In the small church of St Cynbryd, Llandulas, the fourth window from the pulpit on the north wall is a single-light stained glass window by Joyce Meredith. The window, paid for by past and present students of Bryn Dulas School, Llandulas, was unveiled in 1914 and is a memorial to the chemist Muriel Gwendolen Jones (Edwards), the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the University of Wales and, like Meredith, a former pupil of Bryn Dulas. The image in Meredith’s window is that of Dante’s Angel of Mercy, in green vesture, proclaiming Christ’s ascension. The verticality of the window is emphasized by the angel’s upraised left arm, hand and index finger pointing upwards, and by the angel’s vividly flaming wings pushing heavenward.
And why my interest in this window, so far away from Salt Spring Island, BC, where I live? It has to do with an accidental discovery. Not long ago, with the help of AbeBooks, I obtained a copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906). It’s a worn copy, with dark yet faded and battered cover, and warped pages showing signs of foxing. The book was sent by a book dealer in Lincoln who specialises in selling books withdrawn from academic libraries throughout the UK. My book, a Duckworth first edition, came from Bristol Polytechnic, but before that, as the ornate, slightly whimsical, ex libris bookplate announces, it belonged to Humphrey Owen Jones, eventual husband of Muriel Gwendolen Edwards.
The bookplate, dated 1909, shows an image of Clare College, Cambridge, the college from which Jones graduated in 1903, and where he stayed on as a Fellow in the chemistry department. From 1901 he was Jacksonian demonstrator for the irascible Sir James Dewar, inventor of the vacuum flask. With Dewar, Jones did research on the properties of matter at low temperatures and helped discover carbon monosulfide. Together with Muriel Edwards, he also did research on the constitution of aldol bases. In February 1912, only six months before his death, his scientific accomplishments were recognized by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The bookplate playfully flags Jones’s chemical passion with a clock-like model atom inscribed into the top of the border, and with two duckish-looking glass retorts balanced on the edge of the frame pediment, one on each side of the atom.
The bookplate helps to explain Humphrey Owen Jones’s interest in Leslie Stephen. Below the Clare College image are sketched two small, framed landscapes, one of mountain peaks and the other of a golf course. Superimposed criss-cross upon them are half a dozen golf clubs and climbing axes. Jones — along with Muriel Edwards, and his sister, Bronwen Ceridwen Jones — was a passionate mountaineer. He started climbing in Snowdonia and then, very likely under the influence of Stephen’s The Playground of Europe (1871), turned his attention to the Alps. He climbed extensively in the Mont Blanc region, and he was part of a group which made the first ascent of the Brouillard ridge route to the summit of Mont Blanc. In 1909 Jones was elected to the Alpine Club, of which Leslie Stephen had been an early member and, from 1865 to 1868, president.
Now back to the window and on to the tragic part of my story. The inscription at the base of the aforementioned stained glass window reads: “In Memoriam Muriel Gwendolen Jones (Edwards) who Fell with her husband whilst climbing the Mont Rouge de Peteret.” Jones’s copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen is mine because of the young couple’s mountaineering passion. On the 15th of August, 1912, while on their honeymoon, the newlyweds attempted the 2941-metre Aiguille Rouge de Peuterey with the help of their Swiss guide, Julius Truffer. When Truffer slipped and fell on Jones, all three plunged 350 metres down the mountain. Their deaths were witnessed by the renowned solo climber Paul Preuss, who, scouting for the party, was free soloing a little ahead.
Reading about this tragedy has me wondering if the Jones’s ever read Leslie Stephen’s “The Dangers of Mountaineering”. Almost certainly they would have owned and read The Playground of Europe, but this particular essay — previously titled “Alpine Dangers” (1865) and partly written in response to the Whymper Matterhorn tragedy — was only published in the 1st edition. Stephen did not include it in subsequent editions, calling it “obsolete.” However, his true reason for suppressing it was likely the essay’s indirect criticism of Whymper. As former Vice-President and then President of the Alpine Club — of which Whymper was a prominent member — and as a leading advocate for the emerging sport of mountaineering, Stephen had to be circumspect, even if in his 1871 review of Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871) he was discretely scathing of Whymper’s judgment. Given the controversy which raged around the death of four members of Whymper’s party, statements such as “No accident has ever yet occurred of which it was not perfectly easy to trace the cause to some assignable piece of rashness,” or “The Alpine Club has done its best, by all methods open to it, to protest against the rashness which has brought discredit on its favourite pursuit,” would have made uneasy reading for many. No wonder the essay was pulled from subsequent editions.
Though the preceding paragraph is in part a digression, a digression resulting from my magpie-like inability to relinquish shiny facts, it is not completely irrelevant. It speaks to risk, danger, and possibly some of the information available to the young couple. It speaks to the importance of ropes and of guides. It speaks to the waste of young lives.
Jones was thirty-four years old when he died and his wife was only twenty-six. The north summit of Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey was named in their honour and that stained glass window in St Cynbryd’s Church, Llandulas, also commemorates their death. So, too, thanks to the bookplate and the power of the internet, does the battered book which I now own. To my copy of The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen are added part of the lives of Muriel Gwendolen Jones and her husband of two weeks, Humphrey Owen Jones. Though no Alpinist, I often think of them when hiking around local mountains, and one day soon, I will make a sentimental pilgrimage to see the St Cynbryd window.
Beyond honouring the lives of the two young chemists, that pilgrimage will also further my obsession with Virginia Woolf and her world because, remarkably, Joyce Meredith’s window can be connected to Mrs. Dalloway. The connection is very tenuous, yet none the less real for that. It is just a matter of degrees of separation. Consider. After creating the Llandulas window (she was only 20 years old when she did so), Joyce Meredith would eventually go on to do some work with the support of the “Glass House”, the Fulham stained glass studio co-founded by Mary Lowndes. Important stained glass artist and strong supporter of women’s suffrage, Lowndes is subtly commemorated by the Rigby Lowndes clock in Mrs. Dalloway. Her name is one of the ways by which Woolf ever so lightly connected the web of her fiction to life. Even though Mrs. Dalloway was not published until 1925, thirteen years after the death of Muriel Gwendolen Jones (Edwards) and eleven years after the creation of the St Cynbryd window, to admire the window with that knowledge is to be taken back to the world of the young Virginia Woolf. As a window paid for by women, honouring a woman, and crafted by a woman, the window stands as an early and extremely important marker of the tectonic social changes for which Woolf would later become such an important voice. There will be much to think about on my pilgrimage.
About the Author
Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress), editor and publisher of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, no longer earns a living as tutor and apartment manager in Vancouver. He now camps and ocean kayaks among eagles and otters on Salt Spring Island, but his primary residence remains To the Lighthouse.
This essay was first published in the January 2020 Bulletin of the Virginia Woolf Society. It is republished here with permission.