Book Review // One Green Bottle // by Elizabeth Coxhead
By Katy Stocks // One Green Bottle is possibly one of the most iconic novels about rock-climbing ever written. The novel’s heroine, 18-year old Cathy Canning, is living and working in the working-class slums of post-War Birkenhead when a chance meeting with a rock-climber leads to her first foray into the mountains of North Wales. Propelled by natural talent, gutsy determination and a fierce love of the mountains, Cathy soon becomes the ‘diva’ of a small community of rock-climbers based around a fictional youth hostel in North Wales.
Written by the climber Elizabeth Coxhead (who, as a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, might have been expected to struggle to portray a convincing portrait of a working-class heroine) the characterisation of Cathy Canning has its roots in Coxhead’s life-long Socialism and knowledge of the lot of the typical working class woman at this time.
Trying to buck the trend for women of her class, Cathy yearns to improve herself (a change of job from a factory making overalls to a laundry is a noticeable step up the ladder) and rock-climbing offers her the chance to escape the suffocating cultural poverty of her home life and guilt over her boyfriend Bill, who is in prison. Casually bartering her body in exchange for her first pair of mountain boots, Cathy’s physical attractions flourish as her climbing skills develop. Tumbling literally into a summer-long passionate, sexual relationship with a fellow rock-climber, Cathy loses him to a rival and decides in the closing pages of the novel that her duty lies back in the Birkenhead slums as wife to the jailbird Bill because, as she says, “you got to go where you’re needed most”. No happy endings then for Coxhead’s progressive heroine, but a return to the domestic status quo.
This novel is a must-read on several levels: as an affectionate portrayal of an imperfect and contrary heroine; as a novel which has considerable insight and knowledge of the social and economic double-standards of the post-War period, particularly those surrounding the role of women; and as an insider-portrait of a climbing community it is an enthralling read. Although out of print, very reasonably-priced second-hand copies can be found by searching the website www.Bookfinder.com. Recommended!
Book Review of One Green Bottle (1951) by Elizabeth Coxhead pub. J.B. Lippincott Company, New York
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