“We ought not to treat the climbing of Mount Everest as a domestic issue,” proclaimed London’s Morning Post in October 1936. “It is an issue of National and Imperial importance.”

As Pulitzer Prize finalist Deborah Baker explains in her incisive and illuminating biographical saga “The Last Englishmen: Love, War, and the End of Empire,” attempts to reach the top of Everest had become symbolic of Britain’s efforts to maintain dominance over India. Never mind that Everest was not even in India; conquering the world’s highest mountain was an assertion and consolidation of power, and would safeguard the so-called jewel in the British crown.

At the center of Baker’s book are two brilliant and tenacious men. Each had a famous poet sibling, and a desire to be included on an Everest expedition. Baker follows John Auden, brother of W.H. Auden, as he sails for India in 1926 and goes on to make his mark as a pioneering geologist of the Himalayas. Running parallel is a separate strand concerning Michael Spender, the surveyor brother of poet Stephen, who after mapping the coastal mountains of East Greenland turned his attention to Himalayan peaks.

Baker charts their progress and measures their success. But her book is not solely about these men and their lofty aspirations. She expands to bring in other amphitheaters and other players. Along with English mountaineers and explorers we meet Indian nationalists and Communists, plus a whole host of political schemers, double agents, writers and artists. When world war breaks out again and India finally embarks on its fight for freedom, all must pick a side and stand up to be counted.

This is a thoroughly researched, relentlessly engrossing epic tale. Baker is adept in all areas — on the slopes of Everest or within corridors of power, among Calcutta’s intellectuals or London’s art crowd. She writes with verve and authority on colonial tension, cultural achievement and global conflict. She stumbles only with her irksome habit of using “England” interchangeably with “Britain,” often on the same page.

“The Last Englishmen” is at its best when Baker veers away from the roar and glare of large-scale historical events to home in on individual lives. There is tormented Bengali poet Sudhin Datta, canny Indian Civil Service officer Michael John Carritt, and English painter Nancy Sharp — a woman who in 1938 captured the hearts of both Auden and Spender.

These two men prove to be the most interesting: Auden with his fear of insanity, his summit-scaling ambition and his antipathy toward empire (“some family heirloom that has outlasted its usefulness”) and Spender, who won Nancy, led the way in photographic interpretation during the war and met a tragic end.

Baker’s study of national endeavor and personal struggle throws a valuable light on past upheavals and ideals. There is much to admire and a lot to learn.

 

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Last Englishmen
By: Deborah Baker.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 358 pages, $28.