David Crane’s fine biography of Captain Robert Falcon Scott begins on St. Valentine’s Day, 1913, at the moment of his greatest glory—his funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the presence of the King, the archbishop of Canterbury, and all the grandees of the land, military and civilian, in full dress regalia. The service was short, with no sermon, and at its close, when the band of the Coldstream Guards played the national anthem, a crowd of ten thousand mourners outside the cathedral sang along with the congregation.
St. Paul’s is the burial place of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington and it seemed wholly appropriate that Scott’s death should be mourned in the shadow of England’s two greatest military heroes. No matter that he had lost the race to the South Pole the previous year (though there was no race, he insisted; the expedition was traveling for science, not glory), nor that he and his companions died on their way back; the English have always preferred good losers to bad winners. Anyway, winning and losing have nothing to do with heroism and Scott, in Crane’s view, was the British Empire’s last great hero, the man who most embodied the ideals of duty, self-sacrifice, and fortitude on which it was founded.
The ceremony at St. Paul’s took place eighteen months before the beginning of World War I. The mindless slaughter that followed and the callousness of the hidebound generals who made it happen shed an altogether different light on heroism. By the time Wilfred Owen wrote his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” dying for one’s country was no longer sweet and honorable, it was just an “old Lie” that had betrayed a whole generation of young men. Scott’s reputation survived that disillusion by virtue of his eloquent journals, which were published the year after his death as Scott’s Last Expedition, and, even more powerfully, because Apsley Cherry-Garrard immortalized him and the curiously self-effacing courage that drove them all in The Worst Journey in the World, a literary masterpiece which has stayed in print since it was first published in 1922.
Half a century and another world war later, however, the British Empire was no more and Scott’s reputation had sunk with it. “The beau idéal of English chivalry,” Crane writes, “became a byword for bungling incompetence,” and Scott was attacked from both left and right as though he were the General Haig of Antarctica:
It might seem odd from this distance that neo-Georgian England should find in a Darwin-carrying agnostic of Scott’s cast the type of Christian sacrifice, but the historical process that has shrunk the rich, complex and deeply human set of associations that once clustered round his story into an allegory of arrogance, selfishness and moral stupidity is every bit as extraordinary. How has a life that was once seen as a long struggle of duty been transformed into the embodiment of self-interested …