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 calculation? How has the name of the meticulous and “cautious explorer” his men followed become synonymous with reckless waste? How has the son and husband his mother and wife described become the type of English emotional inadequacy? By what process does tenderness for animal life become a pathological disorder that belongs to the psychology of military incompetence?…If Scott was once celebrated as the incarnation of everything an Englishman should be, he is now damned as the sad embodiment of everything he actually was.
The answer, Crane thinks, has less to do with Scott himself than with subsequent distaste for “the jingoistic and imperialist uses to which his name and story were pressed.” No man is a hero to his valet and when heroes are out of fashion the valet’s point of view—currently known as political correctness—is paramount. In those terms, Scott belonged to a world in which “it took three generations to make a gentleman” and all the now forbidden prejudices about race, color, and creed were taken for granted.
Scott himself qualified as a gent, but only just. His grandfather was lower middle class, a purser in the navy during the Napoleonic Wars who “amassed enough from prize money or graft” to buy a brewery and set himself up in a rather grand country house. But money from “trade” was not altogether respectable and there was never quite enough of it to satisfy the social ambition and haughty tastes of his chronically indolent son John, Captain Scott’s father. In Victorian England the children of gentlemen went into the professions, of which the least expensive and intellectually demanding were the army and navy. At the age of thirteen, young Scott was duly sent away to the training ship Britannia, at Dartmouth, to learn how to be an officer and a gentleman.
In their different ways, all the great English public schools were training grounds for colonial administrators and the lesson they taught best was a resigned acceptance of hardship, also known as “a stiff upper lip.” Dartmouth in the 1880s was an extreme version of this ethos—a harsh, rigid, deeply philistine institution where being good at games mattered far more than being good at lessons, orders were never questioned, and thinking for yourself was a crime. In Nelson’s day personal initiative had been encouraged and he famously turned his blind eye on orders he disagreed with. Since Nelson’s victories had made the Royal Navy the most formidable fighting force in the world, the placeholders who followed him resisted change, even after the advent of steam. “With no engineering workshop,” Crane writes,
no gunnery officer, no instruction in command and a heavy emphasis on seamanship, a Britannia training put a cadet firmly in the camp of the dinosaur…. It was an education for an age of sail, designed for a profession that envisaged no scope for individual responsibility, and enforced with all the rigour of nineteenth-century naval discipline.
All the naval men who went south with Scott, sailors as well as officers, took with them the same habit of blind, unquestioning obedience to orders and resigned acceptance of hardship as a way of life. Hardship, in fact, was part of the appeal of polar exploration. In two volunteers who joined the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Lawrence Oates, Crane remarks, “Scott found himself two men happy to donate £1,000 of their own money for the privilege of suffering with him in the ice.” And suffer they did to a degree that these days, when thermal clothing has a technology all to itself, seems scarcely imaginable. When Oates, at the time a cavalry officer stationed in Delhi, told his “formidably unattractive mother” that he was joining Scott’s expedition, he wrote reassuringly, “The climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold.”
A similar blithe insouciance infected earlier British naval expeditions to the North Pole and the elusive trade route through the Northwest Passage. Despite the terrible cold, many officers stuck as best they could to the insignia of rank—brass-buttoned jackets and cocked hats—and avoided furs for fear of being mistaken for Inuits. Scott’s men were better equipped—they had fur hats and gloves—but they mostly relied on canvas or Burberry outerwear over wool, flannel, and tweed—fabrics in which sweat is retained and turns to ice in extreme cold—and they endured nights under canvas with nothing warmer than pitiful reindeer-skin sleeping bags to preserve them from temperatures that sometimes dropped to –72 degrees Fahrenheit, which is one hundred degrees of frost.
The greatest and least necessary of all the polar torments was man-hauling. When George Nares set out for the North Pole in 1875, Crane writes, he “warned his officers that ‘the hardest day’s work’ they ‘had ever imagined, let alone had, would not hold a patch’ on the miseries of man-hauling, and he had not been exaggerating.” Yet man-hauling remained the British method of polar travel, even though Arctic explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Robert E. Peary had used dog teams to cross the ice safely and fast long before Scott set out for the south. But the art of dog-sledding was a speciality of the Norwegians and, worse still, of the Inuits, and English gentlemen preferred not to learn from foreigners, still less from “lesser breeds without the law.”
As a gesture to the new techniques, Scott’s final expedition took dog teams but lacked expertise in handling them. They also took Mongolian ponies, but the conditions were too harsh for them and they ended up in the cooking pot or fed to the dogs. Scott even brought along specially designed mechanized sledges, but one of them sank while they were landing it and the others didn’t work—which may secretly have been a relief since it absolved him from the charge of cheating by the armchair heroes back home. So they muddled along as best they could with the ponies and dogs, but when it came to the final push to the South Pole they reverted to the stubborn John Bull method they knew best: they loaded their gear onto crude, inefficient sledges, harnessed themselves like beasts to the traces, and dragged their great loads “through a nightmare ice-scape of hummocks and fissures,” until they could drag them no further.
For Crane, this sadomasochism disguised as duty is a moral outrage and an insult to the men’s courage:
Apsley Cherry-Garrard called polar exploration “at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised,” but for [the organizers back in England]…that was the whole point of the poles…. It was the purity and misery of the adventure that seduced [them], the opportunity it offered the chivalry of England to test itself in a quest that united pointlessness, patriotism and personal heroism in ways that nothing before the Somme would ever equal.
The central thesis of Crane’s witty, authoritative, and powerfully written biography is that Scott was doomed from the start not by his personal failings, which were many, but by the traditions of the navy in which he served all his life. Crane makes this point eloquently when he describes Scott’s first encounter with the Antarctic in 1902:
Over the last eighteen months [Scott] had done all that any single man could do to “prepare” himself for his command, but though he could not yet know it, his whole professional life had been a kind of anti-preparation for the job, an indoctrination into habits of thought and ways of doing things that would be a positive danger in the conditions they were now entering. As Scott stood on the bridge, or peered into the fog from the crow’s nest, searching for a lead through the [ice] pack, there was nothing out there that he could control, nothing he could predict, nothing that behaved as he wanted or expected it to, or prayed that it would. In a world where bergs flowed one way and the current another, where the old stable landmarks shifted and changed, where nothing under you or around you was what it seemed, what use were the rational certainties of the Vernon technocrat? In a world in which each man would have to think and act for himself, what price was going to have to be paid for the habit of childlike dependency the navy had foisted on its lower decks? In a world where visibility might be no more than a few feet, what hope was there for a culture of communications or chains of command that had made initiative in its officers a crime?
In his evenhanded way, Crane never pretends that the narrowness of Scott’s naval upbringing didn’t suit him very well, not least because it protected him against his weaknesses. By nature he was a depressive—moody, irritable, constantly worried about money, and, until he became famous, socially insecure. But by preference he was a conventional man and the navy’s code of blind obedience, duty, and iron self-restraint, combined with an officer’s gold braid, were an armor against his inadequacies.
So was his marriage. On the surface, it seems altogether unlikely that a shy, buttoned-up, middle-aged naval officer like Scott would have asked Kathleen Bruce to marry him, and it seems even more unlikely that a young woman of her style and independence would ever have said yes. She was an upper-class bohemian who had purged herself of her dour Scottish Presbyterian upbringing by moving to Paris and “the exhilarating and narcissistic world of Rodin and Picasso, of Isadora Duncan and Aleister Crowley, of Gertrude Stein, Anatole France and the dying Wilde.” When Scott first met her, in 1907, at a smart London lunch party—the guests included Max Beerbohm and J.M. Barrie—he had “only a slender knowledge of women” but “all the knowledge in the world,” Crane writes,
would probably not have prepared him for the wonderfully tanned, determinedly virginal, twenty-eight-year-old sculptress with a passion for “male babies” and a critical eye for a prospective father, just back from five months’ vagabonding around Greece.
It turned out to be an ideal union of opposites. Scott may have gone to desolate places and faced terrible physical hardship without flinching, as a matter of course, almost as a matter of principle. But courage of that kind demands an equally great reticence and self-control. Once you start thinking about what might happen when things go wrong or, worse still, once you mention what you think to your companions, you open a window onto an abyss. “God help us,” Scott wrote in his diary, shortly before the end, “can’t keep up this pulling, that is certain. Amongst ourselves we are unendingly cheerful, but what each man feels in his heart I can only guess.”
In extreme danger what Sylvia Plath called “The Courage of Shutting Up” is as necessary as endurance, but it was not a virtue that Kathleen Scott aspired to. Speaking out was never a problem for her. She was a free spirit, imaginative, spontaneous, bold, irreverent, and she had a genius for living as powerful as her husband’s genius for suffering. “He loved and needed her,” Crane says, “more than she did him,” but in their different ways both of them were adventurers and together they were a perfect match.
Crane calls Scott’s doomed journey to the South Pole “the tragi-heroic codicil to a whole age”:
It is an ironic fate for a man as intensely modern in his outlook as Scott, but with each increasingly weary step towards a pre-ordained disappointment, he was slowly falsifying what he was, metamorphosing himself into the incarnation of a service, an ideal, a mythology, a faith and an age to which he had never been entirely able to reconcile himself.
Scott may have preferred Darwin to the Deity, but at least he was a man of his time in believing that heroism had nothing to do with heroics. Phlegm was a quality much admired by all ranks in the navy. When the frostbitten Petty Officer Evans, for instance, was hauled out of a crevasse that had almost swallowed him up, his only reaction was a mild and astonished, “Well, I’m blowed.” Notwithstanding their taste for pomp and circumstance, the Edwardians turned understatement into a fine art and, thanks to Scott as well as Cherry-Garrard, a great literary form.
In the end it is a question of character—or rather, of turning character into immaculate prose. If Crane is right when he says an “implacable sorrow” underlay Scott’s competence and conventionality, then disappointment and disaster might well have been what he had secretly expected all along. When he realized that the Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen had beaten him and saw their black flag fluttering over the pole, his reaction was not just disappointment but grief and foreboding: “Great God, this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority…. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.” The run home meant eight hundred miles of man-hauling over dreadful terrain, on increasingly short rations, in freakishly cold weather, and in the end they did not do it.
According to Crane, Scott’s reputation rests not on what he did but on how he behaved when there was nothing more he could do. A lifetime in the navy had taught him never to complain, and in the end he literally wrote himself into history by turning fortitude into what William Empson called “a style from a despair.” Crane writes:
It was only through his journals and letters that Scott achieved the posthumous dominance over people’s minds that he never did alive. It is easy enough to argue that the Scott of “myth” bore only a passing resemblance to the living man, but the more central truth is that it was only in his written legacy that the values to which he aspired stood shorn of those accidents of character and temper that always came between him and his ideals….
Death was not an “escape” for Scott in the way that has sometimes been suggested—an escape from failure or public accountability—but it was an opportunity to anchor his character to his most fundamental values, and he seized it. It is clear from his journal that he could be as irritable and impatient on the march as ever, but in those last days the man who had the courage to write as he did in the pain and loneliness of that tent, and the man who had the imaginative power to imprint its image on human consciousness, are the same.
It is above all this profound ability to make real the experience of human nature at the limits of its endurance that is Scott’s greatest gift to posterity.
How writers “make real the experience of human nature at the limits of its endurance” is also one of the themes of Sarah Moss’s The Frozen Ship, though her attitude toward Scott is strictly revisionist and she has no patience with the good old days of “the ‘Age of Heroism’…when polar exploration was—and celebrated being—male, white and frequently dead.” Moss writes elegant, waspish prose and has shrewd things to say about the relationship of motive to style in the stories explorers tell, but her distaste for the imperialist baggage she believes Scott and his predecessors took with them to the poles makes for some strangely inappropriate distortions. Here, for example, is her description of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers in their tent, waiting for the end:
Scott, meanwhile, wrote on, a surprisingly elegant handwriting given the extreme cold, heavy clothes, unreliable light and worn down pencil. He wrote to patrons, friends and colleagues as well as his wife, mother and brother-in-law…. He wrote sincere and perhaps less sincere accounts of what went wrong and why…. Most historians are troubled by this sudden, sustained prolixity. Perhaps we should be more worried about the other two, as Scott lies there scribbling.
For those who have not read them, the last words Scott wrote were:
I do not think we can hope for any better thing now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.
For God’s sake look after our people.
Right to the end, that is, Scott wrote lucidly, with dignity and restraint. He allows himself just one flicker of despair, though it is only in a postscript and it is not for himself or his companions but for their dependents back home. In the circumstances, “scribbling” seems a curiously spiteful word for an effort that must have cost him as much and been as unrelentingly hard as the man-hauling that had preceded it.
Moss is thoroughly modern in her prejudices. She has no time at all for what she calls “Scott’s mythology of English masculinity,” and she resents the fact that Scott and his equally doomed predecessor John Franklin, “the man who ate his boots,” remain “as central to a post-modern, post-colonial polar canon as they were to the Boy’s Own writers on polar heroes.” Yet she writes well on the hold the frozen wastelands have always had on the imagination, beginning with the Irish monks who followed the Arctic geese north in the seventh and eighth centuries. For them, “the idea of [a] Celtic hermitage [was] an isolated and bleakly beautiful place for a solitary to live in prayer and meditation…. The Arctic already feels like the end of a quest for unworldly peace.” For later explorers and adventurers—especially those, like Scott, who lacked the consolation of belief—the harshness and isolation of life at the poles were mortification enough.
They were also reason enough to set out. No one ever went to the poles expecting a good time. According to Crane, a “self-induced capacity for amnesia…is a quality that serial explorers must all share to some degree, because no one who remembered things as they really were would ever voluntarily return to the Barrier or the plateau.” That, in fact, was—and still is—part of their appeal, especially to depressives like Scott, for whom the bleak, unforgiving landscape might be a mirror of their inner world. Expeditions may be funded for the best scientific reasons—to improve our maps, extend our knowledge of rocks, soil, minerals, plants, species, weather, and so on—but the people who join expeditions also go to find out about themselves. “The point of exploration,” Moss writes,
was to leave home and return both different in oneself and bearing experience that would make “home” different. On returning one would be more powerful or better informed or perhaps just more open to the strangeness one had witnessed. Exploration is also largely about incorporating strangeness into nationhood, returning to tell a tale that then becomes part of home culture, and in this light it need not matter much whether the explorer himself returns or not, as long as his story is told. And it may even be a better story if he does not return but remains some corner of a polar waste that is forever Sweden/America/England, a national emblem in its turn incorporated by an alien land.
For this reverse incorporation to work to the greater glory of the explorer and all he stands for—that is, for his death to be meaningful—it is necessary for the story of his death to go on being told. If the expedition comes to a complete end with death, if the explorer disappears and is allowed to decay silently into the howling wilderness, then he has in death become merely a private person, which is precisely not the point of exploration. If instead his death itself is fetishized and the story told and told again to the last gasp and beyond, then the body becomes a relic or a kind of cultural bookmark.
This is clever and strongly put, but it is based on the assumption that exploration is colonialism in disguise. Moss is more interested in the political fall-out of exploration than in whatever it is explorers discover—about terra incognita or about themselves—and in the end I think this bias skews her book badly.
Consider, for example, her treatment of Sir William Parry, who led four expeditions to the Arctic between 1819 and 1827. All of them were failures but, unlike many other Victorian explorers, he brought most of his men home safely and in good health. Moss despises him nevertheless, not just because he was a smug, boring man who wrote lifeless prose and condescended to the Inuits, but because he took a fatherly attitude toward the welfare and morale of his crew. He tried to lighten the terrible boredom of the Arctic winter by staging “amusements”—plays acted by the officers and magic lantern shows—circulating a weekly newspaper for those who could read, setting up a school for those who couldn’t, and, despite the cold and darkness, making sure everyone took regular exercise and drank a daily ration of lime juice to prevent scurvy. It sounds unusually enlightened for the period, but not to Moss:
Parry’s immense satisfaction with his arrangements should not blind us to the politics of these voyages. Parry’s concern for—or interference with—his crew was not limited to their physical welfare, and his provision for their morals and their morale can seem enlightened, sinister or merely pragmatic. It begins a tradition in polar exploration which ends with the First World War and Scott’s disaster.
Parry’s fussy and complacent paternalism may well have tried his crew’s patience, but “sinister” seems a strange epithet for social and political assumptions which everyone, sailors as well as officers, took for granted at that time. In due course perhaps, the politically correct attitudes that are self-evident to Moss may begin to seem as questionable as nineteenth-century snobbery and colonialism seem to her, but in Queen Victoria’s class-bound, imperial England they were as natural as breathing—especially in the navy.
Moss never resolves the conflict between her intellectual assumptions and her subject. She understands the imaginative appeal of “the howling wilderness,” but because she disapproves of the cult and politics of heroism, she ends up treating the entire polar enterprise with disdain, as though it were a childish escape from adult domestic responsibilities into “an arid and intrinsically masculine desert of the imagination.” She may be right, but no one goes to these places merely to get away from home or in the hope of coming back a hero. They go because they want to know what’s out there over the horizon and how they will measure up when they get there. It has nothing to do with heroics and everything to do with curiosity and character.
They also go for the adventure, of course, which is why the rest of us read about them, and no one lived a more adventurous life than the Australian explorer Hubert Wilkins. By the end, writes his biographer, Simon Nasht, he “had made thirty-three expeditions in polar regions and explored every continent. He had sledged and flown, sailed and walked across more unknown land than any man in history.” Wilkins was only twenty years younger than Scott, but he was very much a twentieth-century figure, classless and open-minded, willing to learn from the Inuits, yet addicted to new technologies—movie cameras, airplanes, submarines—and always pushing them (and himself) to their limits.
As a photographer during World War I, he was wounded nine times and won medals for his insane courage; he survived countless near-fatal disasters—in the air, on the ice, at sea—and some of his exploits made headlines. In 1928, he was the first man to fly from America to Europe across the North Pole; three years later, he attempted the pole again—unsuccessfully—in a primitive, malfunctioning, ex–First World War submarine. But “fame and money,” his wife said, “were not his criteria,” and The Last Explorer is his first biography. This is probably how he would have preferred it since Wilkins was a man of aggressive modesty. He began as a wild colonial boy who couldn’t resist a challenge and he went on exploring—testing combat gear in Alaska, helping evolve meteorological systems that now monitor global warming—until he died in his bed, aged seventy.
September 27, 2007