The wives and mothers left behind

In February 1913 the news reached Britain that Captain Robert Falcon Scott and four other men (Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Edgar Evans) had died on the return journey from the South Pole the previous March. At the time the Royal Geographical Society was about to hold a meeting in which its first women fellows were to be elected. The news of the catastrophe, however, caused the meeting to be postponed, so the first female fellows had to wait a bit longer for admission. Four months later the suffragette Emily Davison ran in front of George V’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby and was killed when the impact fractured her skull. Her fellow suffragettes compared to her heroic self-sacrifice to that of the dead explorers.

These vignettes illustrate how, prior to very recent times, women were peripheral to the history of polar exploration, but at the same time show that history and women’s history intersect in myriad and complex ways. Conventionally viewed, polar exploration in the early twentieth century was a realm in which men traditionally displayed masculine qualities such as physical strength, stamina and stoicism in the face of hardship. Women had no place in this world, and traditionally feminine qualities no useful role to play, as they would only hold men back and make them “soft”. In his lectures Sir Ernest Shackleton often described how three “strong, healthy girls” had applied to join the Endurance expedition of 1914-16, with the clear understanding that his audience would find the idea as humorous as he did. The handful of women who participated in polar expeditions before the late twentieth century were forced to disguise themselves as men: Louise Seguin wore men’s clothing to accompany her lover, Captain Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec, on his voyage to the southern Indian Ocean in 1772. Women were not authorized to join the field programs of the British Antarctic Survey until 1983.

Focusing on the wives and mothers who were left behind after Scott and his companions perished, these two books are an attempt to recover the female presence in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. The tale they tell is so similar, with even specific anecdotes in common, that one suspects the two authors must have met and shared notes. Beyond their content, however, these are two very different books. Anne Fletcher’s is a more conventional prosopography, whereas Katherine MacInnes takes a more imaginative approach and chooses to write, oddly but not unsuccessfully, in the present tense. A challenge in writing women’s history is that the archival record is often minimal. In the case of the Terra Nova Expedition’s widows, Kathleen Scott left behind a diary and extensive papers, but Oriana Wilson asked that her letters be burnt, so only a few survive, along with extracts that were published in books by her close friend George Seaver during her lifetime. Lois Evans, meanwhile, left almost nothing. (Oates and Bowers were not married.)

This lack of first-hand evidence forces the biographer to resort to conjecture, and Fletcher is sometimes a bit too eager to take advantage of this liberty by attributing feelings and attitudes to her subjects with a certainty that the sources cannot support. MacInnes is guilty of the same charge, but her literary style gives her more leeway to stretch her interpretations. She also relies heavily – and deftly – on photographs, from which she derives many of her descriptions of precise moments. It is fascinating and impressive to have her prose bring these images to life, as she plausibly recaptures the moments they depict.

But does either book succeed in restoring independence and agency to these women, who have previously been defined by the men whose deaths transformed them into reluctant public figures? Both works give short shrift to their post-polar lives, with only a small portion dedicated to the decades after their husbands and sons died. This can make it difficult, at times, to see them as anything other than paragons of bereavement. Although Fletcher criticizes conventional depictions of explorers’ wives as “unselfish, long-suffering, loyal”, these “widows of the ice” often come across as feminine saints: devoted to their husbands, whom they serve as loyal assistants, cheerleaders and helpmeets, and endlessly forbearing and forgiving, not only of their long absences in Antarctica but, in Lois Evans’s case, of Edgar’s frequent infidelities. Both authors seem continually frustrated with Kathleen Scott’s opposition to women’s suffrage, as if she had denied them the opportunity of having a truly feminist heroine about whom to write.

Even with these flaws, however, the books tell a very human story. As the expedition prepares to depart, the women coping with the prospect of their husbands going off on such a dangerous journey in very different ways: Kathleen Scott insists that Captain Scott should bravely press forward, even if it costs him his life, Oriana Wilson accepts Bill’s decision with a sense of Christian duty, and Lois Evans hopes that her financial future with Edgar will be secured. It is impossible not to be moved by the accounts of the three women eagerly awaiting and expecting the return of their husbands, unaware that they have been dead for nearly a year. The tension is palpable as officials and friends race to inform them before they see the newspaper headlines. Afterwards they cope with loss in different ways as well: Kathleen believes that he husband’s death confirms her choice of him as the father of her son, Oriana eventually loses her formerly strong Christian faith (after her beloved brother Noel’s death on the Somme adds to her grief) and Lois struggles to make ends meet.

These books justify their existence not by claiming the women’s influence on the men who strove for the South Pole, but by asserting the importance of their perspectives, and the impacts on them. By avoiding reducing women’s history to the cliché that “behind every great man is a great woman”, they remind us that historical events exist on a micro as well as macro scale: they affect not only the wider world, but also the people most closely connected to their protagonists. They show that history in the making is not only experienced but felt, poignantly and painfully.

Stephanie Barczewski is Carol K. Brown Scholar in the Humanities and Professor of History at Clemson University. Her books include Heroic Failure and the British2016

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