First Published: 2012 by Greystone Books
My copy: Bought in paperback
Memorable quote: “That was a glorious courageous note… If he in his agony-wracked condition could face it with such sublime fortitude how dare I possibly whine. I will not. I regret nothing but his suffering.” (Kathleen Scott)
I’ve often wondered about how the wives and families of polar explorers must feel. From reading the accounts of the men – particularly those that embarked on multiple expeditions -it’s clear these guys were obsessed. Shackleton once said “what the ice claims, the ice keeps” it must have been difficult for them to adjust to normal life after their years of danger and hardship, and harder still – I imagine – for their wives who were always competing, not with another woman, but with the lure of a whole strange other world, for the affection of their men. This book gave me an interesting glimpse into the world and minds of various polar wives from the Victorian Lady Jane Franklin to Marie Herbert, wife of 60s Arctic explorer Wally Herbert (the author is his daughter so this was very much a personally informed account). I was fascinated by the range of female experience, from those who suffered patiently, keeping the home fires burning and anxiously awaiting news, to those who revelled in the freedom of their abandonment and used it as an excuse to travel and sightsee for themselves.
Rather than structuring this like a conventional biography, with chronological sections on each woman, the chapters in Polar Wives are grouped thematically showing the highs and lows of being married to an explorer. This makes it a much more emotive read and I was really touched by some of the women’s experiences. Kathleen Scott particularly is a fascinating woman: utterly unconventional but true to her own highly regulated sense of morality even if she did not allow herself to be too tightly bound by the restrictive social codes of late Victorian society. I would definitely like to learn more about her. At times I wished Herbert had quoted more extensively from the womens’ own correspondence rather than paraphrasing, but overall this is an interesting book that sheds a different light on the lives of polar explorers and their relationships with the women who loved them.