First Published: 1905 (Wordsworth Classics edition 2009)
My copy: bought new in paperback
Memorable quote: “The scene is so rarely beautiful that on the hilltops one seems to breathe inspiration from the keen air, and one’s thoughts are compelled to soar out of the common groove; but as one descends to the ship they fall back on the more practical details of our life and little remains in the memory.”
I normally race through polar narratives but I’ll admit this one was a slog. I could probably have gone to Antarctica and recreated the journey in the time it took me to wade through this 600+ page account of Scott’s first expedition, the ‘British National’ or Discovery expedition of 1901-3. Why the struggle? Well I don’t think it’s a reflection on the quality of the writing. Though he doesn’t write with the rich emotion of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Scott certainly has a way with words and some of his descriptions of the icy landscape are just stunning. His highly immersive account really elucidates every aspect of expedition life, from the claustrophobia of life below decks on the Discovery to the daily grind of sledging. From that perspective this is a very interesting read and I was fascinated by some of the quirky details such as the fact that on the homeward voyage the dogs that had been born in the South nearly died of thirst before the men could teach them to lap liquid water from a bowl as previously they’d only ever quenched their thirst by eating snow! There are also some episodes of high adventure that made great reading: Scott, Wilson and Shackleton’s attempt to penetrate to the furthest South (which becomes a battle with scurvy as much against the elements) and the final race against time to free the incarcerated ship from her icy prison are the incidents that particularly spring to mind.
So there’s plenty here to enjoy, but what the Discovery lacks is the sense of tragic fatalism that makes narratives of the subsequent Terra Nova expedition so compelling. Maybe that just makes me a terrible person who relishes the morbid and miserable to a worrying extent. But there’s a tremendous sense of purpose in the Terra Nova chronicles: from the clearly set out scientific goals to the prize of the pole. And the fact that we all know how it eventually turned out just adds another layer: it’s the lure of the train-wreck narrative. Discovery meanwhile, was the first British Antarctic Expedition, and as such has much less of a sense of purpose. There is a very Boy’s Own “ho hum let’s just see what we can see” type air to the whole procedure so the narrative lacks coherence too. The team make some absolutely staggering mistakes such as going out with wrong footwear, misjudging distances and not taking the right foods. This is interesting too, and for all the criticism levelled at the Terra Nova expedition by the Roland Huntsfords of this world, from this earlier account you can really see how much Scott had learned by the time of his second – and final – polar foray.
Overall verdict? Worth dipping into for the beautiful descriptions and moments of high drama but cover-to-covering it is probably a feat for die-hards only. If you’ve only got space for one polar narrative in your life, just make it Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.