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This is organized by subject matter, rather than by author, and then by importance to me - a highly personalized ranking system.
CAPTAIN OATES by Sue Limb and Patrick Cordingley (Leo Cooper, revised edition 1995). This is the only readily available biography of Oates to date. The authors got access to many letters and memoirs that had never been published before, and were just in time to interview many of the people who had actually known Oates before they died of old age. Some of the photographs I have never seen anywhere else.
A VERY GALLANT GENTLEMAN, by L.C. Bernacchi (Thornton Butterworth 1933). Hard to find, and a hagiography to boot. The unfortunate Bernacchi had to write it without the cooperation of Oates's mother, so it was hard going. As a result the book is akin to one of those 'instant biographies' that cheap publishers put out after the death of a celebrity.
SCOTT AND AMUNDSEN, by Roland Huntford (1979). Definitely not a hagiography! Also republished under the title THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH in conjunction with the PBS series of the same name, this controversial biography kicked the slats out from under the Scott-as-hero image and rejuvenated the modern Scott industry. He even removes from Oates his famous last words, a decision with which I had to disagree. This is also the only work about Amundsen that I consulted, but it is very thorough. Once you accept that if a negative conclusion can be drawn about Scott, or a positive one about Amundsen, that Huntford will draw it, then you know where you are. Not a dull page in it - don't miss the alleged affair between Kathleen Scott and Fridtjof Nansen while Scott was away, a snoopiness worthy of People Magazine.
SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC, by Elspeth Huxley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977). A standard middle-of-the-road biography.
EDWARD WILSON OF THE ANTARCTIC, by George Seaver (John Murray, 1930). Another hagiography, but full of interesting maps, charts, and artwork by Wilson himself.
SHACKLETON, by Roland Huntford (Carroll & Graf, 1985). Huntford evidently approves of Shackles much more than Scott. This strikes me as a clear-eyed biography which doesn't gloss over any flaws. For my purposes this book is particularly notable because Huntford got hold of unpublished letters and notes of Mrs. Caroline Oates. Titus's widowed mother was never satisfied with Scott's famous account of his death. The formidable old lady quietly investigated, inviting surviving expedition members one by one to tea and then grilling them. According to Huntford she proved to her own satisfaction that Scott's incompetent leadership was responsible for the tragedy, but kept the knowledge to herself instead of making a big public mess. When I read this it gave me a truly creepy feeling, that feeling that there is a hole in the fabric of the imagination here and that in this hole are books. Somewhere, in some alternate universe, I put my hand into that hole. And I am writing a series of period detective novels about that steely crusading widow Mrs. Caroline Oates as she fights injustice and crime in the England of the Twenties (alongside of the elderly Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey) in memory of her son. Sort of like Batman in whalebone stays and riding crop.
SELF-PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, by Lady Kennet, Lady Scott (Murray, 1949). Kathleen Scott's journals, edited and re-edited both before and after her death before they were published. As a result they are sadly disappointing, with all the juice pressed out of the words. Surely she cannot have been as stupid as she appears in these pages - it must be the fault of the editors. The woman of this book would get lost in a revolving door. Also the bulk of the work is about her life as a political wife, which is exceptionally boring. Avoid it - everything of even remote interest, like her loony ideas about sex and motherhood, is usually quoted by other, better writers elsewhere.
SCOTT'S LAST JOURNEY, edited by Peter King (Harper Collins, 1999). A new and more complete edition of Scott's journals, which covers the deletions made by Kathleen Scott and other editors after his death. The ur-document of them all, the only essential account and the basis for just about every other book on this list. When I read these books it always occurs to me, these people were insane!
THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Carroll & Graf, 1992). One of the classics of adventure literature, and absolutely thrilling. Cherry was not heaven's gift to organization, but his sincerity and true heart are plain to see on the page. It meets almost all the canons of a great novel: covering an event that alters the life of the protagonist, heroic and affable companions, colorful events in exotic locales, a great quest achieved - there are even cute animals, in the form of the Emperor penguins.
WITH SCOTT: THE SILVER LINING, by T. Griffith Taylor (Smith, Elder & Co., 1916). Based on the journals of the geologist of the expedition, this is the best of the memoirs, detailed and charming. It includes ridiculous details like the chart of everybody's height, weight, and measurements of chest, waist and bicep, and little inaccurate maps of where everybody's sleeping bag was. Unlike some of his fellows Griff really could write.
THE NORWEGIAN WITH SCOTT, by Tryggve Gran (HMSO, 1984). The first English translation of the young Norwegian's diary.
DIARY OF THE 'TERRA NOVA' EXPEDITION, by Edward Wilson (Blandford Press, 1972). Astonishingly mealy-mouthed and dull. Wilson was writing notes for his family, to be expanded into letters home, and so nothing disturbing or painful is referred to right up to the bitter end. It makes you yearn for hearsay and innuendo. A wonderful description of what the well-dressed Polar explorer wears, however.
SOUTH WITH SCOTT, by Edward Evans (Collins, 1921). Evans is enthusiastic but not methodical. You get the sense this work was dictated to a secretary, rather than actually written out by the author's hand. Still, a detailed account by an eyewitness, and full of anecdotes. You would not wish to have Evans testify in court, but he must have made wonderful dinnertime company. He gives the primary account of Oates' amazing fund of profanity, which he says astounded even the seamen.
IN THE ANTARCTIC: STORIES OF SCOTT'S LAST EXPEDITION by Frank Debenham (Murray, 1952). Miscellaneous anecdotes through the lens of time.
THE GREAT WHITE SOUTH, by Herbert G. Ponting (Duckworth, 1923). A great photographer, but Ponting's words are almost worthless. Sometimes rewriting makes it worse, not better! Look at the dazzling pictures and skip the text.
A FIRST RATE TRAGEDY, by Diana Preston (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). A more recent reworking of this material, striving for a balanced view.
THE COLDEST MARCH: SCOTT'S FATAL ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, by Susan Solomon (Yale University Press, 2001). The very latest work on the subject I consulted, and the first one by a meteorologist. This book carries on the slow rebalancing of Scott's image, after he bottomed out in the Huntford biography. Fascinating discussion of the temperature data so painfully accumulated by Scott's party, which Solomon uses in conjunction with modern weather numbers to argue that Scott was felled by highly unusual weather conditions - just as he had complained on his death bed. Even more entrancing, she supplies a totally different explanation for the Scott party's final days, bolstered completely by meteorological arguments. Couldn't put it down this is not the first book on the subject to read, nor the second, but it's certainly the third.
THE SOUTH POLE PONIES, by Theodore K. Mason (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1979). An account of the use of horses in Polar exploration, which necessarily discusses Oates a good deal.
BRITISH ADVENTURE, edited by W.J. Turner (Collins, 1957). A volume of a series "Britain in Pictures" which seems to have been directed towards younger readers. Notable for a section on polar explorers by Admiral Sir Edward Evans, which firmly embodies the hagiographic viewpoint.
SOUTH: THE RACE TO THE POLE, (the National Maritime Museum, 2000). Published in conjunction with their big Polar Exploration exhibit, this book has many photographs of thrilling historical items like Scott's sledging flag, which was taken from the tent beside his dead body.
SCOTT'S MEN, by D. Thomas (Allen Lane, 1977). Of mild interest, but there are better books covering the same material.
TERRA INCOGNITA, by Sara Wheeler (Random House, 1996). Writer goes to Antarctica and bums around the research bases absorbing ambiance and meditating on the history of the place. She visited the Cape Evans hut and was brave enough to lie down in Scott's bunk, which I would never have the nerve to do.
I MAY BE SOME TIME: ICE AND THE ENGLISH IMAGINATION, by Francis Spufford (Palgrave, 1997). What the Polar regions stood for in the minds of Britons of various periods. If the question is 'why are they doing this to themselves' and insanity is an unsatisfactory answer, this book offers other rationales.
THE HOME OF THE BLIZZARD, by Douglas Mawson (St. Martin's Press, 1998). The final star of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. Mawson is not as lyrical a writer as Scott or Cherry-Garrard, so this is a less amusing book. But my goodness, he's tough as nails. His adventures are thrilling.
MIND OVER MATTER, by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Delacorte, 1993). Modern-day Briton manhauls sledge across Antarctica. Just to prove that there still are insane people in the world.
SHADOWS ON THE WASTELAND, by Mike Stroud (1993). A companion book by Ranulph Fiennes' partner. They didn't get along, and so had to write two separate books to denigrate each other properly. Vitamins, antibiotics and Goretex make all the difference in manhauling. Stroud, a doctor, also wrote an article for the British Medical Journal after this trip, pointing out that Scott and his party were severely undernourished considering the work they were doing and the climate.
CROSSING ANTARCTICA, by Will Steger (Knopf, 1991). Another modern re-enactor, who dog-sledded across the continent in company with a carefully international team.
BOLD ENDEAVORS: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration, by Jack Stuster (Naval Institute Press, 1996). An analysis of historical expeditions, with a view to deriving behavioral lessons that will prepare astronauts for the voyage to Mars!
MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, by John Long (Joseph Henry Press, 2001). Scientist's research trips to Antarctica. In my opinion it is a stretch to blame the journeys for his bad marriage.
SHACKLETON: THE ANTARCTIC CHALLENGE by Kim Heacox (National Geographic Society, 1999). Published in conjunction with a major Shackleton exhibit which included the James Caird and a number of Frank Hurley's photographs, this book revolves mainly around the Endurance expedition. This is not the best book on the subject that would be Shackleton's own SOUTH but the expedition itself is without peer. There were giants in the earth in those days.
SHACKLETON'S FORGOTTEN MEN, by Lennard Bickel (Thunder Mouth Press, 2000). The other half of Shackleton's Endurance expedition, which was just as unluck.
SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL: THE HEROIC AGE OF POLAR EXPLORATION by John Maxtone-Graham (Scribner, 1988). This rolls in North Pole expeditions as well as Antarctic ones. A good general overview of the subject.
|©2001 Brenda Clough||Last modified 19 August 2001|