First, he would be away for up to five years; feeling that this might be too much of a shock, he told her not to expect him back within three. There would be no communication from him during that time; and there was a good chance that he might die. No wonder Eva Nansen was unable to watch her husband go, and sobbed herself to sleep for days afterwards.
In the late 19th century, the Arctic was proving an alluring prospect for many men whose hearts were set on glory, and the North Pole was a glittering prize for those daring enough to reach for it. Nansen, a hard-bitten and slightly eccentric Norwegian with a tormented soul and the eyes of a Viking, had hit upon what he thought was a fail-safe plan. It involved having a boat specially built and strengthened, sailing it to the Arctic, letting the sea freeze around it, and waiting for it to be carried northwards by the natural movement of the ice. As they travelled closer, a dash for the Pole would be made with sledges and dogs.
Nansen was the darling of his era, feted and dined all over Europe and America for his exploits in the polar regions. I had always thought of him as having ice in his veins, but I have begun to see a softer side of his character, thanks to a wonderful book about explorers’ wives: ‘Heart of the Hero’, by Kari Herbert. Kari is the daughter of Wally Herbert who, in 1969, was the first to reach the North Pole overland by dog sledge. She has chosen six explorers, and in her book she tells the stories of the women who loved them. Without exception, these women were just as brave and remarkable as their husbands, and some of them led extraordinary lives of adventure themselves.
Eva Nansen, for instance, was already a celebrated singer when she met her vagabond husband. She was an expert skier, an unusually free spirit for her era, and something in Nansen’s untamed nature found an echo in her own. But her mother foresaw the trials that were to come:
“Knowing that exploration would always be his priority, she warned her daughter that she would be marrying only half the man.”
Nansen’s fame was already spreading, and he became an object of attraction for women in all the countries where he travelled to give lectures; and meanwhile Eva yearned to settle down with a family and a loving home. When Nansen returned from his three-year expedition in the Fram, he was slightly aggrieved that she had not languished at home in his absence, but resumed her stage career and got on with her life. Being married to a celebrity, even in the late 1800s, was not all it was cracked up to be.
In addition to Eva Nansen, Kari has chosen to focus on Kathleen Bruce, wife of Robert Falcon Scott; Emily Dorman, who married Ernest Shackleton; Josephine Diebitsch, the unbelievably faithful wife of Robert Edwin Peary; Eleanor Anne Porden and Jane Griffin, who married Sir John Franklin; and Marie Herbert, her own mother. She has woven their stories together like a plait of beautiful hair, drawing on years of research and her own vivid memories of a childhood in the High Arctic.
I can’t begin to tell you how fascinating this book is. It’s easy to imagine explorers’ wives, especially in the 19th century, as being self-effacing and quietly heroic, waving a handkerchief in tearful farewell before getting down to some needlework and bringing up the children. None of these women fall into that category, or anything like it. They are fierce, independent, strong-minded, astonishingly resourceful. All of them were supremely talented in their own right.
We meet the two extraordinary wives of Sir John Franklin, the first of whom, Eleanor, was a prolific poet with an interest in both art and science:
“While she was attending, as usual, a lecture at the Royal Society, a man behind her commented loudly that rather than take up valuable space at a scientific lecture, young women should instead remain at home and make a pudding. ‘Oh,’ Eleanor responded gamely, ‘we did that before we came out.’”
Eleanor died of tuberculosis shortly after Franklin departed on one of his early trips to the Arctic. A few years later Sir John married Jane Griffin, who propelled him – there can be no other word for it – into the annals of history, while managing to live a life of scandalous excitement herself. She reminds me a little of Isabella Bird, half-shocked at her own daring, travelling alone and quite recklessly wherever the whim took her. Society gossiped about her, but she had the ear of presidents and statesmen; when Franklin’s two ships disappeared in their quest for the North-west Passage, she moved heaven and earth to try and find him and his men alive – and, when all hope was lost, to bring back their bodies for a honourable burial. Her hope was never fulfilled.
And then there was Josephine Peary, who, on their first meeting, felt her husband-to-be looked so ancient that she introduced him to her mother, thinking that they would have more in common. She eventually succumbed to the dubious bewhiskered charm of Robert Peary and was swept up into a life of gruelling separations and financial hardship: out of the 23 years that they were married, they were together for only three. I think, out of all the women described here, Jo Peary had the biggest challenges to overcome. She supported her husband throughout his turbulent fortunes, she travelled with him to the High Arctic and gave birth to her daughter there, she endured the hardships and deprivations, she suffered the dislike of Peary’s crew who never wanted a woman in their midst, and when there was no money for a ship to bring Peary back from the north she steeled herself to give talks to geographical societies and institutions all over the US in order to raise the funds. She even stood by him when it was discovered that he had fathered a child by an Inuit woman, but her letters speak of a heart wrung out with tears and exhaustion. Hers is the fresh-faced, hopeful young portrait on the book’s cover. My heart goes out to her.
“In a surprisingly frank interview in the United States, she [Emily Shackleton] had confessed she did not believe in reading her children stories that ended with ‘And they lived happily ever after’. Doing so might encourage a girl to think that marriage was the only option, and she added wistfully, ‘How wrong that is.’” (photo: Emily Shackleton via Bain News Service)
One of the women, admittedly in a more recent decade, managed to forge a career alongside that of her husband, and in doing so she found her own spiritual path. In the 1970s Marie Herbert, who had once laughed that the Arctic would be the last place on earth that she would visit, found herself living with families there, first in the company of her husband Wally, and then on her own mission to learn about the culture of Inuit and Lappish people. She became a best-selling author, and when tragedy visited her life she opened her soul to native American Indians and found solace and wisdom. Marie’s daughter, Kari, herself a ‘snow baby’, describes her parents with heartwarming honesty and admiration. The glamour of Arctic exploration is stripped away, and in its place are real people with human emotions, struggling to fulfil their dream while earning enough money to support their family.
A common thread in all the partnerships is the yearning that each had for the other throughout the prolonged separations. An exception to this, on the surface at least, is Kathleen Bruce. While her husband, Robert Falcon Scott, was away in the Antarctic, she threw herself into her busy social life with passion and vigour. She travelled, danced, partied, talked, worked. Kathleen was a gifted sculptor: she moved among the fashionable set of London, and she loved everybody and everything with breathtaking extravagance. Throughout her young life she had yearned for a baby, and in Scott she knew she had found the right father. Scott, for his own part, was troubled by a sense of inadequacy which Kathleen did her best to dispel: she almost moulded him, like the sculptor she was, into a hero whom the nation would adore; she urged him to be the one to take risks, if risks were to be taken; she assured him that she could, if the need arose, survive without him; and she earned herself a lot of criticism from people who did not understand where such guidance was coming from.
“Simply put, she believed that it was Scott’s destiny to claim the South Pole, and that she had been placed beside him to help him attain the prize.”
Kathleen’s young years had been traumatic and troubled; she had lost most of her family, and seen the kind of suffering that no one would want their daughter to see. She was running away from sadness, and in seeking the sunshine she became it. The epitaph which she requested for her grave stone, ‘No Happier Woman Ever Lived’ puts me in mind of Anne Boleyn, whose motto was ‘The Most Happy’. Kathleen is a fascinating woman, and I’d like to read more about her.
For myself, so many thoughts and interests have been provoked by this one book. The spirit of these incredible women is both moving and inspiring, and their stories offer an insight into the hearts of their husbands as if through a newly-discovered window. Kari’s perception is remarkable, and she is a natural storyteller. ‘Heart of the Hero’ is that rare combination of things: a valuable resource and an enjoyable read. I now have a new book list, as I’d like to find out more about these remarkable women – and, where possible, read their stories in their own words.
“If he in his weak 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
It’s interesting to note that all these explorers except Sir John Franklin* were honoured guests of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Shackleton, Scott and Herbert received the Livingstone medal; Nansen was awarded one of the first Gold medals, and was the guest of honour at the kind of banquet that the RSGS pulled off with extravagance and astonishing regularity; and Robert Peary received not only a Livingstone medal but a beautiful solid silver ship, a three-masted vessel in full sail, commissioned from Brook & Son of Edinburgh and standing two feet tall. As Peary said himself, “It was simply another illustration of the fact that the Royal Scottish Geographical Society always did things its own way, and never did things half-way.”
*Franklin’s expeditions and his ultimate loss occurred before the foundation of the RSGS in 1884.
A highly respected author and photographer, Kari Herbert is the founding director of Polarworld, an independent publishing company; she has written a memoir of her own life, entitled ‘The Explorer’s Daughter’.
- ‘A Great Task of Happiness – The Life of Kathleen Scott’ (by Louisa Young, Kathleen’s granddaughter)
- ‘The Ambitions of Jane Franklin’ by Alison Alexander
- ‘The Explorer’s Daughter’ by Kari Herbert
Books on the explorers themselves:
- ‘Frozen in Time – the Fate of the Franklin Expedition’ by John Geiger and Owen Beattie
- ‘Farthest North’ by Fridtjof Nansen
- ‘Nansen’ by Roland Huntford
- ‘Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford
- ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ by Hugh Robert Mill
- ‘Captain Scott’ by Ranulph Fiennes
- ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ by Elspeth Huxley
- ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’ by R F Scott
- ‘Peary – The Explorer and the Man’ by J E Weems
- ‘Across the Top of the World’ by Wally Herbert
All photos via Wikimedia (Creative Commons Licence)