A few months ago I wrote a post about how I’ve been on a nonfiction reading kick lately. That really hasn’t stopped and my last entry in the reading list was Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, a sort of combo thumbnail biography of Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen and Polar exploration in general, culminating with a blow-by-blow account of the English and Norwegian expeditions to discover the South Pole in 1911.
The shortest of all possible short thoughts I can come up with for this book is this: if you want to read something that will convince you that Scott was the biggest plonker of all time, read this book. Me being me, I am going to go find another biography of Scott and find out if Huntford’s total lack of respect was deserved or merely the result of personal dislike. Because biographers and historians in general do like or dislike their subjects — and I don’t mean in terms of “Well, I like thinking about nationalism so I’m going to write about modern Israel” or “The Wars of the Roses are fascinating, so it’s pre-Tudor England for me!” I mean that we develop real, visceral, sometimes painful and awkward attachment to or revulsion from our topics.
I read another biography recently — Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead — which is a perfect example of this problem. Moorehead is writing about the diary of a woman named Lucie de la Tour du Pin, whose life spanned all the French Revolutions to the mid-nineteenth century. She lived in France, England, and America for long periods and travelled mainland Europe fairly extensively. She and her husband were, literally, at the heart of the French court — or Republic — or the next court — or the next republic. He was a career soldier and then a diplomat, quite highly respected at the time, and she was a socialite and “good wife,” a career in itself. The book is based on Lucie’s personal diary which looks to be an absolutely fascinating document written in later life to tell her whole life’s story. Examined by a less partial historian, I think the diary would be hot stuff — even in Moorehead’s highly partial and deeply biased telling, Lucie comes out as a fascinating character.
The problem with all this is that Moorehead is so invested in Lucie being so many things — a modern woman (read: 20th century woman) before her time; a perfect wife; a wonderful mother; a subtle diplomat; a clever hostess — that Lucie has no faults. Her obvious self-deceptions and 180-degree changes in opinion, belief, or ideology (which come out in the longer passages from the diary despite Moorehead’s brilliant ability to ignore or read over them), not to mention her ability to surf successfully through the rapidly changing and very dangerous waters of post-Revolution France speak to her being a woman with a highly flexible moral code, to say nothing of political views that could change with the lightest breeze from Paris. Not that any of this is a bad thing! Lucie was very successful at what she did: she survived, for heaven’s sake, when so many others in her position did not. She was adaptable, very flexible, exceptionally intelligent, sensitive to the community around her — I could go on. This woman was no slouch whatsoever and a less biased biographer who examined all sides of her character as revealed in the diary and other contemporary documents would have served her much better.
To return to Huntford and Polar exploration: Huntford suffers from much the same problem in regard to Captain Scott. He just can’t stick him at any price. Amundsen is his ideal of a good Polar explorer — a good explorer and leader in general — and Scott just can’t hack it at that level. Huntford doesn’t quite come out and say, “Scott was a moron and he got himself and everyone in his last exploration party killed because he was, as aforementioned, a moron,” but it comes close.
Even toning down Huntford’s adjectives a bit, it does seem fairly clear that Scott simply wasn’t very good at what he did — or perhaps he just wasn’t as good as Amundsen. What is interesting here — and what Huntford doesn’t explore very deeply — is how both men are products of their environment and their contemporary culture. With Scott, this is a particularly interesting question since I love all 19th century British anything and he is a stone-cold 19th century British guy. He acts, thinks, talks, plans entirely from that kind of background which can only have been deeply and probably unconsciously formative of how he decided to tackle his Antarctic explorations.
Despite this, Huntford’s book is a great and engaging read. This is an edited Modern Library edition — frankly, I don’t know what was edited out. It’s a long book as it stands now — over 550 pages — and I felt swamped with detail more than once. Want to know the exact dietary details of Scott’s and Amundsen’s respective expeditions? It’s in there; down to the calorie. Want to know about how the dietary habits of sledding dogs change in extreme weather conditions? It’s in there. Want to know about the affair Fridtjof Nansen had with Kathleen Scott? That’s in there, too.
So you may want a pillow to cushion it on your lap — it’s heavy, even in paperback — and some tea to make sure you stay warm reading about them nearly freezing to death, but The Last Place is a fun, fast, entertaining read.