May 2012

Colleen Mondor


Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World's Most Daring Explorers by Kari Herbert

In grad school, one of my most memorable courses was "Polar Exploration and its Literature." Over the course of the semester we immersed ourselves in the words of Pierre Berton and Barry Lopez and a host of biographers who wrote of Peary, Scott, Shackleton, and others. What we did not read was much about the women who married those men, an oversight finally rectified by Kari Herbert's delightful collective biography Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World's Most Daring Explorers. In a period spanning Lady Jane Franklin's efforts to find her missing husband in the mid-nineteenth century to Herbert's own mother who traveled to Greenland with her exploring husband and infant daughter in 1970, this is a solid critical view of women who supported famous men and were affected in both positive and negative ways by their marriages.

Everyone you would expect can be found in Polar Wives: Kathleen Scott, Jo Peary, Eva Nansen, Emily Shackleton, and both Lady Jane and Franklin's first wife, Eleanor. Arranged in a thematic manner that introduces the women in separate chapters and then follows them through sections on love and marriage, the difficult days of separation, and finally as the standard bearers of their husbands' heroic exploits, the book provides plenty of material on each subject without getting bogged down in the minutiae of any particular life. I would argue that all of these women could easily support their own biographies, but Herbert is wisely writing for a general audience who might be new to her subjects, and she should get them with such compelling stories.

Consider Jo Peary, who, while attempting to reach her husband, spent a winter icebound in Greenland sharing quarters with his Inuit mistress and son (Aleqasina later bore him another son as well). The fact that Robert Edwin Peary took a naked picture of a reluctant young Aleqasina as part of his "ethnographical studies" of the Inuit just makes this whole episode that much more sordid. And the fact that Jo had lost her own infant daughter to illness while Robert was gone is just a further heartbreak. Frankly, I don't know why Jo stayed with him and readers might well wonder the same, as well as just how true Peary's claim was that he reached the Pole.

There is also Kathleen Scott, who was determined to find the man worthy of fathering her intended son and got just that with the most tragic explorer of all, Robert Falcon Scott. And Marie Herbert, who had a drive to carve out her own niche as an explorer. Herbert recounts the many jobs the women were forced to take on including everything from publicity to logistics to organizing and funding rescue operations. (Robert Peary was particularly needy in this regard.) There were also the situations unique to loving someone whose job was to go to the ends of the earth in a time when communication across the ocean was difficult. Consider Eva Nansen's struggle in 1895, three years after the last time anyone saw or heard from her husband who was attempting to reach the North Pole:

In many ways Eva had lost hope and faith. Enough time had passed for her to question her husband's motives for embarking on such a long and dangerous journey, and she began to doubt his love for her. Dwelling on such thoughts plunged her into a depression verging on the suicidal: "At any rate, I went round and thought out the easiest way of killing myself." Profoundly unhappy, she confessed to a friend that, as a result of such despair, the memory of her husband had all but disappeared.

Eva Nansen was a famous singer prior to marrying her husband, but after he did successfully return, upon reaching a farthest point north, their reunion did not bring peace. She chafed at the role of "long-suffering explorer's wife" and yet, like the others, she was powerless to keep him home. The explorers were either continuously trying to attain a self-imposed geographic goal or, having met it, felt compelled to surpass it and stay ahead of others. (Jane Franklin appears to be the only exception to this rule; in many ways her husband seems to have been content to remain in England, but she was determined he should achieve greatness one way or another. That his voyage ended in the greatest loss of life in polar history is thus all that much more interesting to study.)

The pressure for greatness was an ever-present part of all of these marriages, as was the weight of celebrity that often led to infidelity. Emily Shackleton gave an especially frank interview about this subject to an American newspaper in which she stated "...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.'"

I would be wrong to conclude from Polar Wives that any of these marriages were disasters, however, for Herbert is careful to present ample evidence of how much all of them felt enriched by their partnerships. But she does reveal how complicated it was to be an explorer's wife, shedding light on a little known aspect of life in the spotlight, and revealing far more than readers typically gain from exploration histories. To say that she merely balances the record with Polar Wives would be a gross understatement. Every story Herbert tells is fascinating for itself, and the book is compelling. With a nice selection of photos, an ample supply of larger-than-life characters, and settings like no other, this is a book that should easily stand the test of time and has earned its place on exploration history shelves everywhere.

Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World's Most Daring Explorers by Kari Herbert
Greystone Books
ISBN: 978-1926812625
368 pages