Scott and his team's deaths on the frigid Antarctic expanse as they made the mile journey back to their ship after discovering they'd been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen almost a month earlier has proven rich book fodder over the last 92 years. Jones eschews straight biography or adventure narrative to provide what he sees as a needed cultural context for Scott's voyage and its aftermath. He writes, "The legendary figures who first ventured into the unknown remain impenetrable, unless we apprehend the world which made them. Livingstone and Robert Peary.
In between, the book makes thorough examinations of such disparate and seemingly irrelevant topics as the raising of money for and the erection of monuments to Scott and his party, and the fierce public debate over the admission of women to the RGS. The result, unfortunately, is a jumble. The Discovery marked out the boundaries of empire, sailing down an imperial corridor via South Africa and New zealand to reach the Antarctic, while the raising of the flag at the southernmost point yet reached on earth offered a compelling emblem of the extent of British power.
This goes a long way towards dispelling some of the negative myths that have grown up around him and his legacy. One is the suggestion that the British revelled in the moral superiority of manhaulling, which is usually based on quotations from Clements Markham and one passage from Scott's Voyage of the Discovery. In fact, the absence of praise of manhauling from British tributes in indicates that this idea is hugely misleading.
He also shows convincingly that the causes of the Antarctic disaster were widely debated at the time, and that the superiority of Amundsen's methods were acknowledged by many. Finally, he demonstrates that the allegation of an establishment conspiracy to cover up Scott's failings by editing his journals, thus projecting the myth of the perfect martyred hero, simply cannot be sustained. Scott's journals were indeed edited prior to publication, but this was much less extensive than has been alleged, and many negative or potentially damaging passages were left intact.
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Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this book is how Jones places Scott's death and the response to it in the context of Edwardian British culture. Undoubtedly, "Captain Scott and his companions offered a reassuring example of heroic character and idealism, to counter anxieties about national decline and the materialism of the modern world The mass media fuelled this transformation, bombarding vast audiences with royal spectacles and imperial adventure stories. The ways in which a Royal Naval officer, Royal Indian Marine, seaman, cavalry officer, and civilian were hailed as heroes, expose the very heart of the nation on the eve of the First world War, offering insights into the status of the armed forces, the role of monarchy, and the relationship between England, Scotland and Wales.
The celebration of Antarctic heroism reveals a more finely textured national tapestry than the imperial monolith of many recent accounts. The changes in attitude to Scott that have been seen in the years since his death therefore also need to be seen as reflections of cultural norms and preferences, rather than a development in historical insight whereby we now understand the events more accurately than was previously the case. Another interesting feature of the public response to his death is the emergence of Scott as the pre-eminent hero of the disaster, which tended to obscure the impulsive, brooding and fatalistic character who has subsequently emerged.
The almost universal celebration of Scott's heroism is due to the fact that his story came to reflect what has been called the "muffling inclusiveness" of the English past, as his story wasn't harnessed to any specific or sectional definition of the nation; these divisions didn't exist in the same way as they did in France or Germany. Jones unpacks this aspect of British history, as he explains that political, commercial and military success insulated England from the liberationalist nationalism which engulfed Europe and meant that religious and political divisions weren't as marked in England as they were on the continent.
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The monarchy also provided a central cultural focal point that was nonetheless detached from formal politics or any explicit nationalist agenda. These distinctive contours of national identity in Britain before the First World War, along with the cultural veneration of suffering and admiration of self control and selflessness, meant that the Antarctic disaster, and Scott in particular, resonated with the public imagination in a particularly powerful way.
Even the "infamous triumvirate of Edwardian troublemakers: Irish nationalists, radical socialists and militant suffragettes" didn't dissent from the dominant assessment of Scott as essentially heroic. His story also supports the contention that the idea of character "shifted in the second half of the nineteenth century, from a mid-Victorian concern with inward spirituality, to a coarser Edwardian preoccupation with physical hardship The shift to questioning his heroism was largely triggered by Roland Huntford's popular biography, as he "saw only deceit in Scott's last message, the shameful self-justification of a man who had led his comrades to disaster.
In conclusion, Jones states that the extraordinary response to the death of Captain Scott in February was generated by the "conjunction of an exceptional set of circumstances: the unique place of the South Pole in the public imagination; the particular stage of development of transport and communications, where cables carried news of the disaster around the world in a matter of hours, but an assault on the Pole relied on animals and men; and Scott's skill at articulating the heroic fantasies of his generation Scott's genius was to present the assault on the Pole as a heroic sacrifice for an age which venerated struggle.
Anyone who has an interest in the subject will find this a stimulating read, and it has certainly added to my understanding of the wider context in which Scott and his companions lived and died. For this featureless spot on the surface of the earth where scientific curiosity and romantic imagination collide, retains its allure. And in our jaded, disorienting times, some will always seek enchantment in the south with Captain Scott, turning the pages of the last great quest.
Apr 01, Alison Slade rated it really liked it Shelves: books-i-own. Very interesting. I was expecting more about the actual expedition, but it mostly focussed on the history of how it came about and the aftermath. A lot of things I didn't know about the effect Scott's death had on the public and the scientific aims of the expedition. Dec 08, John Hancock rated it really liked it. Yet his popularity had waned in the s after his unsuccessful voyage up the River Zambesi.
The Reverend Horace Waller's skilful editing of Livingstone's last journals did much to restore the heroic reputation of the most famous of the great Victorian explorers. Many writers have mused on modern Antarctic life, but Sarah Wheeler's Terra Incognita is my favourite.
Wheeler skilfully interweaves accounts of the heroic exploits of the polar pioneers with observations from her own experience venturing into the very male environment of Antarctica in the s. Cook's meticulous account of his voyages in the Pacific between and is a monument to a distinctively Enlightenment sensibility.
Robert Falcon Scott
In marked contrast to Captain Scott's journal, the people and environment of the Pacific are the central actors, rather than the explorer's own character. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard The title of Cherry-Garrard's account of Scott's last Antarctic expedition refers not to the polar journey, but to the trek he endured with Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers in search of the eggs of the emperor penguin.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe The Right Stuff brilliantly captures the mentality of the first American astronauts and the nation which venerated their exploits at the height of the cold war. Scott's Last Expedition Vol I: The Journals of Captain RF Scott Captain Scott's last journals remain the ultimate expression of a particular type of expedition narrative, in which the journey to a distant land becomes a journey into the self.
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Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion A mesmerising collection of essays exploring California in the s by one of America's greatest writers, on topics ranging from murder trials to the movies of John Wayne. South: the Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackleton Shackleton may not have written as well as Scott, but his astonishing tale of survival after the destruction of his ship Endurance in the Antarctic remains the most dramatic adventure story in the annals of exploration.