This is a strong, balanced, and helpful biography of Shackleton, marred by Huntford’s invidious detestation of Scott for whom he loses no opportunity, real or speculative, to denigrate, carrying on much as he did in The Last Place on Earth.

p. 17, Shackleton as early reader: …he was still “old Shacks” always “busy with his books”. Sometimes he was working for his First Mate’s examination. More often, on his watch below, as he sat in his tiny cabin, which reverberated to the measured stamp of the ship’s engines, he was reading for pleasure. It was very rarely fiction, more often history: “A certain type of history,” as he once put it. “I read Motley’s History of the Dutch Republic…and its fascinating story of the way that little nation became a great naval power and a great colonizing race…Prescott I [also] read.”

p. 39, in April, 1901, Shackleton and Scott conferred in London about the Discovery library, as well as amateur theatricals.

p. 42-4, on Shackleton and Freemasonry, which both he and Scott joined in 1901, joining the ranks of distinguished Naval officers as well as King Edward himself.

p. 45, Hugh Robert Mill writing about Shackleton when they were sailing on the Discovery on the Bay of Biscay that summer: “To tell the truth, I was at first surprised and a little alarmed at the ceaseless flow of quotation from the poets called forth by the summer night, the stars, the phosphorescence of the sea, and the thought of those he left behind him. Nor was it altogether pleasant to find that this young sailor was already familiar with every reference which to my mind from books I had read years before his thoughts had turned that way, and with many which I had never seen.”

p. 71, quotes Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in his diary: “fear no more the furious winter’s rages… Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.” Shackleton also quotes Shelley here.

p. 71-2: Shackleton had sketched out a comprehensive plan of reading although it had nothing to do with the polar regions, for systematic preparation occurred no more to him than to his commander. “I can see no chance of doing the study I should like to during the winter,” Shackleton, however, was soon writing. The South Polar Times was absorbing his attention.

Shackleton had sketched out a comprehensive plan of reading although it had nothing to do with the polar regions, for systematic preparation occurred no more to him than to his commander. ‘I can see no chance of doing the study I should like to during the winter,’ Shackleton, however, was soon writing.’ Section on South Polar Times follows.

p. 74, May 22, 1902: Ennui had settled on the ship…. Shackleton succinctly wrote that he was “doing the same thing day after day.”

p. 90, in a Shackleton letter to Emily there were echoes of Thomas Huxley’s Lay Sermons, which he had then been reading. It was then, too, that Shackleton once more dipped into Browning, for the first time in months.

p. 92: It was a Sunday and Wilson, propped up in his sleeping bag, held a kind of church service, reading the psalms, epistle and gospel for that day. One of the psalms happened to be number forty-six, God is our Hope and Strength…. Afterwards Scott insisted on a chapter of Darwin, which was his way of scoring off Wilson. Wilson was religious, Scott the reverse. Scott had brought the Origin of Species, in Shackleton’s words, ‘to while away such days as these’. It was the bible of the agnostic. To please Scott, or in deference to his rank, it was read aloud by Shackleton and Wilson in turn.

This was Shackleton’s introduction to Darwin, reading aloud in a tent on the edge of the unknown [this during a period of great tension with Scott].

p. 97: Shackleton and Scott were soon reading The Origin ofSpecies to each other again. It was only a façade. Underneath the tension ran on….

p. 105: Back on Discovery lay a copy of Nansen’s First Crossing of Greenland. Nansen had relied ‘on the superiority of ski over every other means of transport over snow.’… Also on a Discovery bookshelf rested With Ski & Sledge over Arctic Glaciers by Sir Martin Conway.

p. 112: Wilson and Scott, meanwhile, read Darwin to each other.

p. 182—Shackleton writing for Nimrod’s shipboard magazine, TheAntarctic Petrel.

p. 232, re Edgeworth David: A bit of an actor, he regularly entertains his companions with spirited readings from Dickens. Today, naturally, it has been A Christmas Carol.

p. 244, November 6, 1902, during a field blizzard: On 6 November, the first blizzard of the journey kept them in their tents…, they stayed in their sleeping bags where, as Shackleton put it, ‘each person has a little home where he can read and write and look at the Penates & Lares brought with him’. [i.e., to pray to the deities that protect the family.]

Six years before, at the identical stage of the journey, he had also been weatherbound and reading. Then, it had been The Origin of Species out aloud to Scott; now it was Much Ado about Nothing to himself. He had allowed each man one volume for the journey. His own was Shakespeare’s comedies. Marshall took George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain; Adams, Travels in France by Arthur Young, and Wild, Dickens’ Sketches by Boz.

p. 246, November 1902: Shackleton was not surprised [by the lucky absence of crevasses]. He had already quoted his favourite Browning tag, “When things seem the worst, they turn to the best”

p. 271, near their furthest south on Shackleton’s South Pole attempt: Shackleton could not allow his companions to brood in isolation in their sleeping bags. He read aloud, with Wild, The Merchant of Venice. There, on the Antarctic ice cap in a blizzard, was surely the most outlandish stage for Shakespeare yet.

p. 384: re Dr Alexander Macklin: By his own account, like Orde Lees, it was Nansen who inspired him with the desire for polar exploration, but in his case it was through discovering by chance the two volumes of Furthest North while he was a medical student at Manchester University.

p. 429: drifting with the ice floe: Perhaps Shackleton was haunted by a tale told by Amundsen about Belgica when she was beset in the Bellingshausen Sea. Hopping from iceberg to iceberg, and island to island, Amundsen seriously thought of making for civilization in a kayak….

Shackleton also had the two green volumes of Nordenskjöld’s

Antarctic to haunt him with other echoes of the past. Nordenskjöld, being a Swede, was a moralistic man. One of his aims now, as the citizen of a neutral state, was to prevent future wars by rewriting school textbooks to encourage peace. On the other hand, as Shackleton knew from personal acquaintance, he was intellectually honest. Nordenskjöld had not cheated with his own experience in order to present a heroic vision. Antarctic was no simple schoolboy tale of derring-do; it was a rich guide to a vital store of other men’s experience.

Nor was Nordenskjöld a selfish man. He had let his men tell their own tales. His book contained Larsen’s own record of how Antarctic fared in the selfsame Weddell Sea. With the bare bones of the tale, of course, Shackleton was familiar. Antarctic had sunk. Her crew had escaped. It was in the manner of the deed, the way of leadership, that the lesson lay. “A seaman who loses his sense of humour and courage in the hour of need,” Larsen had written in his diary as he watched Antarctic slowly being crushed by the ice, “ought really not to go to sea.”


p. 461: Macklin was not so fortunate [as Hurley in being able to keep 150 negatives]. ‘I wish I had realized that we were not going to make a dash for land,’ he wrote regretfully, ‘for I would have brought my Diary and my Bible, both of which I value highly’.

p. 463: In their sleeping bags, to which they often fled to escape the raw, creeping dampness of spring in the pack, Shackleton, as he had been doing since his Hoghton Tower days, determinedly quoted Browning. Despite this, Hurley expressed ‘great admiration for the boss—who is ever considerate & kindly disposed—an excellent comrade’, and retaliated by reading Keats out loud.

To himself, Shackleton was reading Kinglake’s Eothen, one of the motley volumes salvaged from the ship; ‘a charming book’, as he put it. An ice floe, drifting like a colossal raft over uncharted waters, was an odd background for a famous Victorian chronicle of Middle Eastern travel. Helpless in a gale, Shackleton could get an ironic satisfaction out of Kinglake’s Turkish Pasha chanting ‘whiz! Whiz! All by steam!’ in admiration of English technical mastery over nature.

p. 467: Greenstreet was just then re-reading Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic.* [Footnote: One of the books rescued from Endurance. Others included the first seven volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Carlyle’s French Revolution, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering.] What impressed Greenstreet about Larsen’s tale of the wreck of the Antarctic was that, when Larsen got his crew ashore on Paulet Island, his first concern was to gather food for the winter….

p. 468: 5 December a holiday: McNeish was in his sleeping bag, reading McClintock’s The Voyage of the ‘Fox’….

p. 492: Worsley tried to escape from his depression by burying himself in polar history, in particular Amundsen’s North West Passage; as he put it, ‘a well written most modest account of a well conceived enterprise’.

p. 493: They had hardly any carbohydrates or fibre left at all. Worsley had read in the Encyclopaedia Britannica how Nansen and Johansen had lived for months healthily on bear and walrus meat, Eskimo fashion….

p. 503-04: For Shackleton, the auguries were enigmatic. In his scanty personal belongings was a page from the Book of Job with the verses (38, 29-30): ‘Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.’ This he had torn from the Bible presented by Queen Alexandra to Endurance. He had also kept the page with the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; and the flyleaf inscribed by Queen Alexandra….

Because of the weight, Shackleton had abandoned the rest of the volume when Endurance had foundered. What he did not know was that McLeod, the old Scottish shellback, had secretly retrieved it. To him, throwing a Bible away would bring bad luck.

One of the few books knowingly brought with them was Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic, for it held the tale of Larsen’s voyage from Paulet Island to Snow Hill.

Plate opp. p. 33, Shackleton’s cabin on board Endurance, with a typewriter, five shelves of books including what looks like the Britannica 11th edition.