p. 17, re Belgica winter in 1897: They read and reread books on navigation and lighthouses, played whist, listened to records, told stale jokes—anything to break the monotony. They ached like teenagers for a glimpse of a woman. [Cook, First Antarctic Night, p. 250, 252]
p. 35: The ordinariness of the heroes did not diminish their popularity. If anything, this made them even more admirable. If Franklin had to resort to chewing his boots, this act revealed not his desperation but his plucky resourcefulness. In fact, the term “pluck” came to signify the most admired quality of the polar explorers—especially for those who were English. It compensated for their shortcomings and mistakes. “Pluck” was also a character trait that many readers could relate to—unlike great courage or stamina.
p. 36, on Franklin on his overland journey: The image of Franklin as a kindly and considerate commander who always put the welfare of his men first, who read Dante’s descriptions of hell for consolation around a crackling campfire and who exemplified what Parry described as “Christian confidence in the Almighty of the superiority of moral and religious energy over mere brute strength of body,” struck a resonating chord in the minds and hearts of his countrymen. He was their kind of hero.
p. 36-37, Parry’s diversions in winter quarters: Parry had stopping [sic] keeping his diary because the days were so monotonously uneventful that there was no point in describing them. He would spare his readers a retelling of this interminable boredom—although doing so also enable him to avoid mentioning the complaints from is sailors about their inadequate winter clothing: Parry had neglected to bring along any fur-lined coats [sic].
…plays where sailors in drag had extolled the virtue of their patiently waiting wives. S had the gay observance of all possible holidays, including Valentine’s Day, when poems disavowing erotic love were read aloud to howls of laughter. (“Cupid! Fond of unity / Our boreal community / Defies you with impunity / Your arrows and your bow”). So had classes in reading and writing, as well as regular scripture readings, designed to “improve the character of a seaman, by furnishing the highest motives for increased attention to every other duty.”
p. 60: There can be no greater wear on a man’s mind and patience than this life in the pack…. The absolute monotony; the unchanging round of hours; the awakening to the same things and the same conditions one saw just before losing one’s self to sleep; the same faces; the same dogs; the same ice; the same conviction that to-morrow will be exactly the same as to-day, if not more disagreeable; the absolute impotence to do anything, to go anywhere, or to change one’s situation an iota. [De Long’s Voyage of the Jeannette, 383.]
p. 86-87: Early in the age of polar exploration, commanders had come to realize that the greatest threat to a party’s well-being was having nothing to do for months at a time, particularly once the sun had dipped below the horizon, curtailing sledge excursions into the surrounding territory. Monotony and boredom sapped morale and made crews despondent. For military men, order and discipline were the keys to endurance: rituals like morning calisthenics on deck or wind springs around the ship preserved a patina of normalcy in an exceedingly abnormal existence, kept the men fit, busy and under control….
But an unvarying schedule only compounded the ennui and tedium of being stuck in the ice.
p. 123-26, on the social stratification of the British military as well as their perceived superiority over the savage natives: The British military was as class conscious as any other social institution, if not more so: the distinctions between officers and enlisted men or sailors paralleled those separating aristocratic “gentlemen” from lesser males. They were, in effect, two categories of men—each with strictly defined standards for breeding, education, manners, cultivation, and social behavior, as well as character. On ships of the Royal Navy, this translated into two spheres of living. Officers and ordinary seaman had separate rooms, and enjoyed separate social activities…. Segregation was deemed essential for efficient functioning, but also for upholding the social hierarchy. However, under certain circumstances, sticking to such rules could seem ridiculous and detrimental to overall well-being…. In 1912, Scott’s so-called Northern Party, consisting of three officers and three enlisted men, was forced to seek refuge for half a year inside a tiny snow cave, near a granite outcropping they whimsically; dubbed “Inexpressible Island.” After they had finished digging it out, the officer in charge, Lieutenant Victor Campbell, drew a line with the sole of his boot to demarcate the sailor’s underground quarters from those of the three officers (the “quarterdeck”). Although each section was within earshot of the other, the two groups agreed that what was said on one side of the line would not be “heard” on the other. But the sordid realities of their confinement made a farce out of such artificial partitioning. Said the party’s surgeon, George Levick, “You cannot watch one of your naval officers vomiting, shitting on himself, and wetting his sleeping bag and hold him in quite the same awe and esteem.”
p. 125: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was fittingly on many explorers’ reading lists. Fridtjof Nansen made a nightly habit of reading from it as he was readying for a trek to the North Pole in 1895. A few years later, Edward Wilson would read aloud from Darwin’s ground-breaking opus to Scott and Shackleton while they were stuck in their Antarctic tent, waiting for the weather to improve before they could move further toward the South Pole. During their subsequent 1912 expedition, both Wilson and Scott found that Origin made for good bedtime reading.
p. 219, re Scott’s demeanor: Cherry remarked, that he had “never known anybody, man or woman, who could be so attractive when he chose” But more often he choose to be otherwise—shy remorse, introspective, and seemingly content in the evenings at Cape Evans to read novels by Galsworthy and Hardy or scribble in his journal. He was not the sort of man who would cheerfully make the rounds, stopping by bunks with an impish grin on his face to ask how the other were doing. (He was certainly not an Ernest Shackleton, who inspired genuine love and devotion among his men….)
p. 227: As a medical doctor, Cook reasoned that tension was common on long voyages like theirs [Belgica]—one of those dirty little secrets that never left the ship or made it into print. Boredom bred a “monotonous discontent” since men were forced to stare at the same faces, listen to the same jokes, and put up with the same annoying personality quirks day after day without interruption. But being new to these conditions, Cook underestimated how much linguistic and cultural barriers could stoke this smoldering anger.
p. 238, re Scott’s Northern party: Tensions between the easily annoyed career naval officer Victor Campbell (“a shy, steely Old Etonian in flight from a troubled marriage”) and several other men had been bottled up but barely concealed. With only three well-worn books at their disposal—the New Testament, David Copperfield, and Boccaccio’s Decameron—their only imaginative escape for this wintry prison was via their daydreams, or while they slept, when the visions always revolved around food, rescue—or disaster.
p. 245-46, on Scott’s Terra Nova trip: Later as commander [Scott] of the Terra Novaparty, he had stocked the ship’s library with volumes by his good friend J. M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Never Grow Up—the impish free spirit for whom Scott would name his son), Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontȅ, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a particular favorite), preferring these fictional diversions to the musty dog-eared volumes on polar expeditions entrusted to him by his mentor and fellow Royal Navy officer, Clemens Markham. (Scott read Darwin, too, but one senses he was more dismayed than enlightened by the naturalist’s depiction of the base impulses driving humankind.).
p. 253, on the growth of the nation’s readership in the nineteenth century, including in polar accounts.