Shackleton and the heroic ideal

The lost virtue of manliness

Some of the crew of the Quest before it left England

As a writer and historian of polar exploration who’s spent my professional life researching expeditions in archive collections, I’m familiar with the nineteenth century tropes of courage and heroism. Fictionalising these events for a modern teen audience (my latest book is Shackleton’s Endurance) I’ve been beguiled by the manliness of these intrepid explorers, an appreciation that feels dangerous in today’s environment of gender equality, shifting male and female roles, and trans rights. Without doubt, there’s been a seismic change in cultural ideas of manliness in recent decades. But a century ago, the role of a “manly” man was clear.

One letter, dated 15 July 1921 and held in the archive at the Scott Polar Research Institute, struck a particular chord during my research. It begins conventionally enough:

“Dear Sir, I trust you will forgive the liberty of my writing to you personally, I wish to ask if it is possible that my friend and I may be allowed to join the glorious Shackleton and Rowett expedition?”

At first glance, there is little to distinguish this letter. Clearly, many thousands of similarly pleading missives would have crossed the desk of the famed Antarctic explorer as he considered the staffing requirements of his forthcoming expedition.

As well as claiming the virtues of youth and strength, the letter’s author goes on to list a range of relevant skills, including medical training, that might be considered an asset on the ice. And who would overlook a couple of applicants who professed to be unafraid of hard work, were prepared to face any hardship and take on any task – even cooking and sewing? The fact that a salary was not sought would surely have sealed the deal for any perennially cash-strapped explorer.

(As far as recruitment was concerned, Shackleton was not known for his rigorous selection process. Raymond Priestley, expecting full scrutiny of his geology credentials, remembers being asked only two things: Could he sing? and would he know gold if he saw it? Shackleton also admitted to hiring meteorologist Leonard Hussey because he “looked funny”.)

But the letter’s final plea put paid to the author’s hopes of making the cut.

“Please do give us a sporting chance and don’t rule us out just because we are women.”

The hoots of laughter can only be imagined. That two hospital-trained nurses were offering to do “just about anything”, would have resulted in ribald suggestions from the laddish brigade at the expedition office. For polar exploration was the ultimate boy’s club, and despite the best efforts of Betty Robson (Miss) of Huddersfield, Antarctica was to remain a woman-less continent for a long time.

As a novelist, the lack of women isn’t a terrific starting point if you’re writing a romance, but such constraints do little to disrupt adventure literature. I like to keep things simple. I know where the boundaries lie even if I refuse to sanitise the truth. Filth, blood and guts and bad behaviour make it into my books, and death plays its part, even if sex doesn’t. And a century on from that letter, I confess it feels safer to write about male explorers of an earlier era, because even though women explorers have now claimed their place in the polar regions, gender divisions have become fraught in a different way, and battle lines are no longer clear. Writing about the past, I feel better able to cut away the nationalistic and masculinist biases of the time, so that all that’s left is a terrific story.

In children’s polar literature there’s been a long tradition of portraying male heroes as idealised individuals with none of the subtleties, flaws and foibles of real-life people (just think of the rewritings of the Captain Scott narrative). In traditional depictions of heroism, much is made of the Victorian ideal of calm acceptance in the face of suffering. Look no further than Lawrence Oates, but even this perceived heroism refers back to ancient medieval ideals of “ars moriendi” or dying well. I find heroic death a hard sell these days in a teen market that’s grown up with the concept of death-less cartoon or big-screen superheroes.

My young readers are more likely to engage if I place my explorers’ heroic deeds in the context of the protagonist as a man rather than a hero, a human being with fallibility and flaws. I can let rip with a good yarn provided I deploy a “nobody’s perfect” approach. My research into diaries, letters and expedition narratives from archives and personal collections around the world has shown me that, when pushed to the brink, real heroes can present the worst versions of themselves. And rather than offering our children a safer, sanitised version of events, I believe this human angle makes the achievements of a man like Shackleton more relatable to a modern audience.

But it’s a fine line to tread. While as a writer I’m excited by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, famed for being the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, if I was a parent looking for role models, I’d think twice before sharing his story. For a start, he lured people onto his expedition by lying that they were heading to the Arctic, only revealing their destination was the Antarctic (a 16,000km further south) once they had set sail. Deceitful, proud, bitter, at times ungracious and unjust, Amundsen also displayed on occasion that unforgivable trait – cowardice: instructing his men to undertake the unpleasantness of butchering sledge dogs when he found the task all too heart-rending. (But that didn’t stop him eating them afterwards.)

It wasn’t merely on the great white continent that the collective barbarism of Antarctic explorers played out unchecked. Wives in Britain were abandoned for years at a stretch, starved of news, dangerously short on cash, and in sole charge of offspring

Today, Amundsen would face a long list of criminal charges on his return, as well as personal grievance suits. The British too, for all those untrained, ill-equipped, and inadequately clothed young hires (yes, all men), who were forced to carry out their duties in life-threatening conditions, and without being paid overtime. Among the lads themselves, indignities and insults were commonplace. Even relatively senior members of expeditions were subject to abuse and bullied by colleagues. (Shackleton’s carpenter Harry McNish was even threatened with execution, for refusing to follow orders. Name-calling was de rigueur, and nicknames were cruel. Nobody asked the cook, Charles Green, if he was okay about being called Doughballs, a humiliating label drawing attention to his missing testicle and corresponding high-pitched voice. As for Adolf Lindstrom, Roald Amundsen’s roly-poly polar chef, the name Fatty might not be representative of his stellar achievements (among other things he was the first person to circumnavigate the Americas) but it’s the name by which history remembers him.

The animal kingdom copped it too. Polar pioneers massacred penguins in their thousands, butchered pregnant seals and, when circumstances dictated, savagely beat their dogs, and worked their ponies to death. Who can forget Mrs Chippy, the poor unfortunate cat aboard the Endurance, shot through the head?

It wasn’t merely on the great white continent that the collective barbarism of Antarctic explorers played out unchecked. Wives in Britain were abandoned for years at a stretch, starved of news, dangerously short on cash, and in sole charge of offspring. Many were expected to keep up the degrading task of fundraising once their menfolk had sailed for British glory, often heavily in debt. For the men, buggering off had never looked easier.

Would I have liked Roald Amundsen the person? I don’t think so. Do I admire him? Hugely. As a writer I find myself utterly captivated by this brilliant and uncompromising polar explorer precisely because of his moral ambiguity. But my views on what constitutes a good story for children or the exemplary qualities it contains in terms of human achievement could be disputed. So why do I celebrate such individuals? Why hold up their exploits as being somehow exemplary? Why forge a writing career around the deeply unfashionable topic of white men conquering new lands?

Firstly, I believe it is still desirable to show grit and physical courage, to be tenacious, to have a dauntless spirit, to be hopeful in the face of adversity, to be indomitable until the end. In short, to take the rough with the smooth. Secondly, to refuse to acknowledge the truly astonishing nature of these men’s achievements because women were actively excluded from taking part in polar exploration, or animals were hurt, or young people were wilfully put in harm’s way, or the rent wasn’t paid, would be ludicrous. Overall, it’s humanity rather than classical heroism I seek to highlight in these narratives. Thirdly, polar regions present a writer with a dream setting: a place stripped of all comfort and familiarity, an environment outside of time in which individuals face death on a daily basis. Under such conditions people cannot hide from themselves, or their companions. The truth will out. And sometimes it is downright ugly.

Historically speaking, we’ve bestowed honours on some deplorable characters, men who freely employed cruelty and oppression to prosecute their aims. Thankfully, you’d be hard pressed to dump the men in my books in the same camp. I would indeed feel less enthusiastic about panegyrising polar pioneers if the conquest of the great white continent involved the subjugation of an indigenous population, the confiscation of land and natural resources. In this respect I feel on safer ground. But something tells me my polar heroes might be next.

Joanna Grochowicz is a polar historian and author of several non-fiction children’s/YA novels about the human aspirations and tragedies of early polar exploration. Her latest, “Shackleton’s Endurance: an Antarctic Survival Story”, is out now (Murdoch, £7.99)

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Herbert Huppert
    21 October 2021 8:07 PM

    Great article. Raises a lot of interesting and difficult matters. What are the attitudes of today which will be viewed with disdain in one hundred years’ time?

  • Avatar
    Taylor Natalie
    22 October 2021 5:30 AM

    Wonderful piece of writing .
    I would readily forgive their barbarism and thoughtlessness for each other . When humans are under immense strain they resort to using any energy , wit for survival . We are animal after all .
    Whilst working in A &E and dealing with very tricky situations and sudden deaths , many staff resorted to an inappropriate sense of humour away from the patients . Totally inappropriate, but sometimes it helped a bit as we moved on to the next job . I look back as an empathetic person and think how did I make a joke then, but now realise I had to to mentally survive.

  • Love this. It encapsulates my feelings about them as well. For all their flaws they achieved great things. We love humans not because of their flaws but in spite of them, for their greater qualities


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