Why did you decide to write Polar Wives?
From the age of just ten months, I made my first journey to the Arctic. From then on, if we were not in a remote part of the world, we were back in England, surrounded by polar artefacts, books and memorabilia. Naturally, with an explorer as a father, stories of historic polar expeditions became my bedtime reading, and ever since I have been fascinated by the lives of other explorers and their families. It amazed me that no-one had highlighted the roles of the wives our polar heroes, such as Josephine Peary and Jane Franklin – both adventurous and accomplished women in their own right – who made a significant difference to their husband's careers.
How did your childhood experiences, of both your mother and father exploring, affect your research of the book?
I grew up watching my father chasing his dreams, my mother alongside him whenever possible, applauding his vision even when it meant periods of great loneliness, financial strain and concern for his safety. Even given the numerous trials that my parents faced over the years, theirs was an enviable marriage in many respects, one built on tremendous respect, friendship and a combined love of adventure. I was fascinated to discover how the subjects of my book dealt with similar situations.
What sets these stories apart from the every-day is the intensity of the experiences and the emotions: love was profound; anxiety and loneliness became crippling; their journeys were epic ordeals, at times almost mythic. Fear and hope accompanied every stage of their relationships. Of course there were elements of all their lives that were as normal as anyone else’s – they had their concerns about money and the happiness of their children. These heroes, it is important to remember, were fathers, husbands, sons and brothers, and like the rest of us, wanted to find their place in the world. Personally, I see their exploits as all the more extraordinary because of their humanity.
Would you call this an inherently feminist book? Wives of explorers were traditionally less celebrated than their male companions. What makes their stories just as inspiring and empowering?
This book is a celebration of these women in many ways, of their strength and resilience, as well as their unsung contribution to exploration. But I can safely say that none of them would have wanted to be seen as feminists, just as women doing their ‘job’ well.
Coming from a modern viewpoint, it is often hard to appreciate how different attitudes were to marriage and self-fulfilment in the past. Although of different eras, origins and backgrounds, the seven women whose stories are retold here, each shared the belief that their men had a vital life mission to complete. Unlike the mythical figure of Penelope (to whom almost all would be compared), who waited impotently for some sign that her lover was to return safely, each woman in one way or another encouraged her husband to seek out the unknown. In varying degrees, each woman embodied a range of roles beyond those normally expected of a spouse: manager, publicist, mother figure, fundraiser, nurse, counsellor, and most importantly, muse. Driven by love, pride and a fierce loyalty, they each developed a bond with their husbands that transcended time, place and expectation. These stories, I think, are immensely inspiring and empowering.
Some of the book’s content comes from your research within old journals or diaries. Given that many of these were written during the Victorian and Georgian eras – a time of great modesty and reservation – did you have to read between the lines?
Wherever possible I used original sources for this book. The old journals and letters were often surprisingly revealing and forthright. The personal papers I discovered were never meant for public examination, so there was more freedom in the language than would have been used otherwise. I felt a keen sense of responsibility to only use material that I felt was illuminating, but not damaging. As my father always said, be honest, but be kind.
One of the women featured in the book is your mother, Marie Herbert. Can you tell us a little about the experience of hearing your mother’s story?
I lived with my mother’s story, and witnessed the interplay between her and my father, so I thought I had it sussed, but I have to admit that I saw a very different side to them both when I read personal letters and journals which under normal circumstances a daughter would not necessarily see! I had no idea how much pressure my mother was under when my father was out in the wilds to keep the sponsors happy, and to keep my father’s spirits up.
What are some of your favourite stories from the book? Can you give a few examples?
I think the most moving moments include the time that Jo Peary and her young daughter Marie found themselves trapped in one of the most inhospitable areas of the Arctic for an entire winter while trying to save Peary from a failed expedition – Peary, just 250 miles away, was completely ignorant of their situation. Not only did Jo have to keep her daughter and crew safe during the winter, but also had to deal with heart-breaking revelations about her husband.
The poignancy of Kathleen Scott’s adventures in the USA and Mexico in 1913 also stayed with me. Having heard that Amundsen had beaten her husband to the Pole, Kathleen decided to travel to New Zealand to meet Scott on his return. The news of Scott’s death hit London just days after her departure, but no-one knew how to contact Kathleen, who was travelling south through America, riding with cowboys, plucking oranges off trees as she rode past, and leaving her horse tethered at a train station before riding on a steam engine into Mexico. It was many days later that the news finally caught up with her on a ship off the coast of Tahiti.
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