Polar explorers wives: New book tells their story

Eva Sars Nansen with husband Fridtjof Nansen. Picture: Contributed
Eva Sars Nansen with husband Fridtjof Nansen. Picture: Contributed
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THE wives of the great Polar explorers were astonishing in their own right, but they were eclipsed by the exploits of their spouses. Now a new book tells their amazing stories.

As the little whaling steamer the Kite left Brooklyn dock for the Arctic on 6 June, 1891, it wasn’t Polar explorer Robert Peary the crowds were craning their necks to see, but the elegant woman who stood at his side. Unlike most 19th- century wives, Jo was unwilling to sit at home while her husband wandered the uncharted icy wastelands of the Far North, so she joined him on his expedition to Greenland. Her decision was resented by the other crew members who regarded her as encumbrance, but Jo was to prove herself an asset. Not only did she nurse her husband when his leg was injured, but she learned to survive in the wilderness and could hunt with the best of them. On one occasion, she sat calmly reloading the men’s guns as a herd of angry walruses tried to capsize their boat. More astonishing still, when she returned to the Arctic the following year, after a break, she gave birth to Marie, known as the snow baby, and nursed her through a long, dark Arctic winter before Peary eventually persuaded her to board a transport ship back to the US.

Captain Scott, taken by Herbert Ponting (1910-13) Picture: NME London

Captain Scott, taken by Herbert Ponting (1910-13) Picture: NME London

Jo Peary was not the only explorer’s wife to defy convention. Before she met and married Robert Falcon, Kathleen Scott, a sculptor, who was friends with Rodin and George Bernard Shaw, had volunteered in Macedonia, nursing victims of Turkish brutality. Eva Nansen, wife of Fridtjof, was an opera singer and world-class skier who campaigned for the right of women to compete in the sport on the same basis as men. And then there was Lady Jane Franklin, who, during the 1830s, used her husband John’s title and fame to secure her passage through Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. Later, after he disappeared while exploring the last unknown swaths of the Northwest Passage, she spent 15 years lobbying the government and raising money for a succession of expeditions to search for him. When one, led by Francis McLintock in 1858, discovered incontrovertible evidence of his death, she successfully campaigned for the erection of several public memorials to honour his achievements.

The women who married Polar explorers were astonishing in their own right. Some were drawn to risk-taking heroes because it gave them status, some because it allowed them to live vicariously and some because it gave them access to experiences that would otherwise be denied them. What they have in common is that, despite the strength of their own personalities, their stories have been eclipsed by the exploits of their spouses.

Now, however, traveller and writer Kari Herbert – herself the daughter of Polar explorers, Wally and Marie Herbert – has written a book, Heart of the Hero, documenting the lives of seven of the most interesting: Jo, Kathleen, Eva, Ernest Shackleton’s wife Emily, Franklin’s first wife, the poet Eleanor Anne Porden, Jane and her own mother, Marie, in an attempt to understand their hopes and fears and to ensure their contribution is not forgotten.

The book is to be launched on Scott’s ship The Discovery in Dundee today, the centenary of Scott’s memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, by Kari, who is staying at Channings Hotel in Edinburgh – the Shackletons’ townhouse home during the years when Ernest was the secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Kathleen Kennet. Formerly the wife of Robert Falcon Scott. Picture: Getty

Kathleen Kennet. Formerly the wife of Robert Falcon Scott. Picture: Getty

The Herberts travelled in the footsteps of the Pearys, exploring the extremities of Greenland in the late 1960s and early 70s. Wally was the first man to walk undisputed to the North Pole (Peary’s claim to have walked there having been contested by Wally himself) and led the first and only surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean. He and Marie spent much time living with the Inuit tribes as Wally travelled 23,000 miles with dog teams and open boats. He spent more than 50 years exploring before retiring, with Marie, to the Scottish Highlands.

Setting off on their adventures almost half a century after Robert Peary’s death, however, Marie’s decision to travel with her husband was never really questioned. Kari spent so much of her early childhood in Greenland that her first language was Inkutun. When Wally was not on one of his expeditions he looked after Kari and her sister so their mother could work. In 1972, Marie spent six months with Sami reindeer herders in Lapland on their winter migration and wrote a book about her experiences.

“Growing up in a polar family I could see the daily issues my mother faced – the loneliness, the excitement and the very unusual life we led,” says Kari, who is married to broadcaster and historian, Huw Lewis-Jones, and who is planning to take her own two-year-old daughter on an Arctic trip soon.

“I had grown up on stories of polar exploration – my father was a huge fan of Jo Peary – and having watched the interplay between my parents, I became intrigued by other explorers’ wives. Were they all as extraordinary?”

American polar explorer Robert E. Peary. Picture: AP

American polar explorer Robert E. Peary. Picture: AP

What Kari discovered was a group of women who were both attracted to and singularly able to cope with the vitality and obsessions of these adventurers. “I think some of the women did want to live vicariously, but it was also about the attraction of a certain kind of personality,” she says. “These men had an incredible energy and sense of purpose and I think it takes a certain kind of woman to feel they want to join hands with someone like that, because it’s going to be a challenging as well as exciting existence.”

The explorers were the knights of their time, both metaphorically and often literally. Winning the hand of one could bring a woman much kudos and see her elevated into the highest society.

But the celebrity that proved so attractive also had its pitfalls; the explorers were never short of admirers and many strayed. Emily Shackleton was devastated by her husband’s frequent dalliances, while Jo Peary suffered the indignity of having to spend an Arctic winter holed up in a ship with her husband’s Inuit mistress and illegitimate child, after an attempt to rescue him went wrong.

In this age of satellite phones, it is hard to conceive that these women spent years unable to speak to their husbands and unsure if they would ever see them again.

“Emily Shackleton [the most domestic of the wives] found the lifestyle hardest to bear because of the attraction of other women and the long periods of absences,” Kari says. But in many ways Jo Peary’s plight was the more poignant. “She wrote a letter while she was on the boat saying these were the ‘darkest days’ of her life. That part of Greenland is one of the most desolate places in the Arctic. The challenge of surviving would have been great enough, but being reminded on a daily basis that your husband has been unfaithful when you’ve got no way of getting in contact with him and you don’t even know if he’s alive, it’s awful.”

If Kari does not diminish the suffering of the women, nor does she portray them as saints. The excerpts she includes from their letters range from Kathleen Scott’s almost rash appeal to her husband to take whatever risks he wanted to Jo Peary’s whining at being left at home. It is also clear that, embarrassed by his disappointing tenure as lieutenant-governor of Tasmania, Jane Franklin bullied her husband into undertaking his last expedition, an expedition he was neither physically nor psychologically equipped for.

Regardless of their foibles, the women were remarkable for their loyalty, their stoicism and their determination. Those who outlived their husbands, Kathleen, Jo, Marie and Jane went on achieving after their deaths. Kathleen partied and sculpted, Marie went on writing and speaking, while Jane returned to her travels. In her seventies, she rode in bullock carts over a mountain road in Chile and encountered wild horsemen in Patagonia.

But perhaps their greatest achievement was the furtherance of human knowledge. The many Arctic expeditions Franklin initiated may have uncovered little information about the circumstances of her husband’s death, but they led to the exploration of more than 40,000 square miles of new territory and the mapping of 8,000 miles of coastline. Others contributed to polar exploration by supporting their husband’s efforts.

At the age of 92, Jo Peary was awarded the National Geographic Society’s gold medal. In an acceptance speech on her mother’s behalf, Marie Peary said Jo had sent Robert off on his travels each time “with pride and belief in her face for everyone to see, saying: ‘Of course, you’ll do it.’ And when you send a man off like that, he just can’t fail.”


Jo Peary née Diebitsch

• In 1888, she married Robert Peary, the American explorer who in 1909 would make disputed claim to have led the first expedition to reach the geographic North Pole.

Kathleen Scott née Bruce

• Married Captain Robert Scott less than four years before his 1912 death in Antarctica. Gave birth to a son, Peter, in 1909.

Eva Nansen née Sars

• In September 1889 she married Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who reached a record northern latitude of 86° 14’ during his North Pole expedition of 1893–96.

Emily Shackleton née Dorman

• Married the explorer in 1904, by which time he had already been to Antarctica under Captain Scott. They had three children.

Eleanor Anne Franklin née Porden

• Met her future husband John Franklin in 1818 before his departure on a polar expedition, and married him on his return in 1823. She died of TB two years later, a year after the birth of their daughter.

Lady Jane Franklin née Griffin

• A friend of her husband’s late wife Eleanor, she married Arctic explorer Franklin three years after he was widowed.

Marie Herbert née McGaughey

• Wally Herbert, the British polar explorer, became the first man to walk undisputed to the North Pole in 1969. Shortly after his return he married Marie.