I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
On the 8th of February 1913 readers of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette would have read on the back page:
The Central News says the Terra Nova [the ship that took Captain Scott and his Antarctic Expedition to the southern ice] has arrived more than a month earlier… in consequence of a serious calamity having overtaken the expedition. The exact nature and extent of the calamity is not yet known, but the Central News regrets to learn that it is of a grave character. Further details are awaited with the utmost anxiety.
By the 10th of February the Evening Telegraph, reminding its readers that:
The perils of such a journey as Scott’s are manifold. A slip down a crevasse…blizzard…cloudy weather.
put its report under the headline of All Perished.
It was not until the 14th of February that the Luton Times and Advertiser was able to report in more detail that:
Captain Robert F. Scott, commander of the British Antarctic Expedition, has perished in the wastes of the Ross Barrier, together with four of his comrades, while struggling back from the South Pole…They were weakened by lack of food, and when they pitched their tent for the last time…Fuel for one hot meal and food for two days remained.
Thus in these six days the British public learned of the fate of Captain Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.
The hagiography was there from the beginning. The Luton Times and Advertiser noted that:
…when death seemed very near Captain Scott committed to his diary a last message to the British public. The message rings with the courage and fortitude of the man.
The personal cost too was highlighted. The Yorkshire Evening Post of the 10th of February, under the headlines “Mrs. Scott’s Sorrow – World-Wide Sympathy in Her Loss – Not Yet Heard the News,” reminded its readers that:
The sympathy of the nation will go out to Mrs. Scott, who left England last month for New Zealand, in the expectation of meeting her husband.
She has not reached New Zealand, so she has not heard the news.
Perhaps with one eye on posterity, it included:
Geographers in this country have emphasised from the first that Captain Scott’s expedition was not intended merely as a dash to the Pole… The expedition comprised scientists who were expected to throw light upon different phenomena of the Antarctic…
How did the nation express its mourning for its national hero? On the 20th of February the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser informed its readers that the total of Captain Scott Fund was now £20,000, including donations from the King and Queen. Expressed in terms of comparative income value this would today be worth £9,378,000.
Captain Scott’s fame continued to grow, with notable peaks in the 1930s and 1950s (The Worst Journey in the World was republished by Penguin in 1937). Cue a Google Ngram:
Somewhere in this splendid array of data is the talk given by the Rev. H. G. Johnson, and reported by the Portsmouth Evening News on the 24th of October 1938, to the Cosham Brotherhood on The Worst Journey in the World. He was quoted as saying, proudly I am sure:
We are members of the race that produced a Scott, a Wilson, a Bowers and an Evans.
Since then, Scott has bounced through a succession of cynical ages.
Growing up in an Edwardian age that distinguished between love and being in love, Apsley Cherry-Garrard as a man loved Scott, as a man, despite of and for all his faults. Compared to them, and their companions in the various base camps on that southern ice, we are indeed a sorry and sordid lot, obsessed with side-boobs, cellulite and sexting. What group of men could today could spend two years in uncomfortable isolation without swearing, talking about sex or slipping into such levels of irony that any enriching conversation becomes impossible? Damnit, where are the heroes? I plot a strong but lonely (1,0).
Next time, Hilaire Belloc’s The Path To Rome and G. K. Chesterton’s Autobiography.