Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Through the Eyes of the Women They Left Behind by Katherine MacInnes

Review by Liz Dexter

“I have chased the Snow Widows through dusty attics and auction rooms, and sifted them from history’s cutting room floors.”

Two mothers; three wives; a scattering of sisters. While the world concentrated its eyes, and has concentrated its memories since, on the brave men of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, what did the women connected with them go through? In this detailed and dedicated book, researched over ten years, Katherine MacInnes shows us through a fascinating present-tense narrative arrangement that triangulates where they were with what others saw and what they wrote and communicated, running in parallel with a detailed narrative of the journey itself, in all its grim trials and tribulations, and even with Amundsen’s successful expedition at times, and with the reporting in the papers, national and international. 

It’s a testament to that decade of research that the narratives of the women never feel forced or conjectural. I’m a dislike of the “she must have thought this” school of work and this book doesn’t do this: in fact, it risks drowning in the sea of letters, diaries, interviews and reports it uses. MacInnes cleverly navigates these risks and keeps things lively, swapping between the women and their men day by day – which is almost literally painful in the contrast between waiting, cheerful women and men fraying and reaching the ends of their strength. 

MacInnes has already written a biography of Oriana Wilson, and she and Kathleen Scott are perhaps the best-recorded figures here. There is much less record of Lois Evans, wife of the only non-officer and living in actual poverty at many points in the narrative; MacInnes cleverly brings out the class implications in this, and highlights the different way in which Taff and Lois were treated in their respective lives and his afterlife: Lois was not portrayed in the film put out immediately after the expedition and was given a far lower payment than the other women, as well as having to endure the myth that her husband, the first to perish, wrecked the expedition. As well as this class lens, the story is set through a gender lens against the wider story of women’s struggle for the vote and the Royal Geographical Society’s “Lady Question” of whether to admit women to be Fellows of the RGS (we’re told in a footnote that the RGS took the opportunity upon Scott’s death to delay the election of the first women Fellows for 20 years!).

We follow the women and their men through the voyage out, the time in the Antarctic, with news coming through with months’, even years’, delays, the final terrible news and the aftermath of discussion, hagiography, blame and fundraising for the families (as Scott requested in his final message). All sorts of people are woven into the story, from other explorers to hosts and friends in New Zealand, some lives full of pomp and flirtation, some narrowed to poverty and gleaning scraps. The fact is that some of the women really did not like each other and some of the wives of other expedition members: Kathleen Scott in particular was really scathing about 

The pathetic expedition wives here tonight [who] seem intent upon ruining the whole programme with their terrible selfishness. The point of women is to incite men to high endeavour, not to shackle them with being safe.

On the other hand, it’s pleasing to find Emily Bowers and Caroline Oates became friends for life after meeting in this context.

The structure of the book is painstakingly done, the main sections set against a performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61 at the Queen’s Hall in London with the soloist Fritz Kreisler, the movements echoing the ebb and flow of a long expedition. As MacInnes slips between the narratives of the women and men, there are direct links and echoes – Emily Bowers sings the infant Birdie a song and he sings it in a storm in the next section and a pudding appears in two places at Christmas. This makes the text flow well and not seem disjointed. It really is a miracle of stitching together. The most effective place this is done is during the reporting of the final moments of the expedition team (of course long-dead by that point) when Kathleen Scott is on a ship sailing across the Pacific – sailing directly over the telegraph cables that are carrying the news. 

A sometimes startling, occasionally grim (animal-lovers may need to look away at points; although we know they took and didn’t return with ponies and dogs, the details are meticulous at all points in this book) and always meticulously observed book that deserves its place standing alongside the male-orientated narratives we already have. 

A full and detailed set of illustrations on plates in the centre of the book complements the text beautifully. There’s of course a good index, bibliography organised per woman subject and no fewer than 912 notes. It’s a lovely, big and beautifully produced volume; even the endpapers are stunning.

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Liz Dexter loves to read about places and activities she would cheerfully never visit or undertake. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Katherine MacInnes, Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition Through the Eyes of the Women They Left Behind (William Collins, 2022). ‎ 978-0008394653, 497pp., ill. hardback.

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