It's a common rhetorical device to praise the women who've stood by, beside, and sometimes behind men of great achievement, particularly explorers. Yet all too often this is merely a form of dismissal through praise, and has the effect of obscuring the distinctive talents and achievements of women who have weathered storms of their own as severe as any encountered in the polar regions. Ever since the rise of newspapers and a mass reading public, the need for an explorer to establish, manage, and defend his image in the public eye has been as crucial a part of making exploration possible as the expedition itself -- perhaps more so. Add to this difficulty, for the wives of polar explorers, the insidious sexism of a society which tended to reduce the spouses of powerful men either to passive ornaments on their husbands' arms, or scheming Lady Macbeths out to raise their men's status at any cost, and you can see the considerable peril into which Jane Franklin, Josephine Peary, Eva Nansen, Emily Shackleton, Kathleen Scott, and Marie Herbert stepped when they plighted their troth with their adventurous husbands.
Kari Herbert, previously the author of The Explorer's Daughter, knows these perils at close hand, as she's the daughter of Sir Wally and Lady Marie, and grew up knowing the family history, and all the benefits and costs of her father's achievements. In Polar Wives, she adopts the strategy of interweaving her subjects' lives, first giving us accounts of each of them as they grew up and first met their future partners, then moving forward to the time of the expeditions themselves, and finally to their aftermaths. It's a apt approach, and has the effect of emphasizing the commonalities between these women of different eras, nationalities, and dispositions. Some, like Josephine Peary and Marie Herbert, spent some time in the polar regions themselves, taking at times a very active role. Others, though they remained at home, found themselves still more active in the defense of their husbands' characters against rumor, invective, and outright lies, and were sometimes obliged to raise public concern and monies for their spouse's resupply or rescue. And -- for those fortunate enough to enjoy time together after the return of their long-traveling loves, there was often a difficult period of readjustment.
Ms. Herbert handles all these issues with great empathy and skill, and in each case ferrets out the key elements of the partnerships into which these women entered. Polar explorers, inevitably, were prone to veering between megalomania and depression; they could be enormously charming and ridiculously demanding, issuing imperatives instead of treating their wives as true partners. In response, the women whose fierce devotion shines through this volume dodged the mania, soothed the depression, and got very good at making demands of their own. Each case is different, and Ms. Herbert is immensely sensitive to their varied dispositions. Not all, alas, have left equally rich letters or journals, and all carefully measured their public statements. Josephine Peary, with whom the author declares a special sense of connection, comes across most clearly of all. In a section which casts a rare light on a dark moment, Ms. Herbert has unearthed a twenty-six page letter from Jo, in which she struggles to come to terms with having suddenly encountered her husband's Inuit mistress Aleqasina, her baby with Peary still in her amauti. It's a powerful passage, and contains words of reproach that, for any other woman, might well have also been words of farewell. You can feel Jo working through her every fiber of anger, love, and determination. And, in the end, she took Peary back, leaping out of her shipboard berth at the sound of his steps on deck, and rushing into his arms.
But it would spoil the delight of this book to give too many anecdotes; every story here is part of an intricate weave and weft, their impact softened, strengthened, or amplified by juxtaposition. Not all the words and deeds of the book's subjects are without blame; they are all human, all reconciled in different ways to the singular position in which their husbands' fates have cast them. It seems strange to say, but whether their partners' lives ended in a far-distant icy realm, or at safely home beside the fire, these women all drew great strength from the relationship, and continued to do so for the remainder of their days.
A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the true heart of these polar heroes.