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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A hard book to write, 27 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: With Scott in the Antarctic (Paperback)
In his introduction to 'With Scott in the Antarctic, Dr Mike Stroud, Ranulph Fiennes collaborator on his Transantarctic crossing, concludes ...'she has caught the man in context, conveying the time in which he lived and the environment in which he worked'. That, for me, sums up exactly this 2008 biography of Edward Wilson, the man who accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on both his Antarctic expeditions, and who famously died with him in 1912 on the second.

But Isobel Williams must have faced at least two major difficulties in writing the book. Firstly, Wilson's wife Oriana destroyed her correspondence with her husband before she died in 1945. So only secondary sources on that aspect of Wilson's personal life were and are available to any modern biographer. Secondly, the story of Scott's expeditions has been told many times before. How would it be possible to tell the story in a fresh way, with added value?

William's difficulties are very apparent in her book. She relies very heavily for personal material, on George Seaver, who wrote Wilson's original biography in the 1940s, and had access to the correspondence. I have read Seaver, and I am not sure that Williams has been able to add much more than he was able to write 75 years ago. Though to be fair to Williams, she has conducted painstaking research and has gone to many other sources. In addition, though she emphasises Wilson's role in Scott's two expeditions, I am not sure anything very much is added to what many others have said in their exhaustive analysis of Scott's expeditions.

However, what certainly comes across in the biography is her empathy and admiration for the person of Wilson. He was clearly a man of supreme intelligence, a talented artist and naturalist, a qualified doctor, modest and self-effacing, a cornerstone for all who met him, devoted to his wife and she to him, and above all with an enduring faith in God who was at the centre of all he did. He evidently had very few vices, though Roland Huntford, true to form, managed to find a few, (see Scott and Amundsen 1979). Isobel Williams quietly refutes these in the course of her text.

I thought the two strengths of the book were firstly, the early part, where she tells of Wilson's childhood and upbringing. And secondly, I found very enlightening her perspectives on what modern medicine has to say about the medical issues (vitamin deficiency etc.) which Wilson and his compatriots faced. Williams is herself a doctor, and it is possible that she could have expanded her insights on these very relevant matters to some effect.

Overall however, I much enjoyed the book despite what I perceive as its limitations. Wilson would have been a man very worth knowing, and Williams has succeeded in conveying his essential character.

Those who also enjoyed the book might also like to read 'Cheltenham in Antarctica' by his great nephew David Wilson, and D B Elder, which offers some lovely insights as well as many of Wilson's paintings and sketches.
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Location: Cardiff

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