“I dare say,” I’d continue, “that you think you’ve known what it is to be cold.”
While I’ve throughly enjoyed many Beryl Bainbridge novels, I’ve avoided this author’s historical fiction. For this reader, historical fiction is anything pre-1914, and in common with others, I’ve been disappointed in the way authors can’t seem to leave modern sensibilities behind when they step into the past. This brings me to The Birthday Boys, a fiction novel based on the catastrophic 1910 expedition to Antarctica.
The novel is broken up into five distinct sections, spanning from 1910-1912 in five voices: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these are the five men who trekked to the South Pole only to find that they’d been beaten to their gaol, and that on their return journey all five men died. I still remember the history lesson.
The novel begins before the ship, Terra Nova, leaves for the long voyage, and it’s the voice of Petty Officer Edgar Evans we hear first. Optimism reigns with parties, free drinks and farewell celebrations– although there are a few signs of foreboding which, of course, all come to pass.
Wikipedia has an informative page on the Terra Nova Expedition along with the information that Scott was long hailed, unequivocably as a hero, until … well … he wasn’t, and now many of the decisions he made are called into question. It’s these fatal decisions that Bainbridge tackles as she burrows into this story of exploration. Were these men incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy? All of the elements that are now acknowledged as fatal mistakes appear in the story–“a catalogue of disasters and miscalculations,” the failure of the motorized sleds, Scott’s aversion to using sled dogs, the poor quality of the ponies that Scott insisted on using, the fact that five men trekked to the South Pole on rations for four, “inexpertise on skis,” and Scott’s stubbornness and inflexibility.
Although five different voices contributed to this tale, there are just a few salient issues that seep through the narrative: loyalty to Scott (with the exception of Oates), the way these men saw nature to be conquered and what drives men to attempt such goals, in such conditions–especially if you’ve been on other expeditions and have a jolly good idea of the sort of thing you’ll face. Wilson, for example, joined the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, and shelved his memories for this trip. Evans “lost most of the nerves” in his lower jaw (along with his teeth) in an earlier Antarctica trip.
This is not easy reading, and I doubt I could stomach reading a non fiction book on the subject. Bainbridge’s recreation of the expedition through fiction takes us right there in the frozen Antarctica with these men, and at times, this is a dire, grueling read. The deaths of the ponies is horrendous. We become observers–sometimes of wanton slaughter as these men move south: Wilson painting a Portuguese man-of-war, noting that it was “astonishing beautiful” in the water but “once removed from the sea they go out like a candle, the colour snuffed away,” and Oates who “slaughtered” a “man-of-war bird” with a seventeen foot wing span. We get a sense of what drove these men–all larger than life characters who didn’t fit in well into mainstream society, “misfits, victims of a changing world.”
What sort of man was Scott–a leader of men, and so loved that his followers said they would die for him…. and they did…
In his ruthlessness of purpose he resembled Napoleon, who, when the Alps stood in the way of his armies, cried out, “There shall be no Alps.” For Scott there was no such word as impossible, or if there was it was listed in a dictionary for fools. In the dreadful circumstances in which we found ourselves, half-starved and almost always frozen, our muscles trembling from the strain of dragging those infernal sledges, I expect his was the only way. To have faltered at this late stage would have been like pulling in one’s horse while it was leaping. He spared no one, not even himself, and he drove us on by the sheer force of his will.
I usually avoid fiction books based on real events as I am left wondering what exactly was true and what was fiction. Then I wished I’d read a non fiction book on the subject instead. In the case of The Birthday Boys, due to its dire and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I do not want to read the source material. Bainbridge, who must have poured over the journals, letters and facts of the disaster took me along on the trip through her perceptive eyes, and what a fantastically horrible journey to hell it was.
I can’t help remembering the Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon with its pictures depicting the Buddhist hell. One could only thank God they were fanciful, as most of them went beyond description for fiendish ingenuity, the worst torments s being reserved for the killers of animals.