The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

“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.

Review copy



Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Fiction

10 responses to “The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

  1. What a powerful review this is! I had no idea that Bainbridge had written anything like this, it seems so ‘not her thing’ if you know what I mean, and yet I can see how puncturing the heroic *is* her thing too.
    I’m going to have to see if I can find a copy…

    • It’s an amazing book, and since it’s not my usual thing at all, that should tell you something. There’s one point at which Oates brags about all this ‘nonsense about germs,’ and how in India he was almost made at gunpoint to have the smallpox vaccine. He refused, caught it anyway, and yet he still has his beliefs about germs & vaccines. It’s such a powerful scene as it says so much about this character.

      • Yes, I’m assuming that interest in character is what made Bainbridge explore it. I’ve read quite a bit about Mawson, our Australian Antarctic explorer – he’s a bit of a hero of mine – and I’ve always thought that there must be some powerful quirk in personality that drives men like this. I must get this book!

  2. I just read my first Bainbridge over the summer and really enjoyed it. This sounds fascinating.

  3. This sounds like an incredibly powerful read – like you I sometimes struggle with fictionalised real events, I need to know what is true and what is not but I can completely understand why you feel you may have read enough with this one!

  4. Sounds great. I’m working my way through Bainbridge and will get to this sooner or later. She likes historical folly, doesn’t she? From Crimea to Hitler to the Titanic.. Master Georgie has some fairly gruesome scenes and the death of a horse plays a part in it too. I thought it was a sideways reference to Swift, who she seems to share some sensibilities with.

  5. When I was a kid these were still national heroes. We heard Amundsen’s name, but only in the context that he somehow beat the true heroes of the tale.

    It’s relatively recent that they’ve come to be seen, I suspect accurately, as amateurs who got themselves killed quite needlessly. The period equivalent of people who go hiking on moors in bad weather wearing trainers and carrying a mobile phone.

    Not sure about the book. I share your antipathy to fictionalised history and it just sounds so utterly grim. The vaccines scene would I suspect annoy me.

    • Same here on the hero business. The vaccine scene isn’t a scene so much as Titus Oates showing his character when he states that he refused the vaccines. The listener then assumes, since Oates is bragging about standing by his beliefs, that Oates didn’t get smallpox. I mean, after all, why brag about standing by your beliefs when you’ve been proved wrong. The scene also shows Oates’s sense of invincibility. May be fiction for all I know, but it’s Bainbridge’s creation of a man who paid to join the venture and added his skill of horses to the trip. Which is horribly ironic since he didn’t get to choose the ponies (he considered them basically on their last legs) and he ended up killing a fair number of them.

      I think it’s a brilliant book but not easy to read.

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