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Restoring humanity to the greatest survival story in the history of exploration

Posted June 27, 2012 by Adrian Caesar

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The White tells the story of two of the greatest journeys in the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration: Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole (1911-12) and Douglas Mawson’s trek across King George V Land, eastward from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition’s hut at Commonwealth Bay (1912-13).

When I began work on the book I’d had an interest in Scott for some years and in particular a fascination for the way in which his ‘heroic’ death was seen as a form of ‘self-sacrifice’. His own account of what had happened seemed to me to form the basis of a legend that countless biographies had happily repeated and endorsed. But I was also interested to write something about Australia. A friend alerted me to the figure of Mawson. I began to read about him and came across one of the greatest survival stories (maybe the greatest) in the history of adventure and exploration. Better still, I discovered a connection between Scott and Mawson – in a meeting in London in 1910, Scott had tried to persuade Mawson to join his expedition. Mawson refused, saying he wanted to explore the Antarctic coastline closest to Australia; he wanted to mount an Australian expedition.

From these beginnings, I decided to write a book which would compare and contrast the two men, their characters, their journeys, the cultural differences between them. But what kind of a book? I didn’t want to write conventional biography and I didn’t want to write an academic treatise. On the other hand, the material I had and the issues I was interested in seemed to call for more than a straightforward adventure story.

After several false starts, I had a moment of inspiration. I found a form that could combine the drama and narrative drive of a novel with the more factual and analytic characteristics of non-fiction. Most controversially, perhaps, my way forward also enabled me to imagine and dramatise the characters’ interior life rather than present a distanced account through the lens of conventional biography. In this way I aimed to restore to the characters something of their full humanity.

I was intent on trying to understand why Scott’s death was so famous and Mawson’s survival wasn’t. I wanted to question the received wisdom about Scott and compare and contrast him with Mawson. Ideas about masculinity, heroism and self-sacrifice came under scrutiny as did the different values and beliefs that motivated each man. Scott’s relationship with his sculptress wife, Kathleen, and Mawson’s love for his fiancée (later his wife) Paquita are of much fascination in this context.

My choice of form also highlights the fact that in the last days of each man’s journey there is only one account of what happened: their own. In other words, the ‘facts’ of the matter are difficult to establish beyond doubt. Scott’s account of his own heroic death cannot be seen as disinterested. Mawson’s account of his solo trek likewise may not be the complete story.

I have tried to provide a compelling and cogent account of these extraordinary men and their explorations. Whether I have succeeded or not is for the reader to decide. Readers may also have their opinions on whether the book constitutes fiction or non-fiction. My own view is that it is best described in Truman Capote’s phrase as a ‘non-fiction novel’.

Find out more about the book here.

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