Too often when we think of polar exploration we imagine a man’s world. Not so in Kari Herbert’s excellent book Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers. Inspired by her own parents (the polar explorer Wally Herbert, and his equally adventurous wife, Marie), Kari looks at the wives of the greats. Shackleton, Scott, Nansen and others are all there, but it is Emily, Kathleen, Eva and a host of other women who take centre stage. That is not to say that their husbands don’t feature – after all, it is as a result of being swept along in the current of their partner’s achievements that these women are included in the book. But allowing them to speak for themselves, to have their own dreams and accomplishments – their own lives, in short – makes the range of emotions we feel for them and their husbands more affecting.
The book is structured by dividing the relationships of the men and women into their beginnings, climaxes and – in some cases desperately sad – ends, and this means that the similarities between the stories are poignantly clear. Across history and from the Arctic to the Antarctic, the same fears and victories play out again and again. By allowing each woman a chapter per division; the familiar surges of optimism, happy strength, disappointment, and stoic conclusions repeat to great and heart-wrenching effect. The great joy of the book is the story of Herbert’s own father and mother – proving how far societal gendered expectations have come – though even this has its share of sadness. All this is not to say that the women themselves are the same, they range in their occupations from singers to travellers and explorers in their own right, but what is increasingly clear is the impact the pull of the poles has on everyone involved.
Herbert’s writing is excellent – interesting, clear and engaging; the structure of the book, which might lead the reader to confuse individual stories, instead works well because of this firm foundation. Polar Wives takes the reader through a spectrum of emotions but ultimately leaves them with respect and a not inconsiderable amount of pride. While their husbands made it to the coldest and most inhospitable ends of the earth, one can’t help but feel that these women supplied the warmth.