A nimble and discerning biography of an aristocratic adventurer who wrote one of the finest books on polar exploration.
Considering the adoration in which he is held in polar circles, it comes as a shock to learn that Wheeler’s is the first biography of Cherry-Garrard. The explorer’s Worst Journey in the World, chronicling his three years in the Antarctic with Robert Falcon Scott, is routinely cited as a peerless example of adventure-writing. And Wheeler (Terra Incognita, not reviewed, etc.) does a remarkable job in coaxing from scant primary source materials a sense of the man, presenting a personality to go with Cherry-Garrard’s detached, ironic voice. He was privileged, as someone with a name like that must be, reared on great English estates with rooks and gardeners and manor houses old enough to have medieval architectural remnants. Though he was never comfortable with the swells and the bloods, he harbored a respect for tradition and ritual, and his “ambition, single-mindedness, and self-reliance” led him into the arms of Robert F. Scott and the push to the South Pole, with its disastrous consequences, for which Cherry-Garrard assumed his own share of the responsibility. Building on the reminiscences of Cherry-Garrard’s widow, Wheeler fashions a convincing portrait of a man who rued the changes in the pastoral landscape and the position of the gentry and was deeply depressed by his many illnesses and the dreadful consequences of war, economic depression, then more war—all shaping a life that feels an extended exercise in “elegiac melancholy.” Though she doesn’t try to gloss the silences in the historic record, the author’s image of Cherry-Garrard isn’t fragmentary, but rather crazed, like an old mirror or the polar ice.
Wheeler has set a high standard for Cherry-Garrard biographies to come, as surely they will. (16-page photo insert)