I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination
by Francis Spufford
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Cloth, $29.95.
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
Already the recipient of numerous accolades in Britain, Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination arrives on these shores with a keen air of anticipation, and not only among the historians and Polar exploration buffs who are its primary audience. Spufford is in fact the first writer in some time to attempt to give a truly synthetic historical account of England's extended fascination with the polar regions, for while the book's title derives from Scott's comrade Laurence Oates's famously ironic words, the bulk of the book is devoted to giving a history of the literary and ethical figurations of the Arctic in the nineteenth century, which, as much as government funding and unrestrained Edwardian confidence, underwrote Scott's attempts at the South Pole. It is an irony of this book that the final section, dealing with Scott's last fatal journey, is by far the least effective, adding little to our understanding of Scott's mindset, but demanding much -- too much -- of most readers' patience for shiveringly purple prose.
Still more curiously, for a book so titled, Spufford's enquiry is not principally into the "English Imagination," but into the ethos that supported and drew from the frequently disastrous forays into the ice that marked the history of British polar exploration. He draws extensively on literary sources, but with the exception of a brief discussion of John Everett Millais's painting 'The North-West Passage' (1874) and a lone cartoon from Punch, there is almost no discussion of the representation of the Arctic in British art or popular culture. This omission becomes most egregious in the chapter on "Imagining Eskimos," where Spufford's chief source appears to be various editions of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, ignoring the dozens of panoramas, dioramas, and public shows -- such as Samuel Hadlock's 1824 display of "Esquimuax Indians" at the Egyptian Hall -- with which the nineteenth-century public was inundated. And yet it is not only art in its popular forms which is notable by its absence, but even such extraordinarily influential images as Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes" (1864), whose harsh elegy of polar bears chewing on a fallen Union Jack is perhaps the single most potent synecdoche of the British polar passion and its failings.
Yet despite the ineptitude of its title, Spufford's book is actually a quite fascinating study of the Polar ethos, and its remarkable ability to feed upon the frozen corpses of its own defeat. Spufford begins by adroitly weaving together the apparently disjunct threads of Scott -- whose lack of any polar experience was considered his first qualification by Sir Clements Markham -- Charlotte Brontë's fascination with the Arctic as evoked in Bewick's History of British Birds, and the genesis of Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime in the brown onslaught of an overflowing River Liffey. The formidable nature of the Arctic, its vast indifference, gives rise with a sublimity that though born of water is drawn to ice -- ice as the implacable foe, the heartless maiden, the overpowering force which reduced brave men to a helpless wish for easeful death. That these men, in the name of Science, died with the implements of knowledge in their hands (chronometers, sextants, telescopes, and compasses), made their suffering transcendent, at least (as Spufford notes) when a sufficient Burkean distance is allowed for.
And what of this willful male masochism, approaching the level of suicide? Spufford finds amazing veins of ore in this ice, making perspicacious leaps between the suffering domesticity of women and the ways in which the Arctic figured men in a womanly condition of domestic confinement (as it became necessary to 'winter over' on board ice-bound ships). The wives of William Edward Parry and Sir John Franklin emerge as far more than supporting actresses in the Arctic drama (as the chivalric language of Polar literature cast them). Jane Franklin, for one, was a world-traveler and political ingenue who adroitly steered the ship of her dear Sir John's reputation through water far icier than the North-West Passage, long after in fact he turned out to have died. Precisely because she was already sutured into her widow's habiliments, and underwritten by the ideological insurance policy of companionate marriage, Jane Franklin was able to take the kind of leading role that Franklin, alive and in person, could never have occupied. Spufford does not add much new information about Lady Jane (though he adds a delightful ballad he found in the library at Cambridge), but by situating her in the context of other 'Arctic wives,' and by being willing to read the gender politics of the era against their ostensible grain, he offers a strong reading of women's roles in the Arctic which at the same time forces a re-assessment of the energetic masculinity which accounts of Polar enterprises so frequently invoke, even to this day.
Spufford is also singular in being the one of the first commentators on the full range of these histories (with the notable exception of that irascible Canadian Farley Mowat) to try to take some account of the role played by the 'Esquimaux' in exploration and its narratives, as well as the fantastically hierarchical racial ontologies set forth by the Victorian "science" of physical anthropology. Yet unlike Mowat, his knowledge of Inuit culture appears superficial at best; he is unaware, evidently, that "Inuit" is a plural noun, and uses the inaccurate phrase "Inuit language" instead of "Inuktitut." More troublingly, though he discusses the question of cannibalism among the crews of Franklin's expedition at some length, he mistakenly asserts that "there would never, in fact, be any confirming evidence of the cannibalism," ignoring the striking evidence of the recent analyses of Franklin expedition remains by Anne Keenleyside and her colleagues, which even if one is a confirmed skeptic deserve mention. Still worse, he strongly implies that the Inuit frequently resorted to accusations of cannibalism to "blacken" the reputation of their enemies, a claim without any foundation outside the blatantly racist invectives of those, such as Charles Dickens, who declared that one could never trust the word of savages, especially those with "a domesticity of blood and blubber."
The book is unfortunately peppered with such errors, both of omission and misstatement. A Cruikshank cartoon of Sir John Ross and his men wearing pasteboard noses is glossed with the claim that they had lost their noses to "frostbite" -- whereas in fact the satire was directed at Ross's statements that he reciprocated in the 'Esquimaux' practice of nose-pulling or nose-rubbing, which he was the first to report. William Edward Parry's wintering over on Melville Island is aptly recounted, but he is said to have been in command of the Hecla and Fury, whereas in fact it was the Hecla and Griper (the Fury would not arrive until Parry's second expedition, and was crushed by the ice on his third). Similarly, Edward Inglefield is said to have commanded "Lady Franklin's yacht the Fox" in his 1852 Franklin search expedition, although that ship had then yet to be built, and would make only one Polar foray (in 1857-59). When Spufford in his acknowledgments makes the customary statement that 'the errors are all mine,' he is acknowledging rather more than the usual, unavoidable, creep of mistakes -- there is considerable carelessness at work.
Yet at the same time, one must in fairness say that there is also a considerable energy here, and energy which when it is at its best (as it is for the first hundred or so pages of the book) is capable of fusing apparently eccentric juxtapositions into deeply resonant and lively realizations. His disquisitions on Frankenstein, on John Cleves Symmes' theory of a hollow earth filled with concentric spheres accessible at the poles, and Dicken's Franklin-inspired work on the 1857 play The Frozen Deep, are thought-provoking and richly contextualized. He has also unearthed some surprising Polar tropes, including a neglected poem of Emily Dickinson's, which give a sense of the surprising ubiquity of the Arctic fascination in the nineteenth century. And he may be one of the few inhabitants of this planet to dig out Chandos Hoskyns Abrahall's obscure 1856 epic poem Arctic Enterprise, though for some reason he neglects the more powerful efforts of Swinburne and R.W. Dixon. Most notably, Spufford is a remarkable observer of historical mood-shifts; his analysis of the differences between the ethos -- polar and otherwise -- of the Victorian and Edwardian eras is as finely-nuanced and memorably described as any I have read.
Spufford's book certainly makes significant inroads into a largely forgotten corner of British history, and he writes effectively and at times quite lyrically. His lyricism boils over only once -- in the last chapter on Scott, which is written in an overcharged present tense that promises immediacy but in fact locks most readers out of the passion he clearly feels for Scott. Like most of the expeditions it recounts, it is itself a kind of failure -- though as Faulkner reminds us, all works of the imagination are, ultimately, shipwrecks. And it is certainly a noble failure. When Sir Clements Markham (here portrayed with remarkable vivacity) was recruiting members for his long-planned expedition to claim the South Pole, he made much of the value of youthful inexperience: "The inexperience and haste in decision of young leaders are disadvantages which sometimes accompany their youthful energy, but they alone have the qualities which ensure success . . . New ideas, new situations meet with cordial welcome when young men are at the helm" (276). One might say the same of Spufford; while his energy and sense of haste leads him to miss many of the historical materials which might have helped him strengthen and deepen his argument, those same qualities make for a reading experience that, in much though not all of the book, is engaging and often surprising. Like the American Arctic explorer, Elisha Kent Kane, he may have missed his announced goal, but he may claim the satisfaction of living to return and write about it well; I would not be surprised to see some far more remarkable writings from this author in the near future.
N.B.: While this is a very readable book aimed at the general
public, I would recommend it for any University library which supports
a broad curriculum in the humanities, and it would be a useful book to
place on reserve when teaching courses either on the history of English
exploration and colonialism, or on literary texts such as Moby Dick,
or other literary treatments of the Poles.