For the #246 17 Aug edition of Writers’ Forum, Katherine MacInnes, explained the challenges of writing a biography for a fatal historical event from the viewpoint of the people who were left behind.
Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by the Women Left Behind was Katherine’s way of showing the familiar story of these heroic husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who lost their lives on this epic expedition from the point of view of the women whose lives would be changed by it forever. Her aim was not to analyse, but to try to place the stories in their historical context and let the women speak for themselves.
Katherine told me how these women were truly inspiring.
“If I had chosen my subject on the basis of available material I would not have written Snow Widows. When I first started researching the Snow Widows over a decade ago, they were invisible. I was looking for inspiration at the time because my husband was about to climb Everest (our children were nearly five, nearly three and nearly one). He climbed it and came home, but by then I had discovered the treasures that are Oriana, Kathleen, Caroline, Emily and Lois. They have continued to be inspiring companions for me over the years as I hope they can now be for those who read my book.”Katherine MacInnes
Katherine elaborated how Oriana Wilson, a true partner to the expedition’s doctor, was a scientific mind in her own right. She was a naturalist and partnered her husband on scientific expeditions to New Zealand. She was a recognised collector for the Natural History Museum and I discovered two species had been named for her.
Kathleen Scott, the fierce young wife of the expedition leader was also a renowned artist and sculptor She made portraits of most of the great and the good such as, George Bernard Shaw, Asquith and was a confidant during his time as PM.
The indomitable Caroline Oates was the very picture of decorum and everything an Edwardian woman aspired to be. She was very wealthy and sent funds to Cpt Oates. She’d been widowed before this expedition, and ran a large country estate. Increasingly private and cautioned the family not to talk to outsiders about Cpt Oates.
‘Empire’ Emily Bowers had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. She was ‘Birdie’ Bowers’ mother. Her father had been a tailor, but she never admitted her lowly origins. Her daughter married co-op movement’s Sir William Maxwell, and became Lady Maxwell. She lived on the Isle of Bute, Scotland – so quite remote.
Lois Evans led a harder life than the other women, constantly on the edge of poverty. She was a talented and popular singer in South Wales. She wasn’t treated equally with the other wives – getting a much lesser amount of the funds raised for the families, (Evans was a rating, the others were officers). Evans was unfairly blamed for the mission’s downfall – he was assumed to have caused a fatal delay. Scott’s posthumously discovered diary says “loss of reason” but now thought to have had a head injury.
Her starting point was having the famous story as the obvious performance on the stage and the background people as the story in the wings and then she inverted it. Out of choice, she took a seat that gave her a clear view in to the wings of any theatre, the dancers warming up, the actors mastering their nerves. She wanted to see the back of the embroidery, an x-ray of that famous picture, the ‘making of’ at the end of a film.
Katherine told me one of the biggest challenges was researching the expedition from the women’s perspective as most of these women were intentionally invisible, almost self-erasing. Another challenge was giving these women equal balance within the book. Most of them burned their letters before their death (some of them burned their husband’s letters too). The only letters we have from Oriana Wilson are those that she sent out to friends where the friends kept them.
“I wrote articles in magazines and newspapers in the UK and NZ to ask if anyone had some in their attic. Several people did, including one sketch, the only one of hers that survives. It is, appropriately since her husband was Head of the Scientific Staff on the expedition, of two Emperor Pengiuns. Its rather moving. She drew it in April 1912 before she knew her husband was dead. In her sketch one of the penguins is walking away into the distance.”Katherine MacInnes
She told me original documents have a special power – a link to the past. So she mined numerous sources including Kathleen Scott’s diary, housed at Cambridge University Library, various archives, family papers and books published by surviving expeditioners. She discovered much has been lost, including 50 letters from Taff to Lois, and Wilson’s correspondence, destroyed by Ory, fortunately after an early biographer had read it.
She also bought a book Edward Wilson, Nature Lover on Amazon. Until then everyone had thought that Kathleen and Oriana were not ‘focsle’ friends. But she found an inscription in that book in a hand she recognised as Kathleen’s. So they can’t have fallen out that badly after all. Handwriting gives us not only an indication of character but of emotion. When Kathleen Scott learns of her husband’s death nearly a year earlier, her normally wide rounded script (three words to a line) becomes small and pinched as she tries to master her emotions. It is a direct cipher to a state of mind in a way that carefully stoical, self-curated words may not be.
Her tip to other writers thinking of writing a biography is to buy file dividers and use them, religiously. And be really suspicious of existing photograph captions, especially if your protagonists were as overlooked as hers were. Katherine found so much mis-captioning even with mainstream photo libraries, archives and authorised biographies of the more famous protagonists.
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