Robert Falcon Scott’s “doomed” Antarctica expedition of 1912 is frequently associated with stoic masculinity. The Worst Journey in the World was Apsley Cherry-Garrand’s verdict in his now classic re-telling of the British Antarctic Expedition (BAE). “These were Men” trumpeted the Manchester Guardian about the five of the Edwardian heroes who died on the ice—after discovering that Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beaten them to the South Pole by thirty-five days.
BAE expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates became a famous example of stiff-upper-lip-ism for announcing, “I am just going outside and may be some time” before intentionally walking out into the cold to his death. Frostbitten and gangrenous, Oates sacrificed himself so that his abler companions would not have to worry about dragging him along with them. Wrote Scott, who would die soon afterwards: “We knew that Oates was walking to his death… it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
Of the sixty-six members of the BAE, sixty-one of them made it back. There is no denying that “self mastery and displays of masculine fortitude allowed these explorers to survive their ordeal,” writes historian Carolyn Strange, “but endurance was not the expedition’s emotional key signature: a positive outlook, combined with the emotional intimacy of home-making, was.” She expands the story from a boy’s own adventure into an exploration of the cheerfulness that kept the all-male expedition together. Yes, cheerfulness.
Reading the journals and diaries kept by the expedition members, Strange explores how this “family of men” got along on cheerful domesticity, masculine home-making, and entertaining. They played backgammon, draughts, chess, and euchre. There were many, many books—and no disapprobation for going off to a corner to read one. There was serious fun and unserious fun: debating, singing, dancing, theatricals, horseplay, and soccer in the snow. Eating together was, unsurprisingly, central to the familial feeling. The menu for the midwinter meal of June 22, 1911, included consommé seal, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, caviar Antarctic, walnut toffee, pineapple custard, and raspberry jellies.
Strange writes that anger, fear, jealousy, and grief have all been the focus of research, but cheerfulness has not generally been taken seriously. She argues that a “history of masculine emotion” clearly has to take it into account:
Men who upheld the “stiff upper lip” code of manliness, in which the expression of intense feelings, including fear and anger were to be suppressed, were well-suited for this goal, but men with a bright outlook and a talent for jollying their mates were valued even more, as the cheerful “emotives” in their memoirs confirm.
A positive outlook and emotional intimacy were by no means unique to the BAE. As Strange writes, “sociological and psychological surveys of recent Antarctic explorers have found that ‘group fit,’ the capacity of individuals to get along and work together effectively” is the most important attribute of a group separated from the rest of the world for a prolonged period. The “affective climate” of the group is more important than the weather outside. This lesson is equally applicable to long-distance space flight, not to mention a day at the office.