Shackleton’s novels

I’m always nosey about other people’s bookshelves, so was interested when the BBC News website featured a story about the books that Ernest Shackleton took with him to the Antarctic on the expedition that left England in August 1914.
shackleton cabin

This photo (by Frank Hurley) shows Shackleton’s cabin on the Endurance. Some people at the Royal Geographical Society have enlarged it closely to see the book titles.
The collection includes the Encyclopaedia Britannica, several reference books, and, unsurprisingly, books about polar exploration.
As well as these (and the prison diary of Alfred Dreyfus, which like the polar adventures he may have read as an exemplary epic of endurance) Shackleton also took with him a reasonably large selection of recent novels, some still famous, others much less so.
Since the list gives a good idea of the kind of fiction that might appeal to a man of action in 1915, heading South with the expectation of having time on his hands, I’ve spent a morning doing some light research into the novels, and discovering a little about each of them.
Here’s the list of novels, as given by the BBC:

Perch of the devil by Getrude Atherton
Pip by Ian Hay
Almayer’s folly by Joseph Conrad
The Brassbounder by David Bone
The case of Miss Elliott by Emmuska Orczy
Raffles by EW Hornung
The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Woman’s view by Herbert Flowerdew
Thou Fool by JJ Bell
The Message of Fate by Louis Tracy
The Barrier by Rex Beach
Oddsfish by Robert Hugh Benson
Monsieur de Rochefort by H De Vere Stacpoole
World’s end by Amelie Rives
Potash and Perlmutter by Montague Glass
The witness for the defence by AEW Mason
The morals of Marcus Ordeyne by William J Locke

There were also books of plays and poems:

Seven short plays by Lady Gregory
Plays: pleasant and unpleasant, Vol 2 Pleasant by G B Shaw
A book of light verse
Poetical works of Shelley

Some of these books are very well-known, others extremely obscure. What are they, and why might Shackleton have brought them to Antarctica?

Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov had appeared in 1912, so by taking the book with him Shackleton was maybe showing a desire to keep up to date with a recent serious  and challenging literary sensation. Most of the other books on the list are less heavyweight.
Maybe The Brassbounder (1910) by David Bone is the sort of book one might expect to appeal to an explorer like Shackleton. It’s a novel of a young man’s adventure at sea. (A ‘brassbounder’ is a boy bound as a cadet or apprentice on a British merchant ship. His parents pay a premium for him, and he has certain privileges not allowed to the common sailors. The merchant navy equivalent of a midshipman, I suppose.) You can find the full text of The Brassbounder online at Project Gutenberg . Almayer’s Folly (1895), Joseph Conrad’s first novel, set in Borneo also has an exotic and imperial interest.
Many of the books chosen are pure fun. Shackleton clearly liked crime fiction. Baroness Orczy’s The Case of Miss Elliott is the first collection of her ‘Old Man in the Corner’ detective stories. (these are about an old man who sits in the corner of a teashop, tying knots in pieces of string, and solving, at a distance, any detective problems that are brought to him. I’ve read a few of these, and am not very impressed. They are not nearly as good as Ernest Bramah’s stories about Max Carrados, the blind detective, which I’ve been reading lately). Louis Tracy was also a writer of detective stories. The Message of Fate (1910) can be read on Project Gutenberg under its American title, The Message; here’s a rather dramatic illustration from it:

message of fate

The caption to the picture is: ‘There was no mistaking the malice’.

The Witness for the Defence (1913) is a melodramatic crime story, adapted by A.E.W. Mason from his play of the same name. It was filmed in 1919, and the Internet Movie Database’s synopsis of the film is:

‘Stella Derrick is tried for the murder of her vicious husband. She is saved, apparently, by the false testimony of Henry Thresk. But Thresk has motives and malevolent plans of his own.’

Sounds like fun. The novel’s text is on Gutenberg.
The Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) is one of Arnold Bennett’s jolliest fantasias. It and Hornung’s Raffles (1905) would both be on my own list of books to take to Antarctica.
Some books are odder. Potash and Perlmutter by Montague Glass is dialect humour, a collection of comic stories about a pair of Jewish tailors in New York. They were very popular in their time. Here is the poster for the first of three film adaptations of the stories:


How does dialect comedy work in a silent film?

Rex Beach was a writer of westerns. Here’s the IMDB summary of the plot of the 1926 film adaptation of The Barrier (1908):

‘Years after Alaskan storekeeper Gale had rescued his ward Necia from Bennett, her murderous sea-captain father, Bennett shows up seeking his daughter — and revenge.’

Perch of the Devil (1914) by Getrude Atherton also seems to be a Western. Atherton was a prolific Californian writer whose books were sometimes regarded as scandalous. Her Wikipedia entry makes her sound interesting.

Oddsfish! (1914) is by Robert Hugh Benson (The son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he converted to Rome in 1904). It is a historical novel whose preface states:

‘The various plots, the political movements, and the closing scenes of Charles II’s life are here described with as much fidelity to truth as is compatible with historical romance.’

You can read it here:
Monsieur de Rochefort: A Romance of Old Paris (1914) by H De Vere Stacpoole  is another historical novel. Eighteenth-century, by the look of things.

monsieur de r

Stacpoole was most famous for writing The Blue Lagoon. This Westminster Gazette review of one of his novels is probably by T.S. Eliot, and gives an idea of the kind of writer he was:

THE REEF OF STARS. By H. de Vere Stacpoole. (Hutchinson) 6s.-
Whose was the huge misshapen hand, apparently enclosed in a woollen glove, which rose suddenly out of the hatchway? No matter how seasoned the reader may be in treasure-hunting, he will experience several new shudders from Mr. H. de Vere Stacpoole’s new novel. There are all of the usual stage properties, and some original ones too. The story opens on the beach at Sydney, and conducts us up a New Guinea river. There the heroine is discovered in a Dyak village. The description of Macquart, gone mad over the gold which he cannot take away, is extremely well done, and leaves us in a state of complete exhaustion.

The Woman’s View (1903) by Herbert Flowerdew is a novel denouncing the marriage laws, and standing up for the rights of women. The Morals of Marcus Ordeyne (1905) by William J Locke has been summarised like this:

‘A middle aged schoolmaster unexpectedly inherits money and a title. Walking through a park he finds a young girl weeping – she’s a harem girl who has been brought to London for an arranged marriage, and has run away. Not knowing what else to do, Sir Marcus brings her to his home.’

Here is a picture of C. Aubrey Smith performing in the stage version of the novel.

morals of marcus

Smith and Locke had been at Cambridge together. Locke is a very readable writer;  I’ve written about his The Mountebank (1926) here.
Thou Fool (1907) is by Jon Joy Bell. He wrote a fair bit of comic fiction, but this book sounds serious. Here’s the synopsis of the 1926 film adaptation:‘A Scots shopkeeper ruins his ex-employer, whose daughter marries a man made rich by her father’s tips.’  Once again, the book is available online.
World’s End (1914) by Amelie Rives is another American novel. Richard, an artist, whose uncle owns a plantation in Virginia, gets a young woman pregnant and goes away. His uncle marries the girl, but then realises that the baby is Richard’s, not his. A best-seller in its time, apparently.
Pip by Ian Hay belongs to the ‘development of a boy’ genre popular at the time. (Bradby’s Dick is another example.) Pip was successful enough to allow Hay to leave schoolmastering.

These novels are a mixed bag, but Shackleton’s choice of drama showed good taste. Lady Gregory’s Seven Short Plays (1909) suggests that he was interested in the new Irish drama. This volume includes The Rising of the Moon, a one-acter about a meeting between a policeman and a rebel, during which they find out what they have in common. I saw a very good production of it in Cork, a long time ago. Shaw’s Plays Pleasant includes Arms and the Man and You Never can Tell. They’d make enjoyable reading for a long Antarctic evening.

I’ve been told that Shackleton liked the poetry of Browning, but it was a volume of Shelley that he had with him on the Endurance.  He also had A Book of Light Verse with him. I take this to be the 1910 Oxford University press anthology edited by R.M. Leonard. It is a hefty (over 400 pages) collection of songs, epigrams, and vers de societe. It’s a predecessor of the better-known Oxford Book of Light Verse edited by Auden. You can get an idea of its contents from its frontispiece, which features portraits of Herrick, Jonson, Prior, Landor and Praed.

light verse

Maybe Shackleton was not very up-to-date in his poetic tastes, but this anthology would be a very pleasant companion indeed during long months away from home. A framed copy of Kipling’s ‘If’, by the way, was on the wall of the cabin.

These books tell us something about Shackleton’s taste in literature. they tell us even more about the range of books available to someone leaving England in August 1914. Many of these books would also have found their way into the packs of soldiers leaving for France in the same year.



  1. Posted February 26, 2016 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I can imagine Shackleton reading Lady Gregory.

  2. Tom
    Posted February 26, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! That’s given me an enjoyable and informative ten minutes on a Friday after work and will give me another hour of useful reflection.

  3. Bill
    Posted February 27, 2016 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    You’re right about Shackleton’s love of Browning (although his taste also extended to Swinburne). There is a story about one of his earlier voyages, when he and Louis Bernacchi got into an argument about the respective merits of Browning and Tennyson and “had a competition. Bernacchi reading from Tennyson, and (Shackleton) from Browning, on the subjects of war, love, hatred, humour, and religion ; the
    rest of the ward-room being judges as to which was the best. Browning won by one vote”.

  4. notcalledbob
    Posted February 27, 2016 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Great insight – I’ve conducted a similar exercise here:

  5. joe allegretti
    Posted February 27, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    When I saw the title of your blog entry, my immediate thought was, “Don’t tell me he wrote novels, too!”

  6. Sean
    Posted March 4, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I recommend Gertrude Atherton’s White Morning (1918), if only for the novelty value – the story of how American democracy spurs the women of Germany into armed revolt against Prussian militarism.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: