What on earth could inspire so many men--so many British
men, in particular--to brave unimaginable cold, hunger, fear, and physical danger in the planet's most remote and forbidding locales? In the case of many polar explorers, writes Francis Spufford, it was a complicated amalgam--English notions of sportsmanship, heroism, and honor mixed with romantic notions of the sublime. In his I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination
, Spufford explores the British obsession with the world's coldest and bleakest climes, using their literary representation as his guide. Although his book gives some historical background about early polar explorations, Spufford concerns himself more with English perceptions of snow and ice than with the snow and ice itself. He considers the writing of Byron
, Mary Shelley
, and others, as well as that of the polar explorers themselves, expertly limning how coldness and its metaphors captured the imagination of a generation of Englishmen. Along the way Spufford examines exploration's often unsavory ideological bedfellows, including Victorian views about class, race, and empire.
From Kirkus Reviews
Spufford, of the Guardian in London, plumbs the cultural fascination and aesthetic attraction of cold regions for British explorers, and how their romance with snow was fashioned by an evolving national sensibility, in this smartly argued, wide-ranging book. The polar regions--with their isolation, nullity of landscape, cold so extreme that ``the breath of the travellers crystallizes and falls to the snow in showers''--were explored by many nations (not to mention the Inuit, who lived there), but by none more than the superbly ill-experienced British. Cook, Franklin, Scott, Shackleton--what drove these men to the ends of the earth, wondered Spufford, ``Why do these insane things?'' Well, he answers, it's more than just a passing fancy. Drawing on the diverse works of Byron, Coleridge, Cruikshank, the Shelleys, Conrad, and many others, the author paints an extraordinary portrait of a culture shaped by the notion of cold and its representations. A yearning for the sublime, for sights great and terrible, played a part, as did the strength of soul necessary to tangle with the most hellacious elements--to brush with them, or even to be utterly beaten by them, was to be touched in a rare way. There were the uncertainty and filtered truths from which spring romance and fantasy. There was the chance for the explorers to distinguish themselves, to shoulder a heroic mantle. Each chapter is an archaeology of the British love affair with ice, Spufford often unearthing unattractive strata: the class nature of exploration, colonialism, racism toward the Inuit, who undercut all the heroism by the simple fact that they lived where the explorers more often died. Spufford elegantly details how all these images, elements, and metaphors came home to roost in the Edwardian imagination, leading directly to parts unknown. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.