Sir Ernest H. Shackleton was laid to rest in Grytviken, South Georgia, on the 5th of March 1922. Forty-four days later, his widow, Emily, wrote to H.R. Mill asking if he would consider writing a biography of her husband. ‘I feel that no one could do it as you could. . .’ She had spoken the week before with Sydney Pawling of William Heinemann, the publisher of both The heart of the Antarctic and South, who had expressed enthusiasm for the project. She told Mill that she ‘could do a good deal of “spade work,” if it would be of assistance. . .’ (Little did she know!) Mill answered Emily Shackleton's letter the very same day — a testament to the speed and efficiency of the postal system of that era — immediately agreeing to the undertaking: ‘I should be overjoyed. . .’ Emily, in her turn, replied the next day, ‘Your kind letter rejoiced my heart.’
Thus began a correspondence that covered a myriad of details associated with the production of The life of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Mill was always ‘all business’ and stuck to the point; Emily was more verbose, often wrote ‘in haste’ and tended at times to stray to unrelated matters in a newsy, conversational way. Each letter begins ‘Dear Dr Mill’ or ‘Dear Lady Shackleton’ and ends with ‘Yours very sincerely Emily Shackleton’ or ‘Yours very sincerely Hugh Robert Mill’ (except for one from Emily that unaccountably is signed ‘Emmie’). Between them from 18 April 1922 and 2 March 1933, 124 letters passed, those from Emily outnumbering those from Mill, 96 to 28. Most numerous are those leading up to the completion of the biography, which Mill announced in his letter of 17 March 1923, less than a year after he started work on the book. He wrote:
I am very greatly indebted to you for the material you supplied and the help you gave so unsparingly, and also for the consideration you showed on all matters of uncertainty or difference of opinion. It is very pleasant to be able to look back on so long a stretch of difficult and delicate authorship without the slightest friction in its whole length and I am sure that there is scarcely a woman alive who could have aided the author of her husband[‘]s biography so ably and understandingly as you have done all through.
The week before Emily had written, ‘You cannot think what a privilege it has been for me, to have been allowed to work for you.’ So they managed to survive the collaboration, remaining friends and retaining their respect for each other's efforts and skills.
The life of Sir Ernest Shackleton was published on 26 April 1923, just 15 months after Shackleton's death. It's worth pondering that the first biography of Robert Falcon Scott didn't appear until 1929, 17 years after his death.
To produce a biography of Shackleton no better team could have been fielded than H.R. Mill and Emily Shackleton. Not only was he a skillful writer and knew many of those who would feature in the work, but he had patience beyond measure. And she had the information — and the time and energy to serve as family go-between, archivist, genealogist, medallist, proofreader, and sounding board. She would make suggestions (‘Will you cut out the sentence on page 45. . .’); he would usually comply, but not always (‘[The] Kipling episode must stand. . .’). They complemented each other very well. ‘It is curious how you anticipate many of my queries,’ Mill wrote to Emily.
Rejoice my heart is a remarkable Antarctic book in many ways. To my knowledge it is the only collection of letters with an Antarctic association (excepting the recently published love letters of Paquita Delprat and Douglas Mawson). The correspondence is instructive in showing the collaborative process in full swing and the mechanics of book publishing in the era of letterpress. What a contrast to today where communication would be by e-mail (and probably not preserved to appear in book form years later), layout and composition would be computerized, proofreading would be by ‘spell checker,’ and printing and binding no doubt done half-way around the world.
A most unusual arrangement makes the biography out of the ordinary: Mill received no portion of the profits; they all accrued to Emily. (And in the same spirit one half of the proceeds of Rejoice my heart will flow to SPRI's William Mills Library Acquisitions Fund.)
But of most appeal and value is what the correspondence tells us about Shackleton, those he knew and served with, his family, and the times in which he lived. Frank and enlightening opinions of people and events abound, including some ‘bent noses’ in the Antarctic community (‘Captain England is much hurt. . .’). The letters go far to emphasize and explain Shackleton's intense love of poetry. And isn't it a surprise that Emily and Captain Oates’ mother, Caroline, knew each other (‘She has been a very dear friend to me since 1915.’ Emily would stay with her in London; and her son Ray visited Mrs Oates at Gestingthorpe)? The restrained relationship between Emily and Kathleen Scott, now remarried, comes out (‘I screwed up my courage and wrote Mrs Hilton Young last Friday. . .’). Up to now Scott's eccentric though strong widow has been the sole woman character of note in the Heroic Age drama; of Emily we knew nearly nothing. The appearance of these letters may very well change that.
Rejoice my heart is the third title to appear from Adélie Books, which is, in truth, the alter ego of Michael H. Rosove who is well known in the community of Antarctic collectors, bibliographers, and historians. (How this prominent UCLA physician and clinical professor has time for such labors of love is a great mystery.) Unlike the first two offerings, the latest is more traditional in design and has less of the ‘limited edition’ look to it. But it is limited, there being a press run of only 500. The Honourable Alexandra Shackleton adds an informative preface on Emily and T.H. Baughman does the same for Mill — ‘the finest Antarctican who never went there’ — in a nine-page introduction. Rosove then contributes a five-page editor's note that tells the story of how the book came about. He recounts his reading of Emily's letters to Mill, which are held at the Scott Polar Research Institute.
The correspondence was fascinating, and I wondered whether letters Lady Shackleton received from Dr Mill had been saved and what they might have revealed. When certain items from the Shackleton Collection were offered at auction in September 2003 at Christie's London, that correspondence was in the sale — it indeed existed. Unfortunately a few letters are missing, and efforts to trace them have failed. Nevertheless, with the appearance of Dr Mill's letters to Lady Shackleton the story behind the first Shackleton biography can be told, and much about the personalities of Dr Mill and Lady Shackleton can be revealed for the first time.
The letters run for 119 pages and are then followed by 13 pages of ‘Extracts from Press Reviews’ (one of the two reviews Mill considered ‘bad’ is not included, perhaps an oversight), a two-page bibliography and an index. There are extensive footnotes throughout. There are eight plates including two that appeared in The life (a portrait of Shackleton and one of Emily and the three children), a portrait of Mill, the initial two hand-written letters in the correspondence (also adapted as the book's endpapers), the front cover and spine, and a detail of the coat of arms that appears on the cover, as well as the title page of the first edition of The life. Two illustrations that are not included but I wish were are photographs of Hill Crest, Mill's house in Surrey, and 14 Milnthorpe Road in Eastbourne, where nearly all the letters either originated or were destined.
My chief complaints with the book relate to its design and format, not the content. The preface, introduction and editor's note run on together, while each should begin on an odd page. The preface is really not a preface, which is the work of the author or editor in this case, but a foreword or introduction and should be treated equally with Baughman's introduction as they are of the same nature. The editor's note is really a preface. A table of contents should have been included. There are numerous ‘widows and orphans’ — pages ending or beginning with a single line of text. This could have been easily overcome and doing so would have made for a more pleasant appearance and easier reading. The text would have benefited from hyphenation; as it is, it's a bit ragged. The illustrations might have been acknowledged as to source, and I always like to know something about the typography of a book and by whom it was printed and bound. Some of the footnotes and information in brackets seem unnecessary. Wouldn't any reader of this book know that MS means manuscript and that William Wordsworth was an English poet?
These quibbles aside, all Antarcticans and Shackletonians will be informed by reading this book and pleased to have it on their shelves alongside The life of Sir Ernest Shackleton, happily again in print.