The Invention of Nature is Andrea Wulf’s biography of Prussian scientist-naturalist-ecologist-explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels in the Americas gave us Humboldt’s Penguin, amongst many, many other things, and whose renown resulted in place names ranging from Mare Humboldtianum on the moon to Humboldt University in Berlin. Most importantly, via the publications, lectures and correspondence that occupied Humboldt for the majority of his long life, he developed the concept that has been called Humboldtian science – a holistic view of science and nature, climate, the environment and ecology, and by extension encompassing art and society.
Unlike many of the explorers and spies of The Great Game, Colonel Gardner didn’t leave behind his own polished account of his travels in Central Asia, nor of his years as an officer in the Sikh Empire, from the Empire’s glory years under Maharaja Ranjit Singh and through the familial treachery and turmoil that followed on from Ranjit Singh’s death. Even his younger years are veiled in the mists of time – but safe to say Scotland doesn’t feature (despite the tartan!)
So, there’s plenty of of scope for biographical sleuthing and rehabilitation from the always readable John Keay.
I put this book aside in the middle of Rosenau, the account of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the intertwined lineages and lives of Queen Victoria and Prince Albrecht (Albert) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. A rare event, to abandon a book.
I’d been drawn to this hefty history of lost kingdoms by the earlier chapters – the Britons and the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Tolosa and the Visigoths – and whilst I enjoyed the overall concept and the three part structure of each chapter, as we moved into the early modern period and beyond and the quantity of sources expanded, the wealth of detail this afforded grew too much for me: the later chapters were just too heavy going.
The Worst Journey in the World has been on my reading list for a long time.
It’s Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the 1910-13 Nova Terra Expedition to Antarctica, where he was part of a three-man scientific research team that undertook the harrowing Winter Journey to collect the first specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs. This is The Worst Journey in the World of the title.
However the Nova Terra expedition is better known for the explorations undertaken by its leader, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, together with Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Edgar Evans, who succeeded in reaching the South Pole on 17 January 1912, only to find that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. All five men died on their journey back from the pole.
I had hesitated to embark upon The Worst Journey in the World, fearing that Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s autobiographical analysis of the expedition would be a heavy going account reflecting the attitudes of Empire and the Edwardian era.
Sara Wheeler‘s introduction to the Vintage Classic edition I read dissolved my concerns, and I found this to be a fascinating and heart breaking read.
Part travelogue, part history, part biography, The Riddle and The Knight explores the life and times of medieval traveller (two of my loves combined!) Sir John de Mandeville, who spent 34 years on an extended pilgrimage tour of the near east and beyond, and wrote them up in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville on his return. His account became a Medieval best seller. In it he claimed to have circumnavigated the globe.
But, having finished the book relaxing on the sofa at 40A as the rain tipped down outside, I really, REALLY want to know how his wife spent those 34 years.
She get this one tantalising mention on page 110 (my emphasis added):
“Yet in 1321 – just months before the author of The Travels claimed to have left England – he sold everything he owned and disappears from all records for the next 37 years. According to one of the few surviving land registries from that year, a ‘John de Mandeville and Agnes his wife‘ sold ten acres of land to Richard and Emma Filliol. Furthermore, ‘John atte Tye of Teryling and Alice his wife had a settlement with John Mandeville of Borham and Agnes his wife by which the former secured twenty marks of silver one messuage, sixteen acres of land, and one and a half acres of wood in Borham.’ Men didn’t dispose of land in the Middle Ages unless they had an extremely good reason. But it is entirely possible that Sir John did have a good reason. He was going abroad for a very long time, and needed a huge amount of cash to find his voyage.”