Diana Preston has crafted a stirring book about the two Antarctic expeditions led early in the twentieth century by British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott. She provides an even-handed assessment of this controversial figure and the team of men he chose to accompany him on the second of these expeditions, whose goals were reaching the South Pole for the first time and accumulating data for the scientific organizations that helped sponsor it.
The title, A First Rate Tragedy, comes from Apsley Cherry- Garrard, a member of the support group that helped enable Scott and four companions to reach the South Pole a month after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had accomplished the feat. Indeed, Scott, who with his companions died on the Ross Ice Shelf en route back to their base camp at the northern shore of the frozen continent, resembles a tragic hero: a noble but fatally flawed figure. Preston develops the story in the context of Britain’s pre-World War I disillusionment and disappointments (the Titanic sank in the same year, for instance).
To understand the complex reasons why Scott failed to beat Amundsen and to survive the ordeal and yet achieved a posthumous fame that is well-deserved despite those failures, one must read this sensitive book. Preston does not delve deeply into the logistics and techniques of the expedition, choosing instead to concentrate on the decision-making of Scott and his character, as well as that of his closest subordinates.