The first women of Antarctica

PROLOGUE: England, 1914

Dr Marie Stopes held the chunk of raw coal in her hand, hefting its weight. She'd chiselled it from deep underground in the colliery tunnel, and kept it on her desk as a paperweight long after the other samples had been packed and stored in wooden drawers at the university. It contained an intricate leaf-fossil pattern, and fitted nicely in her fist.

She needed it today. The British Museum Natural History Report had arrived in the morning post.

It should have been a bag of Antarctic rocks sitting there on her desk, not a report. Marie gripped her piece of coal so hard that her knuckles turned white. It wasn't done to think ill of the dead but she cursed Robert Falcon Scott. He and his four men had died to bring those rocks back from Antarctica, imbuing them with far more than their own physical weight. A decade ago she'd been the one to teach him what to look for - how dare he send them to someone else?

According to the eminent Dr Seward of Cambridge, Scott's rocks were imprinted with the fossilised patterns of leaf veins, indicating that trees had once grown on Antarctica. But it should have been her to make the finding. Trained for precisely that purpose, her eye should have been the one to pick out the traces of ancient Glossopteris indica.

Marie had wanted to go with Scott. Wanted to chip the rocks from the seam near the Beardmore Glacier in the Queen Maud Mountains of Antarctica for herself. In the Manchester coal seam she'd known the thrill of levering out chunks of the earth to reveal its secrets. She'd found clues to the origins of the continents and saved them from being burned in factories and fireplaces across Britain. Without her, Scott wouldn't have brought the rocks back at all. Wouldn't have known what to look for.

Another woman, one more charming and persuasive, might have convinced Captain Scott to take her, but there was little place for charm in Antarctica and, it seemed, no place for a palaeobotanist either, if she happened to be female.

They had danced at their first meeting. Marie knew it wasn't her strength, but at the fundraising ball for the Terra Nova expedition it had been the easiest way for her to speak to him. She'd accepted his invitation and though he was short and slight, he was good on his feet and a firm leader, the kind you felt no hesitation in following.

But he tricked her. While they danced, he described the expedition and her fingers tightened on his arm. He was going to the place where the answers to her life's work lay. Etched in Antarctica's rocks, where no life now survived, might be the imprints of earlier life, evidence of how the continents had once embraced in a lover's grip - the fabled Gondwanaland.

"Take me," she'd said, with her usual bluntness and lack of forethought.

"But, my dear, it's impossible." His smile was all charm. "A woman cannot go to Antarctica."

"It was impossible for me to be Britain's youngest Doctor of Science, but it was done," she said.

He shook his head. "You've no idea of the hardships."

"I've been down Manchester collieries in winter looking for fossils," she replied. "Which was easier, on the whole, than convincing the University of Manchester to employ a female academic. You have no idea of my endurance."

The music ended and he stepped back. There were many influential wives for him to dance with and husbands still to fete, for the expedition funds were far from raised, she could see.

"I will give you an answer, but not till the night's end," he said. He bowed his head and excused himself.

The sly fox had told her his decision only after she'd pledged a donation to the trip and in this she caught a glimpse of his ruthlessness.

"But I'll have my men collect your rocks," he said, by way of consolation.

"Oh, really?" she'd snapped. "And how will your men know what rocks are of use to me, Captain Scott?"

"I will learn them myself," he said, his face serious. "I'll come to the university and you can teach me. I can give you three days, Miss Stopes."

"Dr Stopes. It's only taken me a decade to learn palaeobotany. I'm sure you'll pick it up in three days."

He was unperturbed. "I'm a fast learner."

Scott had stuck to his word and come to Manchester. She'd been rude when he arrived but he was interested and diligent in learning and she sent him away with a rudimentary knowledge of what to look for. She'd not have guessed, from his

cheerful demeanour, that he was a man who'd rather die than lighten his load by casting away those specimens.

For as it transpired, Robert Falcon Scott was on an inexorable path to his own death in a tent in Antarctica, on his bitter return from the South Pole, to which Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian, had beaten him by a month. Scott and his men had taken a day to gather the rocks on their way back. A precious day, as it turned out. They carried them all the way to their last camp, thirty-five pounds of specimens slowing their steps. Freed from their weight, might they have made the last eleven miles to One Ton Depot, and their salvation?

But though he was committed to her rocks, Scott had let her down in the end. By the time he died, eight years had passed since they'd met and he left no instructions to send the rocks to Marie. Instead, at the height of the public's grieving over Scott's death, the rocks went to Dr Seward of Cambridge.

The door to her study creaked open, startling her back into the present.

"My dear?" Reginald poked his head inside, his eyebrows raised.

In the years since meeting Scott, Marie had married, thinking it a simple enough transaction. She needed a man with a mind as sharp as her own, and Reginald at first seemed to fit the bill, being a Canadian geneticist. He had wooed her with wit and intelligence at a university dinner in Missouri while she was visiting America and she'd foolishly thought two days was enough to take her measure of the man, agreeing to his proposal at once, though stipulating that she would keep her own name.

But though they were both clever, neither Reginald nor Marie knew about love. Their marriage bed was as ice blown as Antarctica. She was ashamed to admit it but they hadn't consummated their union. Reginald, seeming unaroused by her in any way, was impervious to hint, suggestion or seduction. Marie had no idea what to do about it. Their marriage was heading the way of Scott's expedition, crawling towards a slow, frozen death.

It was a method of birth control, she supposed. She couldn't afford to fall pregnant, not now, with the success of her work imminent.

"Lunch is ready," he said. "Are you coming?"

"In a moment." Marie looked down at the rocks again. She waited until she heard the click of the door and exhaled heavily.

Ernest Shackleton was now planning an assault on Antarctica, in a ship called Endurance. The papers had reported the week before that he aimed to be the first man to sledge across the continent, a plan clearly formulated in a hurry once the South Pole was no longer a prize to be won. Another flurry of fundraising had begun.

Marie had composed a letter explaining the theory of Gondwana and asking to be included on his trip as a palaeobotanist. In a cruel twist, the reply had come just this morning, in the same post as the British Museum's report.

Sir Ernest Shackleton begs to thank Dr Marie Stopes for her letter, but regrets there are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.

She pounded the chunk of coal on the table, ripping the page containing Seward's words and smearing them with black. Damn them. Damn the lot of them.

The Australian Antarctic Division awarded local author Jesse Blackadder the 2011-12 Antarctic Arts Fellowship. She travelled to Antarctica in 2011 to research the first woman to reach Antarctica. Jesse has also been a writer in residence in Sitka Alaska, in outback Australia, at Byron Bay and at Varuna The Writers' House in the Blue Mountains.

Jesse's first novel was set in Byron Bay and called After the Party. Her second book, The Raven's Heart, was published in 2011 and her third, Chasing the Light, is out this year (HarperCollins 2013).

Jesse is writing a series of junior fiction novels (for readers aged 8-10). The first - Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica, will be published in July by ABC Books.

Jesse has won several writing awards, most recently the Guy Morrison prize for literary journalism, the Varuna HarperCollins Manuscript Development Award and the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Short Story Award.

Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Not whether we win or lose, but how we play

Not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.

Could farming the secret to longevity and living to 100?

Reg Allen turns 100 with staff, friends and family at St Joseph's Nursing Home in Lismore.

Gentle man turns 100 with wife by his side.

No chutney and scones on verandah today

Dr Airdre Grant

Life in the country you don't see in the magazines.

Latest deals and offers

The perils of play: How kids are most likely to be hurt

THE thought of your child suffering a life-threatening accident is the stuff of parents’ nightmares.

What price would you put on a kid's 'miracle'?

At nine years of age, Quiń had an accident that caused a cataract to one of his eyes. In an instant; this little boy with his whole life ahead of him faced a future of blindness.

Thousands of Aussies joining campaign to restore sight to kids

Mayor's plan to bring Son of Lismore's cabinet home

TALENTED: Geoff Hannah with Minister For The Arts Mitch Fifield, Jenny Dowell, Kevin Hogan, Thomas George and Brett Adlington at the opening and unveiling of his work at Lismore Regional Gallery.

Mayor Dowell wants famous cabinet for regional gallery

Flood watch issued for Qld, NSW

NSW State Emergency Service warns of heavy rain

Blood-stained clothes seized after axe attack

Lismore Court House.

A landlord has been charged over an axe attack on her tenant

School girl porn ring site goes offline

The Federal Government is yet to confirm if the site has been taken down or simply moved to different offshore servers.

Controversial Australian nude school girl rating site disappears.

John Williamson winding up for another Gympie Muster

John Williamson is bringing some new songs and artists to this year's Muster.

John Williamson is back and ready to put on his best show ever

Gina Rodriguez relished dramatic change for new film

Jane the Virgin lead Gina Rodriguez

TV star shaved her hair for movie role

Kooza takes circus-goers back to Cirque Du Soleil's roots

The high wire act as featured in Cirque Du Soleil's Kooza.

NEW show puts the skills of the performers front and centre.

Branson "amazed" he's still alive after cycling crash

Branson saw "his life flash before my eyes" during a bike crash

John Krasinski has better sex now he's in good shape

John Krasinski says there's at least one good reason to get jacked

Kanye West gets 'free reign' at VMAs

Kanye West has been let off the leash for the VMAs

Robbie Williams sings at manager's funeral

Robbie Williams and Lamar sang at the funeral of their manager

REVEALED: Pat Rafter's $18m Coast house on the market

Check out the photos of the Coast's most expensive property for sale

The "correction we had to have" in Gladstone's rentals

UPWARD MARCH: The rental vacancy rate in Gladstone has improved for the first time in more than a year, providing a confidence boost in the market.

Vacancy rates improve with signs that things are getting betterF

ISLAND FOR SALE: Cheap Fraser Coast island drops price again

Suna Island in the Great Sandy Strait will be auctioned by Ray White Hervey Bay on Saturday morning.

This is the cheapest island you will find for sale in Australia

How a family home can fit on a 250sq m block

This is what you can build on 250m2.

Here's the floor plan of a home built on 250sq m

Investors eye Gladstone's $4m island with resort approval

UP FOR SALE: Turtle Island is on the market.

CHINESE and Sydney investors flag interest in Gladstone island.

Take a sneak peek at this $19m Whitsunday mansion

Mandalay House features a private helipad.

Mandalay is currently on the market with an asking price of $19m