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.

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