Scott of the flamboyant

Kathleen Scott, the exuberant wife of the Antarctic explorer, flouted convention and kept her upper lip stiff. By Miranda Seymour A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young Macmillan pounds 20
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Louisa Young is Kathleen Scott's grand-daughter and this is her first book. Free of source notes and full of colloquialisms, it is written with the brio of a latterday Mitford. A solemn portrait of the exuberant, love-hungry, adventure-mad Lady Scott - widow of the Antarctic explorer - would have been a disastrous enterprise. Young's enthusiasm and good cheer carry the day, although there are many occasions on which her habit of jumping from one subject to the next leaves the reader in a state of amused bewilderment.

The case for Lady Scott's overweening need for love and admiration - every compliment was noted in her diaries, as was every fresh conquest - seems to be that she was deprived of love in childhood and felt a desperate need to make up for it. The 11th and last child of a quiet, conventional man, Canon Bruce, and a half-Greek mother with exotic antecedents, she was born in 1878. Her mother died two years later and was speedily replaced by Mrs Parker, a rich and amiable widow. But if Kathleen felt deprived, there is little sign of it in Young's spirited account. The focus in the early pages is on Rosslyn, her pleasantly eccentric brother, and "Presh" and "Hodge", the two sisters closest to her in age. Kathleen, as the youngest, was her stepmother's favourite.

Drawing and painting were high on the list of useful accomplishments for young ladies in those days. Kathleen's talent was exceptional enough for her to be allowed to reject living in Ireland with an old uncle and enroll instead at the Slade under Henry Tonks. At the age of 24, she decided that she could have more fun in Paris, where her diary shows her to have been as carefree as George du Maurier's famous Trilby, but far too independent to need a Svengali. Her innocence was profound. The prospect of painting a naked male model appalled her, and she was puzzled by her landlady's efforts to pay a young man to visit her bedroom. She was among the rare few who achieved a friendship with Rodin without having to go to bed with him.

Men, in Kathleen's view, were of less interest as sexual objects - Young convincingly argues that her numerous flirtations never became affairs - than as potential fathers for her child. This obsession was enduring and often faintly absurd. Reviewing the lengthy procession of her admirers at the age of 28, she noted that not one was worthy to father her son. "Still, what dears they were, so new and exciting."

The eventual provider of this holy, long-sought child was Captain Falcon ("Con") Scott. Already well-known as an explorer when he met Kathleen, he shared her love of freedom and accepted her need to rush off on wild adventures at the drop of a hat. There is no doubt that they were ideally matched. Her resolute cheerfulness helped to drive off the despair which frequently consumed Scott. Her independence enabled him to leave her without fear when he set off on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1911. In his pocket was a letter from his wife, in which she had written, from herself and their son, Peter: "If there's anything you think worth doing at the cost of your life - do it. We shall only be glad. Do you understand me?"

This courageous attitude saw Kathleen Scott through a horrifying year. The news of her husband's death reached England when she was still travelling to meet him. When word was brought to her on the boat, she gave no sign of grief. So little did she show that many people, mistakenly, assumed that she was unaffected. "I reveal nothing, ever," she wrote in her diary, shortly before her second marriage to Edward Hilton Young, best known to Bloomsbury addicts as the man who was turned down by Virginia Stephen before she married Leonard Woolf.

As Lady Hilton Young and, after his promotion to the Lords, as Lady Kennet, Kathleen confirmed her reputation as a well known and highly professional sculptor. (Her best-known work, modelled from a nude study of Lawrence of Arabia's brother, is in the Scott Polar Institute at Cambridge.) Her best friends continued to be men. Many fell in love with her, entranced by her gaiety and indifference to convention. Others, like Shaw and Barrie, were attracted by her directness and sharp, somewhat masculine mind. She loved them all, but, after Scott's death, the greatest passions in her life were her two sons. Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was briefly married to Peter Scott, has fictionalised the real-life incident in which her mother-in-law threatened to kill her if she ever caused Peter unhappiness, and added that she would enjoy doing it.

The "great task of happiness" which Louisa Young has taken for her title was life itself. Kathleen Scott's most admirable, and disquieting quality, was her refusal to accept that it could be otherwise. In her diary, she admitted to weeping night after night over the loss of her first husband; publicly, she was almost ruthless in her determination to be joyful. Grieving mothers in the First World War were told that their sorrow meant nothing; Kathleen described her own wartime years in London as "an endless ecstasy of delight." Such views are a little hard to take, but, as Louisa Young ably demonstrates, they were born of an uncommon energy and courage, a determination to seize experience with both hands and wrest everything from it. In this, few women have been the equal of her formidable grandmother.