Ernest to Emily

November 9, 2015

I have already made arrangements with Heinemann…and it means £10,000 if we are successful…and the book can pay off guarantees if the people really want them but I think they will not ask for them if we are successful…’

‘…I think it will be worth £30,000 in the way of lecturing alone…’

Then Sweetheart we will settle down to a quiet life with our little ones.’

[Source: Ernest to Emily, 14 August 1907, R. W. Daly, The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition (Norwich, 2009), p. 301.]


These lines in a letter from Ernest Shackleton, before his 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition, to his wife Emily (née Dorman) is revealing of several characteristics of ‘the Boss’.

Shackleton’s expeditions were financed in a variety of ways and often insufficiently. He used an array of sources and utilised his connections and contacts to gather together money. Official sources (parliament, the monarchy, institutions such as the Royal Geographic Society and the Royal Society) were often not as accommodating as Ernest would have liked or expected. Commercial financing was to be of significance for funding before and after the expedition, and here we read Shackleton detailing these considerations to Emily.

Heinemann publishing house was founded by William Heinemann in London in 1890. After negotiations Shackleton speculated that the value of the deal would be £10,000—if the expedition to reach the South Pole was successful. Shackleton was taking chances with the success of the sales of a book that he hadn’t written about an expedition that hadn’t left yet. However, previous expeditions had cashed in on book sales that fed a great interest and market in stories of exploration, daring adventure and charting the unknown parts of the world.

The book that was produced following the expedition was The Heart of the Antarctic and was the output of the successful cooperation between Shackleton and the young New Zealand journalist Edward Saunders. Shackleton dictated to Saunders, (making best use of Shackleton’s natural talent for story-telling) and Saunders took extensive notes, turning then later into strong readable prose.

Title page of volume 1 The Heart of the Antarctic published by William Heinemann

Shackleton dedicated the work ‘To my wife’.

To download and read The Heart of the Antarctic, free online, visit the links below from The Internet Archive:

Vol. I

Vol. II


Lecturing took Shackleton all over the world, seeing Europe, North America and Australasia across different legs of the tour. For a souvenir leaflet of a lecture Shackleton gave entitled ‘Nearest the South Pole’ see the National Library of Ireland link below for their digitised copy.

In time, however, Ernest became bored and drained by the constant touring, giving the same lecture night after night. The vast distances travelled for lectures took its toll and put pressure on the relationship between himself and Emily. Lecturing and book sales were really his only sources of income so, despite his disillusionment, he had to continue.

For more information on the Nimrod book and subsequent touring, see M. Smith, Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Cork, 2014), pp.229-236.


The purpose of Shackleton’s polar adventures was, according to this letter, to create financial certainty for himself and Emily so that they could, then, live a ‘quiet life’ together with their children. This kind of life was, presumably, to be a comfortable middle-class existence in England with contented working and much doting and care for the Shackleton offspring. However, we could speculate whether this would ever have been the case. Even if the Nimrod expedition had been fully successful and reached the South Pole, would Ernest ever be satisfied with the ‘quiet life’? His restless spirit and need for an outlet for his energies, dreams and almost boyish enthusiasm may have left him looking for more.

Although his personality would likely have carried him on the route to further adventure, he was a romantic at heart too. It is likely that, at the time of penning the letter, he really did mean what he wrote and pictured an idyllic family scene for himself, Emily and the children. It can be argued that, on one hand, the polar exploits of Ernest were a way of showing Emily what he was capable of doing and proving himself to her.

Shackleton’s interest in Scott’s Discovery expedition had not only come from his desire for adventure, but also from his desire for his fortune and a way of impressing both Emily and her father Charles Dorman. [See Smith, Shackleton, pp. 52-54.] The Merchant Navy could not provide the fulfilment for Shackleton’s ambitions and so the zeitgeist of the age, Antarctic exploration, was a next step towards earning an income and reputation that would be capable of providing for a traditional family life with Emily.

For portraits of Emily, Ernest and their children, see the National Portrait Gallery website and search ‘Shackleton’.


For a discussion of the ‘talented and determined Emily Shackleton’, among the stories of six other adventuring women who were also attached to explorers, see:

Herbert, K. Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women Behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers

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