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Book Review - Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer




By Heather Rossiter

Published by Random House Australia, May 2001 $21.95

Includes 8 page picture section

A controversial new history of the 1911 Mawson Antarctic expedition

A story of the real-life inspiration for Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair

An intriguing look at the ‘female’ subject of one of Australia’s

most famous paintings

A spellbinding ‘reads like fiction, but it’s all true’ biography of

Herbert Dyce Murphy was born in 1879 to a wealthy Melbourne family. Rejecting his father’s traditional plans for him, he signed on to a wool clipper as a teenage apprentice, and ended up on whaling ships in the Arctic. It was then on to Oxford University in the UK, where he so convincingly played a woman on stage that British Intelligence recruited him to spy, in drag, in pre WW1 Europe.

In 1911 Murphy sailed with the Mawson expedition to the Antarctic; a trip of terrible hardships which claimed lives- probably unnecessarily, says Rossiter. Using original source material, she paints an astonishing picture of day-to-day life on the frozen continent and expertly draws the reader back to a time when youthful adventurers risked all they had, in the name of exploration.

Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer shines the spotlight at last on a remarkable Australian hero,whose story has been hidden for too long.

Heather Rossiter was born in Tasmania. She worked for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the US Atomic Energy Commission and as a science teacher at Sydney Grammar School. She has always had a passion for travel and since retirement has been on many trips exploring Russia, the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and the arts of Islam. For the last few years, she has published reviews, articles and travel journalism. Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer is her first book. She lives in Sydney.

For review, interview and permission to reproduce pictures please contact Annie Coulthard - Ph 02 8923 9851

Writers to Remember - Heather Rossiter

How did you first come across Herbert?

Herbert has been on the periphery of my consciousness for probably half a century. When your family has been in Australia for as long as mine, you have a vast number of connections ... my uncle was the inheritor of the Murphy estate. I have a beautiful book from Herbert’s library which shows the complete Bayeux Tapestry in a series of colour facsimiles. There is an introduction by Hilaire Belloc and each page has Belloc’s narrative to explain the meaning of the panel. Herbert knew Belloc at Oxford - Belloc was a tutor when Herbert was a student. The book was published in 1914 and Herbert’s inscription is dated that year so he obviously hurried out to get a copy of what was probably a very limited and very expensive (because of the hand-colouring of the plates) edition. But I had no curiosity about him or his life, there was only a passive awareness of someone who I knew would have been in tune with if we had ever met

What drew you to his story?

That passivity changed when I read a mention of him in David Marr’s biography of Patrick White. At first I couldn’t believe he could be talking about the first owner of my lovely book, but having settled that, my second thought was that the reference to Herbert as the inspiration for White’s The Twyborn Affair was absolutely intriguing. Shortly afterwards I went to Tasmania and quizzed my uncle, and he showed me bits and pieces and almost as soon as I got home to Sydney I found myself trotting off to the Mitchell Library and the State Library. I was suddenly very curious indeed: there seemed so many indicators all going in different directions. Then there was a very busy period in my life, but even during that I was still shuffling through things, thinking, doubting, questioning, and then I realised that what I was doing was getting together the material for a book.

What was the point at which you decided you must write the book?

I never consciously decided I would write it, I just found I was doing so - that is, if you can call all that huge research that goes on, part of the writing. It is really, because an early summary I made of his character appears on one of the printed pages, and early notes on events are there too, relatively unchanged, but all in a new sequence. It is interesting that that first summary of the character was valid to the end. I always felt he was looking over my shoulder saying "So you know that much about me, now pin me down," then dancing off and leaving me to the struggle.

Tell us about your research.

Because the Mitchell was there, with all its huge holding of Australasian Antarctic Expedition material, and the State Library was there with all its helpful librarians, I began on two fronts: the expedition itself in which Herbert was appointed to lead a third landing party which never landed (as such), and simultaneously I looked at things Herbert had written and what had been written about him. Like all research, one item then leads to another three, so what began with only a few leads soon had so many files open it would have become a wilderness without a little discipline. With a life like Herbert’s, lived in so many different milieus and with so many different historical characters impinging, it is not the shortage but the abundance of material that is the challenge.

 So after I had literally shivered my way through the expeditioners hand-written diaries and sledge diaries and had got a grasp of what was really going on down in Antarctica 1911-1913, and it wasn’t what the varnished accounts tell us, either, I took a flight down there to see for myself what that world looked like. I was so lucky - we had perfect weather. Everything was white: the continent, the ice fringe and even in the sea there were huge white icebergs either bobbing about or stranded on subsurface reefs. The sunlight beamed down and was reflected by all the white and it was so bright that it was like looking down the barrel of a microscope. Everything seemed magnified because of the clarity and intensity of the light. There were seals lying on bits of floe-ice looking like black slugs on a gravel path and all the crevasses, like the one that Ninnis fell down, were slashed across the landscape. But the hugest thrill was that my mental picture built up in those hours in the library perfectly matched what I was actually seeing. Even Macquarie Island was how Captain Davis had described it - a whale lying amid the leaping racing seas.

By 1995 I felt I had netted his rich Melbourne family, his Antarctic experience, and his later life on the Mornington Peninsula, but there were all his stories about whaling in the Arctic, spying for Military Intelligence, being painted as a woman by E Phillips Fox - where was the evidence for that? His Norwegian daughters - where did they come from?

So off I went to Europe and the Arctic and almost to the North Pole - at 81° North the captain said as the propeller starting churning ice: OK chaps we’ll go home now - and I found out amazing things and filled new folders. But I still could not see how the incidents he described fitted into the years between 1895 and 1911. I began to doubt Herbert. Was it all a lie? His stories were always cryptic, he, Herbert, was almost incidental to what he was telling you about, and it didn’t seem possible that one man could have lived all those different experiences in 16 years.

What was the most memorable moment during the writing of Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer?

In Australia again I kept writing letters and generally beavering away, then one day I realised that only someone who had been in Franz Josef Land before the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition returned, and before Nansen published his account of his attempt on the North Pole, could have known one of the tiny details in a Herbert story.

Suddenly I knew he had been there and when he was there. A fixed point! Two days later a letter came from one of the innumerable New Zealand libraries I had been stirring up with a copy of the Bluff shipping news for 30 September 1902. I had him!

Fixed point number 2. He sailed in on the Carte Blanche and left at seven in the evening on the SS Mokoia, along with ‘Mr and Mrs Allen and two children, and Mr McKinnon’.

From then on it was a downhill run.

After all your labours on his life…what kind of man do you think Herbert was?

A man as amusing, as witty, as well read and well informed as Herbert was - who could not be charmed by him? He took himself so lightly and disliked pretention so much that he was easily under-rated, but he could make you ‘laugh until your sides ached,’ as Laseron said about him. He was the absolute antithesis of Douglas Mawson. I never met him, but I feel I know him intimately.

Now that the book is published, have you finished your work on Herbert’s life?

There are episodes in Herbert’s life, such as the trip to and away from the Lena River in connection with the von Troll Arctic expedition (which was lost in the ice and almost completely to our Australian libraries), which I have not been able to explore fully, but I feel that those are minor matters that would not alter the picture, only put a brush stroke in the corner. I don’t want to go on further. I’m a scientist by training, and I have reviewed the literature, gathered the data, tested it, drawn a conclusion, and published. I’ve done the best I can. If someone else wants to have a go, well that’s great, but I want to move on.

For review, interview and permission to reproduce pictures - please contact Annie Coulthard - Ph 02 8923 9851