A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), is a memoir of the author’s year spent living with her husband, Hermann, and another hunter, Karl Nicholaisen, in a small hut on the coast of Grey Hook. This is a barren, stony flatland sticking out into the Arctic Ocean between Woodfjord and Wijdefjord on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Hermann often spent months in this part of the world where he would trap foxes and bears for food and the animal’s valuable pelts. Christiane joined him in the summer of 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany. Experiencing life in the Arctic changed her views on European values and concerns. The daily struggle to stay alive and the need to work with nature had a profound impact on the wealthy Austrian housewife who had left her teenage daughter behind to partake in this adventure.
The story opens with some background. Hermann had previously spent three winters in the Arctic as a trapper, gathering scientific information on the region. In letters and other written correspondence he encouraged his wife to join him, promising her a boudoir in the hut he would take in Spitsbergen. Eventually Hermann’s diaries persuaded Christiane that she could spend a comfortable and interesting winter relaxing, reading books and admiring the landscape. She set out on a ship from Hamburg with more luggage than Hermann had advised.
Arriving in the Arctic Christianne is met by her husband and they continue their journey on a small steamer. Also on board is Karl. The author learns for the first time that he will be living with them.
“We shake hands and smile at each other. We cannot do any more because Karl does not speak German and I do not speak Norwegian.”
Twenty-four hours later they arrive at Grey Hook and disembark. The hut they will be staying in is tiny but Karl and Hermann are delighted with it. A small ante-room leads to the interior containing bunks, a table and a damaged, smoky stove. The promised boudoir has not yet been built.
“I had imagined Spitsbergen otherwise.”
“I have to put it to myself as a hard geographical fact, how alone we are up here. Nobody as far as the north pole, nobody across the sea until Novaya Zemlya, and nobody for three hundred miles southward…”
The following year is covered in journal style, written mainly in the present tense. Thus the reader experiences the evolving situation as events occur. With no choice but to accept what she has taken on, Christiane observes her husband’s behaviour – so different to how he acts when at his family estate in Austria.
“I am amazed at my husband who seems to have quite forgotten how a European woman is accustomed to live. He seems to take it completely for granted that I will feel quite at home in this wretched hut, with beasts of prey for company. Anyhow, his way of introducing me to the wilderness does not seem very considerate.”
As well as contending with the beast of a smoky stove, Christiane must spend periods alone while the men go off to hunt. It is on one such occasion that she experiences her first Arctic storm and the hut is buried under snow. The elemental dangers and severely limited food supplies are recurring challenges. Added to these is the need to cope psychologically. The men have developed a stoicism that Christiane must cultivate. She has heard tales of women who have lost their minds in such circumstances and Karl fully expects her to be similarly afflicted.
As the never ending summer daylight leaves them, and the constant darkness of the winter months descends, Christiane must find routines to keep her from despair. Gradually she comes to appreciate the attraction of the region – its terrible beauty and man’s insignificance. Anxieties revolve around basic survival. It is only the essentials for life that have true value.
“Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation. Only now do I grasp the real meaning and the world-transforming element in the saying: “Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.”
The author writes of the cold, the soot from the stove, the lack of meat and other food supplies. She must learn to deal with damp sleeping bags, mildewed bedding and the necessary mending of worn out clothes. Christiane’s day to day role is as housewife, although she writes movingly of the bleak landscape that she eventually comes to appreciate. This is fine travel writing and nature writing as well as memoir.
As an explanation of why anyone would choose to live in the Arctic I remain perplexed. If man’s place in nature is understood by the author and the hunters then why can’t they leave the native creatures they encounter alone in their environment? Why stay?
Occasional artistic pencil sketches add to the imagery of the prose, although the polar bear depiction is distressing if evocative. The book is concluded with photographs taken of Hermann and Christiane and the hut at Grey Hook that brings home how basic it was.
An interesting and well written memoir that vividly portrays life in an extreme and inhospitable place. Despite being baffled as to why anyone would choose such a risky and invasive lifestyle, the tale enables the reader to appreciate how beautiful and balanced anywhere could be – if left to nature.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.