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Ritter, Christiane

Category: Explorer or adventurer

with husband Hermann

Christiane Ritter was an Austrian painter.  In 1933, she travelled from Austria to the Arctic to join her husband, an explorer and researcher. 

She wrote A Woman in the Polar Night – her only book – after her return to Austria from Spitsbergen in 1935.  It was a best seller for many years in Europe and the original German edition has never been out of print. 

A Woman in the Polar Night was first published in German in 1938 as Eine Frau erlebt die Polarnacht. Before she wrote it, Christiane had never written anything of consequence.

The arrow on the map below of Spitsbergen shows the position of their hut.  They were taken there by boat

 

Introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night – Lawrence Millman

Christiane Ritter was neither an explorer nor a luminary. Instead, she was a well-to-do Austrian hausfrau who, prior to her year in Spitsbergen, had never strayed far from her comfortable surroundings. Yet perhaps because she had no interest in an Arctic Grail, whether the Pole, the Northwest Passage, or just an Unknown Land, she could appreciate the Arctic in ways that the aforementioned luminaries, wrapped in their Grail-oriented blinders, could not. And in appreciating the Arctic, indeed thriving in it, she gave the lie to the notion that women do not belong at the ends of the earth.

A less likely person to visit the Arctic, much less develop a passion for it, would be hard to imagine. The thirty-six-year-old Christiane had agreed to join her husband, Hermann, in Spitsbergen mostly, she wrote, in order to "read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart's content." Her friends and, later, the passengers on the cruise ship that brought her to Spitsbergen were appalled: a woman's place is, if not in the home, at least not in a geography so lacking in the usual amenities.

They would have been only slightly less appalled to learn that the only other women who'd spent time in Spitsbergen all had some sort of previous experience in the North.

 For Ritter, before she went,  'the Arctic was just another word for freezing and forsaken solitude', but she was lured by her husband's compelling stories of journeys over ice, the fascination of the wilderness and the illumination of one's self in the remoteness of the polar night.

Introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night – Lawrence Millman

 

The utter wretchedness of their hut ("a small, bleak, bare box") disturbed Christiane, at least at first. Although she doesn't actually admit it in her book, I suspect she was even more disturbed that another person-a Norwegian hunter named Karl Nicholaisen-would be sharing the cramped hut with her and her husband. For his part, Karl expected Christiane to go crazy sooner or later, probably sooner, and he figured that the various manifestations of this craziness would provide him with (as he later told explorer Willie Knutsen) "some mid-winter entertainment." Later, he changed his opinion of her. Christiane, he said to Knutsen, was "one hell of a woman." This is not a gendered or sexist remark, but-to this blunt hunter-a blunt truth.

Stuck in the hut by herself during an epic snow-storm, Christiane almost did go crazy. At the same time, she realised that, however tough the circumstances, she could survive them. And from then on, she did not think of the Arctic as an enemy. Rather, it was a realm "where everything goes its prescribed way. . . without man's intervention." Such was her transformation that she could even suggest that "in centuries to come, men will go to the Arctic as in biblical times they withdrew to the desert, to find the truth again." I can't imagine any polar explorer making a statement like this. . .

The book is quite beautiful, it is almost poetry in places.  There is no attempt to create angst in the reader, the abiding feeling is that here is a place where one can indeed meet one's god.  Ritter simply describes her year in the bleak tarpaulin covered hut, sixty miles from their nearest neighbour, with great reverence - the fjords, the wildlife, the treks and adventures and the overwhelming majesty and beauty of the place.

 Particularly vivid are her descriptions of what the 'polar night', which of course lasts months and months, can do to you.  She came back a changed person, but the change was entirely positive.

Introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night – Lawrence Millman

 

As for Christiane, she didn't really need to return to the Arctic wilderness, since she brought it home with her, or at least brought home a radically different way of looking at the world. A short while after she got back from Spitsbergen, the Ritter family estate burned to the ground. But rather than go into mourning over the loss of her home and virtually all of her possessions, Christiane was more or less grateful, according to her daughter Karin. For she could now live simply without a surfeit of ballast, just as she'd lived in the hut in Grahuken.

"A year in the Arctic should be compulsory to everyone," she would say to friends and family, in fact almost everyone she knew, adding: "Then you will come to realise what's important in this life and what isn't."

Her year in the Arctic seems to have had a quite salubrious effect on Christiane's own life. Alert and active until the very end, she died on December 29, 2000, at the remarkable age of 103.

 

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