THERE is an undercurrent of gentle helplessness to the career of poor Robert Falcon Scott. He was carried along on it, never quite in control of his destiny, from the moment he was saddled with the financial support of a genteel, impoverished mother, to his last bitter hours on the Antarctic icecap. There, in March 1912, behind schedule, short of food, wracked by frostbite, Scott died in the snow after he had failed in his attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole. Like the Siberian ponies he mistakenly hoped would pull his sledges across the glaciers, Scott of the Antarctic was sadly out of his element.

Yet this same man was made a national hero by the British. His country-men raised statues to him, founded a great research institute in his honor, and to this day a polar base is named after him.

So it is with great compassion that Elspeth Huxley has written a new biography. She sees him as the pawn of his patrons, especially of Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society. Sir Clements picked out Scott when he was still a very junior Navy officer, and firmly nudged the young man into volunteering to lead a polar expedition aboard Discovery, the first ship ever built in Britain specifically for scientific research. The Discovery expedition (1901-4) was a success - it brought back two years' worth of meteorological records, rock collections, discovered fossil remains in Antarctica, and achieved 28 sledging treks under the most gruelling conditions.

Public opinion now reinforced the patrons, and the undercurrent grew stronger, sweeping Scott forward. He was just the right man, it was said, to lead the assault on the South Pole and get there ahead of the rival Americans (Peary had just reached 90 North), Germans and Scandinavians. Scott would get there, and hoist the Union Jack. Scott disagree - he was much more interested in scientific work - but he went anyhow. Elspeth Huxley shows just how filled with doubts he was, often weary, always reluctant to trundle down the groove others had indicated for him. His ambition was to be a good officer in the Royal Navy, learn about torpedo warfare and command his own ship, perhaps a squadron, and rise to admiral. Polar exploration at the behest of his superiors was only a means to this end.

And here is a point that the new biography misses: that Scott was admirably suited to this role. His genuine virtues were justice, fairness, and a balanced outlook. His situation brought these virtues to the forefront. He could afford to be just, fair and even-handed, because he enjoyed the luxury of being a serving officer while he was an axplorer. He still had his Navy pay accumulating at home while he was on the icecap; exploring done, he could return to the service and pick up his carrer, and the retire with a pension. In short, Scott was singularly fortunate un that he could concentrate on the exploring job in hand, and not worry about his personal affairs.

A more self-cinfident or deeply motivated that man should have no flow in such a happy position. But in Scott's case, the security of the Service blunted the cutting edge of neccessity and ambition. His two rival, Amundsen and Shackleton lacked that comfortable fall-back. They had succed or go under. Amundsen was being hounded by creditors - in fact he sailed early to avoid them - and Shackleton was driven by a demon. He went exploring because he wanted desperately to succeed, not because a patron pushed him into it. In the end Sackletor and Amundsen ame back alive and sucessful because they drove themselves and their men so hard. Ironically Scott, with apparently less to lose, actually lost his life.

Poor - Scott - whenever he turned, much to much was expected of him. Even his wife, an unexpected and glamorous figure, an artist who had tramped Europe like a gypsy, married him after the Discovery expedition because she thought Scott fit to father her Children. So while Scott havered about his career, she went swimming in the English Channel a week before the birth and named the boy atter Peter Pan.

The second, fatal, expedition went out, admirably staffed, with Herbert Ponitng, the finest pioneer photographer ever to have visited the Antarctic, and Edward Wilson, one of the best polar artists. Their work was to serve as a dazzling record of the venture. Other members of the team included one man who would become the first professor of geography at Cambridge University, and another who became professor of geography at University of Chicago. Scott led them ably and well until that final heartbreaking trudge to reach the South Pole.

How that final debacle is handled is the touchstone of any book about Scott. It is an oft-told: two men of the assault sledging party already dead in their tracks; the three survivors pinned down by the bizzard only 12 miles ahort in their life-giving supply depot. In the wind-flailed tent, food and fire, and eventually life itself flickers out. Elspeth Huxley handles the scene poignantly and very well, and reminds us that Scott's corpse is till there, close to where the search party him, a frozen hero entombed in the glacier ice slowly moving towards the sea.