If you were stuck at the South Pole, what would you read?
Holed up in a tiny cave for seven months, explorers stayed sane with ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens
In January 1912, with winter roaring in, the scientific party attached to Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, the British attempt to conquer the South Pole, reached the Antarctic shore. A whaler was supposed to meet them there, but they soon discovered that it wasn’t coming after all, the ship having become stuck fast in heavy pack ice about 44km away.
After three months of sledging through the frozen interior, their supplies nearly gone, their tents whipped to ribbons by the wind, the six men were exhausted – so weak that a kilometre’s walk left them shaking. Nevertheless, in the hurricane-force gales, they hollowed out a cave inside a snowdrift. Little did they know that they would live in this 2.7m by 3.7m space for seven long, awful months.
Even though it was pitch-black for much of the time, they had no change of clothes, nothing to eat but penguin or seal meat, and all of the men contracted dysentery, “the worst of the waiting”, recalled Raymond Priestly, in his 1914 account, “was the lack of books”. They had only a small number with them, one of which was David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and it became their means of staying sane, if not alive.
They rationed themselves to a chapter a night, read aloud by the guttering flame of a seal-blubber lamp, removing their frozen fingers from their gloves for a few seconds to turn the pages. By the end of their ordeal, Priestly remarked that they had read the book so many times, “that I could pass a stiff examination in it”. When they emerged from the cave, its leather cover was coated in blubber grease, its pages stippled with sooty fingerprints. You can see these still: the book survived, as did the men, who finally returned to Britain in June 1913.
It is on show at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, part of an exhibition devoted to the ways in which the Victorian author’s novels have travelled around the world, as well as his own excursions to places such as Genoa, Lausanne and Washington. Dickens’s works were particularly suited to the way they were enjoyed in the ice cave. His books were written to be read in serial form: each chapter constructed to provide a neat rise and fall and an addictive cliffhanger.
“Dickens is such a vivid storyteller,” says Frankie Kubicki, the exhibition’s curator. “His novels have so much description and so many distinct characters, each with their own voice, that he really can take you to a different place. It would have given the men a few minutes a day where they could escape their predicament.” There is a long tradition of polar expeditions taking libraries of books to the ends of the Earth. Scott and his team took about 900 books, a third of which were novels, on the Discovery expedition of 1901-04.
When Sir John Franklin set out in 1845 to attempt to discover the North West Passage, meanwhile (which Wilkie Collins drew upon to write his 1856 play The Frozen Deep), his party took about 2,000, including Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. And the diaries of those on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance expedition suggest the crew enjoyed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Coleridge poem; and Dombey and Son, by Dickens. “Books were even taken on sledging journeys, which is remarkable,” says Claire Warrior, a polar expedition historian at the National Maritime Museum and trustee of the Dickens Museum, “because in those situations every ounce of weight counts.”
While an explorer might go as far as cutting the labels out of their clothes and removing the handles from their toothbrushes to ensure that they travelled with as little weight as possible, they still considered a whacking great Victorian novel or two essential to their wellbeing.
Poetry was a popular choice for this very reason: it came in slim volumes. But also because, explained Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in his 1922 Terra Nova memoir, “it gave one something to learn by heart and repeat during the blank hours of the daily march, when the idle mind is all too apt to think of food in times of hunger, or possibly of purely imaginary grievances, which may become distorted into real foundations of discord under the abnormal strain of living for months in the unrelieved company of three other men.”
Predictably, survival guides and accounts of previous expeditions were considered essential: “We were constantly referring to them on specific points and getting useful hints, such as the use of an inner lining to our tents, and the mechanism of a blubber stove,” writes Cherry-Garrard. And encyclopaedias, histories of England and dictionaries were almost always included, if only because they were invaluable in settling arguments, one account commented wryly.
Cookery books were also surprisingly popular. The Australian team led by Sir Douglas Mawson favoured Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management on their 1911 expedition to the Antarctic, while Shackleton’s men recalled being “thrilled” by a penny cookbook in their library.
As Elizabeth Leane notes in her book Antarctica in Fiction, many of the books donated to expeditions by publishers or well-wishers were colonial adventure fiction, which matched and even shaped the way the explorers likely saw themselves: as brave explorers expanding the British empire.
Cherry-Garrard offered advice to those donating books: “We were very well provided with such authors as Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Bulwer-Lytton and Dickens,” he began. “With all respect to the kind givers of these books I would suggest that the literature most acceptable to us ... was the best of the more recent novels, such as Barrie, Kipling, Merriman and Maurice Hewlett. We certainly should have taken with us as much of Shaw, Barker, Ibsen and Wells as we could lay our hands on,” he adds, “for the train of ideas started by these works and the discussions to which they would have given rise would have been a godsend to us in our isolated circumstances.”
Some of the men pooled resources and shared books, though others kept theirs hidden (on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, Thomas Lees admitted in his diary that he had kept his book “absolutely secret” in the bottom of his sleeping bag for a full six months).
“For those Heroic Age explorers, who were often in very difficult conditions, reading aloud was also a means of keeping themselves together as a unit,” says Warrior. “As an explorer, you’re so completely dependent on the people around you. They are as responsible for your survival as you are. So maintaining a strong social bond in often very claustrophobic circumstances, where tensions could easily arise, is crucial. It could save your life.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)