Dickens: Setting Poles Apart by Emily Smith


The nineteenth century was an era of discovery, filled with expeditions to the North and South Poles. Dickens, like many other Victorians, was enthralled by these voyages and avidly read about them in the press and books. This interest in the poles was not an unusual pastime for Dickens who was fascinated by the world and owned a large number of travel books about many different countries and places, such as Elisha Kane’s Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, 1854, 1855.[1]

Illustration from Dickens’s edition of Elisha Kane’s Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, 1854, 1855), [lib]1006 (1868)
© Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens wrote his own pieces about the Arctic, including two articles entitled ‘The Lost Arctic Voyagers’ in 1854 which explored the fates of the lost Franklin expedition. The crew and their Captain Sir John Franklin never returned after they left England for the Arctic in 1845, and despite sensational rumours of cannibalism the voyage captured the imaginations of the Victorian public at large.[2]

This voyage had such a strong effect on the author that he and Wilkie Collins created the play ‘The Frozen Deep’ which explored the same Arctic expedition. The play was initially performed in Dickens’s home Tavistock House, and Dickens starred in it. Queen Victoria came to watch it and described it as ‘most interesting, intensely dramatic, and most touching, and moving, at the end.’ She adds, ‘The Play was admirably acted by Charles Dickens … We were all kept in breathless suspense, and much impressed’. [3]

Playbill of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep, (1857) 
© Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens’s relationship with the poles did not end with his death in 1870; his works continued to circulate the globe, and one particular copy of Dickens’s work went on a fascinating adventure.

In 1910, Robert Falcon Scott and his men set out on the Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica, in order to reach the South Pole. In 1912, Scott split his group in two. The Northern Party was established to do additional geological work while Scott ventured south towards the pole. In the winter of 1912, the Northern Party became stranded, as the increase in sea ice meant they could not be picked up by a ship as had been planned. Instead, the men built themselves an ice cave, which became their home for several months.[4] The men faced challenging conditions, as the party’s clothes were too thin to keep them warm, and they had very little food. Conditions were cramped and the cave was only 5 foot, 6 inches tall so none of the men could even stand up straight inside.

Raymond E Priestley was a member of the Northern Party and wrote a book about their experiences. After dinner every night, one man would read aloud from the three books they had with them. One of them was a copy of David Copperfield, alongside The Life of Stevenson, and Simon the Jester.  Priestley recalled how they read one chapter each night for over sixty days.[5] As Dickens had written the book in monthly parts, the building tension and cliff-hangers helped to entertain the men and distract them from their hardship.[6]  When they had finished David Copperfield, Priestley wrote that the men were ‘very sorry to part with him’.[7] They finished all three books and even read the Review of Reviews cover to cover, including the advertisements. At the end of September 1912, the party left their ice cave and managed to make it back to base camp by the beginning of November. The copy of David Copperfield made this journey with them and was gifted to a seaman who had served with Scott when the party eventually returned to New Zealand.

Cheap edition of David Copperfield which went to Antarctica, 1910
© Charles Dickens Museum

In 1955, the New Zealand branch of the Dickens Fellowship gifted the book to the Charles Dickens Museum, where it remains today, completing its worldwide adventure.

The David Copperfield connection to Antarctica has continued. In 1916, when Sir Ernest Shackleton established a camp near Antarctica they named it Peggotty’s Bluff, as, like the Peggotty family, they made the boat their home. The bluff, or rounded cliff, is still known by this name today. Other Dickens novels have also made their way to Antarctica with adventurers including Bleak House.[8] Perhaps more of Dickens’s works will eventually find their way onto other expeditions to the poles.



Emily Smith was the assistant curator for the exhibition Global Dickens: For Every Nation Upon Earth. She is currently a PhD candidate working with Royal Holloway University of London and the Charles Dickens Museum, researching Dickens and literary heritage.


[1] His copy is part of the Charles Dickens Museum collection.
[2] Charles Dickens, ‘The Lost Arctic Voyagers’, Household Words. (2 December 1854) pp. 362-65 and Charles Dickens, ‘The Lost Arctic Voyagers’, Household Words. (9 December 1854) pp. 387-393.
[3] Editorial notes of letter to John Forster, 5th/6th July 1857, Kathleen Mary Tillotson and Graham Storey (eds), The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 8: 1856–1858.
[4] Raymond E Priestley, Antarctic Adventure Scott’s Northern Party (New York: Dutton and Company, 1915), p. 252.
[5] Raymond E Priestley, Antarctic Adventure Scott’s Northern Party, p. 257
[6] Elizabeth Leane, Antarctica in Fiction: Imaginative Narratives of the Far South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 116.
[7] Raymond E Priestley, Antarctic Adventure Scott’s Northern Party, p. 258.
[8] Leane, Antarctica in Fiction, p. 114.

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