Home South pole ice Remembering the ‘ice widows’ of a doomed Antarctic expedition

Remembering the ‘ice widows’ of a doomed Antarctic expedition

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In October 1907, sculptor Kathleen Bruce was enjoying tea time at a friend’s house. Many fabulous bohemian types were present – actors, artists, writers. But one person stood out from Bruce, Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott. “He was not very young, maybe forty, nor very handsome, but he looked very healthy and alert, and I shone rather dumbly and suddenly when I clearly saw him asking for his neighbor who I was,” she later wrote in her diary. . In the year they got married. Four months later, Bruce was pregnant. And three years later her husband was dead. After reaching the South Pole on his second Antarctic expedition, only to find that a Swedish team had beaten them there, Scott, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates and Henry Bowers all perished in their attempt to return to Earth. base camp.

The tragic story of the Terra Nova Expedition has always centered on the five men who walked into the icy expanse in November 1910, but never came out. The widows they left behind have long been relegated to the role of secondary characters. In his new book Ice Widows: The Women Left Behind by Scott’s Antarctic Expeditionauthor Anne Fletcher centers this story around the wives of three of the explorers: Kathleen Scott, Oriana Wilson and Lois Evans.

Dark Atlas spoke with Fletcher about what their stories reveal, an intrusive press, and why she likes Robert Falcon Scott more because of Kathleen.

Within hours of news of the Terra Nova Expedition’s tragic end, reporters showed up at the doorstep of Lois Evans and her three children, Norman, Muriel and Ralph (left to right). John Evans

Why did you want to tell the stories of these three women?

I was taught history in school in the 70s and I read history in college in the 80s, and I don’t think that other than Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, we have ever spoken of a single woman. I started thinking about the “Big Man” version of the story and I started thinking, surely, there had to be women in those stories. And I landed on Scott. Of the five men who went to the South Pole, including Scott, three were married. It was therefore these three women that I wanted to know. What happened to them when the guys didn’t come back?

How were their lives?

Oriana Wilson has had a fairly sheltered life. She is a middle-class English girl who helped her father run a school. She marries this man, Ted Wilson, anticipating that she will settle down as a doctor’s wife. Just before they get married, he receives the offer to participate in Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica, the Discovery expedition. So, a few weeks after their marriage, he left for two and a half years. She follows his mission and finds him at the end of this expedition in New Zealand. She then supports him in writing all of his discoveries. She’s never happier than sitting by his side, helping him take his notes, cooking for him.

Kathleen Scott is the polar opposite – a very similar upbringing to Oriana’s, but very different personalities. She became a great sculptor and trained in Paris with Auguste Rodin. She has friendships with great artists, great writers, and she is part of this very literary world in London when she meets Scott. She’s not really interested in marriage because she doesn’t want to be tied down, but they make a really good partnership. They both want to support each other. He didn’t want to prevent him from being a sculptor and from traveling. And she didn’t want to stop him from going back to Antarctica. They have a child almost immediately, Peter Scott. She threw herself into the preparations for the Terra Nova expedition. She accompanies him on fundraising expeditions. She is therefore a much more modern woman than Oriana.

Lois Evans grew up in Swansea, Wales, then as a teenager moved to a very remote part of the Gower Peninsula and married her cousin, Edgar Evans. Edgar joined the Navy at 15, so he’s a good sailor. He had been on the first expedition with Scott. When he returns, he becomes engaged to Lois, and she would have expected to be a sailor’s wife. They have three children fairly quickly. But, at that time, he had an affair with a woman who carried twins who were hers. But Lois and Edgar reconcile and when she speaks of him later, it’s in very loving terms.

Of the crew of 65, only five men from the expedition reached the South Pole (left to right): Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers, Robert Falcon Scott, Ted Wilson and Edgar Evans.
Of the crew of 65, only five men from the expedition reached the South Pole (left to right): Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers, Robert Falcon Scott, Ted Wilson and Edgar Evans. Public domain

What happens when they hear the news of their husband’s death?

In fact, the husbands had been dead for a year by the time the news broke. Authorities were very keen for the family to find out first, but it all went wrong for a variety of reasons. Oriana was already in New Zealand; she had traveled there to meet Ted. As the train pulled into Christchurch station, she sensed something was different. She learned of her husband’s death from a newsagent.

Kathleen was also on her way to meet Scott and was on a ship when the news broke. So the captain of the ship had to go tell him that Scott was dead. But she didn’t know any of the circumstances, and she had the rest of the trip waiting with all the terrible thoughts of what had happened.

During this time, Lois had, I think, the worst experience. Officials had sent a telegram to tell him what had happened, but by the time he arrived the news had hit the newspapers. She was the only widow left in the country. So reporters tracked her down and showed up on her doorstep, so she had to process the news of Edgar’s death at the same time she was being interviewed by The Daily Telegraph and various other newspapers. So you get these three women and their children caught up in this story that’s sweeping the globe.

After circling each other for two years, Doctor Ted Wilson finally asked Oriana Souper to marry him on October 19, 1899.
After circling each other for two years, Doctor Ted Wilson finally asked Oriana Souper to marry him on October 19, 1899. The Wilson family collection at Cheltenham Borough Council and the Cheltenham Trust

How do their lives change as a result of public scrutiny?

For Lois, it’s a brief focus on her in the press, and then her life normalizes. For Oriana, because she cares about carrying on Ted’s legacy and wants her paintings to be appreciated, there are times when she is in the spotlight again. But I think Kathleen is the most interesting here because she’s becoming a celebrity in her own right. There are real parallels between her and Jacqueline Kennedy. She is the hero’s wife. There’s this feeling that if you’re the widow of a national hero, you should kind of stand up and be that grieving figure.

What does all this add to the story?

My approach was to take a big event that we always thought was all about men and see how that changes if you put the women back into it. And I think that changes by becoming less glorious. The Terra Nova Expedition is presented to us as this kind of wondrous sacrifice. This is not the case for their wives and children. If you put the relationships between men back in history, they become more human.

Kathleen Scott sculpted this bronze statue, on Waterloo Place in London, to commemorate her
Kathleen Scott sculpted this bronze statue, on Waterloo Place in London, to commemorate her “Con”, husband Robert Falcon Scott. Islandhaddow/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Do you see husbands differently now?

Well, I like more and I like less. I like Robert Falcon Scott much more than I do – the fact that he looked up to a woman like Kathleen. He has this reputation of being quite taciturn and a bit boring and strict, but his letters are incredibly poetic and adorable. Ted Wilson, I like a little less. I find him much more selfish in his relationship. So, of course, with Edgar, there’s the case. It’s always interesting, isn’t it, to discover betrayals and forgiveness? They become much more real.