I was thrilled to discover The Classics Circuit.
What a wonderful idea!
And I was even happier to discover that Wilkie Collins, definitely one of my very favourite authors, would be the subject of the first tour.
But what to read?
The Arctic called to me. I have one sublime story of an Arctic expedition (The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding) already this year and I have another (Cold Earth by Sarah Moss) on my library pile. So when I noticed that Collins had written a novella set around an Arctic expedition more than a century before those two I knew that reading it had to be a high priority.
It’s a lesser known work, but it definitely has a place in literary history.
The Frozen Deep first saw life as a stage play in 1857. The two main protagonists were played by Collins himself and Charles Dickens. Imagine that! And it was when she was cast in the Manchester production that Ellen Ternan first met Charles Dickens.
Seventeen years later Wilkie Collins adapted his play for reading on an American tour, and it was subsequently serialised and then published in book form.
It is easy to see The Frozen Deep’s theatrical roots, but the conversion to novella form has worked well. Scenes are beautifully painted, and it is very easy to conjure up images in your head. There in much dialogue, and it is easy to hear voices in your head too. And the style, the twists and turns, and the compulsion to turn the page are unmistakably Collins.
But what of the story? Well, I’d like to hark back to its theatrical roots, and so I present a drama in three acts.
(There will be spoilers. I read a lovely little edition courtesy of the Hesperus Press, but you can read the Frozen Deep online here.)
The curtain opens at a ball, celebrating an expedition to find the Northwest Passage which will set out the following day. Among the guests are Lucy Crayford, whose husband is a lieutenant on the voyage, and her young friend Clara Burnham. Clara agrees to marry Frank Aldersley when he returns from the expedition. But she is trouble? Why? Because Clara knows that by here silence she has allowed another man, Richard Wardour, to believe that they have an understanding. And Wardour, it seems, has just returned from another voyage, learned that he has a rival, and signed up for the same expedition to seek revenge….
The curtain falls.
The curtain rises on a very different scene. Two years have passed and the expedition’s ships are trapped in the Arctic ice. Many of the men are weak or dying. Wardour has just learned the identity of his rival, and is still set on vengeance. The officers cast lots to decide the composition of a search party to bring help from the nearest settlement and, though Crayford tries to stop it, both Aldersley and Wardour join the party. Those two become separated from the main party and Wardour contemplates leaving his weaker rival to die on the ice…
The curtain falls.
The curtain rises on an English drawing room. News has arrived some of the crew have been rescued. Crayford is safe , but both Aldersley and Wardour are listed as missing. Clarafears that her fiance dying by his rival’s hand. Lucy sets out for Canada to meet her rescued husband, accompanied a distressed Clara.
The scene shifts toa boat-house on the Newfoundland shore. The Crayfords are happily reunited. Then a lone figure appears. Wardour. He is weak and delirious and seem not to understand questions abot Aldersley’s fate. He leaves the hut, only to reappear carrying aldersley, frail but very much alive in his arms. Wardour collapses and dies, having sacrificed his own life for Clara’s happiness.
The curtain falls for the last time.
It can’t, of course, have the depth of characterisation or plot intricacies of the novels. I would have loved though to know a little more about Lucy, and could have happily done without the accounts of her second sight that really weren’t needed to forward the plot. And Wardour had so much unexplored potential. And just what happened betweeen him and Aldersley on the ice? A potentially wonderful scene lost.
But there is much to enjoy. A fine entertainment!