The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins


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.)

Act 1

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.

 Act 2

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.

Act 3

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.

The frozen DeepThe Frozen Deep is  a dramatic and compelling tale.

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!

14 responses

  1. How nice to see one of Collins lesser-known works! This sounds like it’s definitely worth seeking out.

    Also, thanks for reminding me about The Solitude of Thomas Cave. I checked it out of the library after reading your review and just loved the opening, but decided to save it for a winter read. We’re almost there…

    • I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Dickens’ shorter works over the past year, so this seemed a good time to try one of Collins’ shorter works.

      I see the sense of reding Thomas Cave in winter, but I couldn’t wait – and in any case we have mainly wet winters here.

    • Eva, it’s just dawned on me that I could have made it clearer where the spoilers end. Next time I’ll make it easier, but I couldn’t resist presenting the story as an almost-drama.

  2. I just read a bio of Collins and when I read the bit about Dickens and Collins acting together, it seemed particularly interesting. I wonder if they actually were any good at ACTING or if it only ran for so long because of the author’s names in the cast.

    This story sounds great whether a play or a novella! Thanks for joining the Circuit.

    • I’d like to learn more about the theatre of that period, but I I suspect that the accepted style of acting then was more declamatory than is accepted nowadays. And of course both men toured and gave readings to promote their work. And yes, it is a great story!

  3. Fantastic post! I haven’t read a Collins book yet which really surprises me given that I was an English major! I have “The Moonstone” on my TBR pile and cannot wait to read it. I am trying to save it for a challenge I am participating in beginning January but I am not sure I can wait till then!

    • Darlene, I love his writing and what I know of his biography is intriging. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to pique your interest on the Classics Circuit.

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