Friday, 3 January 2014

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

Sometimes people have strange, inexplicable, menacing presentiments that seemingly come out of nowhere. There is no sound reason for it, but at the same time it is not possible to shake off the certainty that some nebulous threat  is waiting in the shadows of the future. This is the tone that dominates most of Wilkie Collins's novella The Frozen Deep.
Maybe it is just me, but I think even the title already carries the sense of gloom and of the foreboding of tragedy.

Based off Franklin's doomed Arctic Expedition of 1845 which disappeared forever during their search for the Northwest Passage,
The Frozen Deep was written as a play by Wilkie Collins for the annual Christmas performance at Charles Dickens's house in 1856 and later reworked into this novella.  Dickens apparently altered it so much that critics claimed the play should be ascribed to him rather than to his friend, but in the story his influence isn't directly noticeable.
The writing style is definitely Wilkie Collins's (which is great!), even though it is obvious that the novella was adapted from a play because at the beginnings of chapters there are only thinly veiled play-like scene descriptions. However, my only real criticism is that, with less than a hundred pages, the story was too short. I wanted to read more scenes set in the desolation of the eternal ice. I was captivated by their atmosphere of abject loneliness and doom, and I think that, had Wilkie Collins only adapted his play into a proper novel, it would have both enjoyed immense success and turned into one of my favourite books.

As it is, the novella tells the story of Clara Burnham, whose lover Frank Aldersley is about to leave as an officer for the Arctic expedition when she meets her childhood friend Richard Wardour who is just coming back from another expedition and madly in love with her. Through a misunderstanding he believes Clara to be engaged to him, and when she refuses him he vows to make the man who "stole her from him" regret the day they met. Weary of life, he then signs up to join the Arctic expedition without knowing that Aldersley is his rival. But Clara, who believes she has the Second Sight (a belief which interestingly is neither outright confirmed nor refuted during the story) is afraid for Frank Aldersley's life nonetheless. And she is right: Richard Wardour really finds out that his comrade is the man he has sworn revenge and eventually the two end up drifting on an iceberg in the ocean, completely alone in a desert of snow.

As I've said the chilling atmosphere is magnificent and the sense of threat stems largely from Richard Wardour. He is an extremely interesting character, and although he provided the inspiration for Sydney Carton from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, I was surprised to learn that there are significant differences between these two men. Richard Wardour is more respected in his position as a gentleman than the drunkard Sydney Carton, but completely different to him he appears as very dangerous, at least in the beginning. I wonder what it must be like to read The Frozen Deep without knowing beforehand that Richard Wardour is in the end the neglected, tragic hero of the story.


  1. What a coincidence that we've both reviewed this book today! My opinion of it is very much the same as yours - a great story but could have been even better as a full-length novel. I didn't know Richard Wardour was the inspiration for Sydney Carton until I read your last paragraph above, but now I can see the similarities.

    1. I was utterly shocked! :)
      At least there's A Tale of two Cities.

  2. This looks very interesting - I'll keep an eye out for it :)

    1. It is! Such a shame nobody seems to know it.