The Frozen Deep / Wilkie Collins (c.1856)
read as ebook
I've always intended to read this short novella, as I am a fan of Wilkie Collins and also very much a fan of Arctic exploration narratives. It was finally The Estella Society hosting a Wilkie in Winter readalong that got me moving on this one!
This is an enjoyable Victorian melodrama, full of misunderstandings, manly men, Polar exploration,and doomed love. It began as a play, put on by Collins and Dickens and their circle, for their own entertainment, based on the doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition. It became quite popular and Collins eventually turned it into a novella.
The story follows Clara Burnham, a young woman who claims to have the second sight. She is currently living with her friend Lucy Crayford, an officer's wife (clearly a Lady Franklin figure). First Lieutenant Crayford, as well as a sailor, Mr. Frank Aldersley, are shipping out on an Arctic expedition in the morning, as the story begins. They are all at a ball at the Crayford's, and Frank and Clara have just pledged their love to one another, secretly. But Clara is worried -- there is a man from her past, Richard Wardour, who has been at sea himself, believing that he and Clara had an agreement, which she had written to him about, denying the idea. Of course, he never got the letter, and of course, he arrives in England the night of the ball, finds Clara, and uncovers the fact that she has another love. He then swears revenge on his rival, if he can discover his name.
Unfortunately for everyone, Richard signs on as a last minute addition to the Arctic expedition to get away from England. And we can all imagine what is going to happen...
I found this story extremely Victorian in its presentation of the women waiting patiently at home, the men feeling entitled to wander off at will and still expect their women to comply with their wishes and society's rules, the odd mixture of Christian morality and occult visions, and the fascination with the Arctic. The alternating focus on Lucy and Clara, and the men of the lost expedition, reminded me strongly of a novel I read a couple of years ago, On the Proper Use of Stars, which was directly about the lost Franklin Expedition and its effects. In that novel, Lady Franklin and her niece Sophia wait at home for news, but they are managing the PR of the expedition rather powerfully as well. The Frozen Deep fictionalizes enough that the conclusion occurs in Newfoundland, where Lucy and Clara make their way on the news that some survivors of the expedition have turned up, after more than a year of silence.
Reading this, with its heavy reliance on the myth of the heroic Franklin expedition, and considering the involvement of Dickens in its writing and original performance, made me a little bit uncomfortable though -- not due to the story itself or the writing. Rather, due to historical factors. When Franklin disappeared, Lady Franklin managed his reputation to ensure a heroic legacy. She sponsored searches for his expedition, she goaded the Navy into action, she attempted to raise the profile of the event in many ways; and one of her big society supporters was Dickens himself.
According to Ken McGoogan's excellent book Fatal Passage, Scottish-born John Rae, a long time employee of the Canadian Hudson's Bay Company, discovered the remains of the Franklin Expedition, due to his comprehensive knowledge of the North and his good relations with native inhabitants (and incidentally, discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage as well). What he found was that in the last stages of their survival, they'd taken to eating one another. Since this was most certainly not the answer that Lady Franklin was interested in hearing, John Rae was villified and mocked by English society, being the only Arctic adventurer never to be knighted, and having his name muddied and his accomplishments (extreme and varied) denied and minimized. One of the prime participants in this activity was Dickens, who questioned the reliability of Eskimo contacts and suggested that Rae was untrustworthy himself. This whole incident kept returning to mind as I was reading The Frozen Deep, as indicative of English beliefs in the superiority of the Royal Navy and "honourable" English explorers.
Otherwise, however, I appreciated Collins' ability, always in evidence in his work, in creating complex, interesting female characters, and presenting the difficulties within their position in society. While the novel itself is slight, and nowhere near his best work, it captures elements that show up in other books. Definitely a must read if you're a Collins fan, though, and interesting for its historical setting.