Wilkie Collins. The Frozen Deep. 1856; Gutenberg.org. 2012. E-book.
Wilkie Collins may be my favorite author I hardly ever read. When I was a teen, I read The Moonstone. I loved its exotic mystery. A few years ago I read Woman in White—another great mystery. Both books had chapters by various narrators. This gave multiple sides to the tales but also made readers wonder how reliable each of the testimonies really were—a technique that the po-mo’s are beginning to overdo.
Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens, and together they produced a theatrical version of The Frozen Deep. The published edition was turned into a novella that reads like a play. There are five acts with a good deal of action, though I am not sure it is as grippingly written as each of the two books mentioned above.
The main conflict in The Frozen Deep involves a love triangle. The problem is that none of the three characters in the triangle is especially sympathetic. Frank Aldersley is really a cipher. We are repeatedly told that he is popular, but we do not see how that reputation is earned. Richard Wardour is a Tom Buchanan character, a hulking brute with a temper. He is strong and good looking but scares everyone a little. The woman they both love, Clara Burnham, is pretty, but she mostly acts strange. She claims to have “second sight” but seems to make herself and others miserable because of it.
I finally read The Frozen Deep because Dickens mentions it in his short preface to A Tale of Two Cities. He says that working on the production of the play inspired him as did reading Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. I have read The French Revolution twice and consider it the best non-Biblical history book every written. I can see how a romantic realist like Dickens would be inspired to write a novel set in the French Revolution after reading that book. I have tried over the years to read works alluded to in books I teach (e.g. Castle Rackrent and Simon, Called Peter from The Great Gatsby), but I had never gotten around to The Frozen Deep.
I see now why Dickens would acknowledge this story. The adventurous part was engrossing. Both Aldersley and Wardour are officers on a British naval expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Their experience is not unlike that of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to do the same in the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Interestingly, Franklin’s voyage is mentioned in both Thoreau’s Walden and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, two books with contrasting themes if there ever were.
Aldersley and Wardour are each on different vessels, so they do not really know one another. However, Wardour has vowed to make life miserable for whoever has stolen Clara’s heart from him. With his strength and his temper, we understand that if Wardour ever finds out who that man is, he is as good as dead. It is strictly an unusual coincidence that the two men end up in the same flotilla.
After the two vessels are stranded in the Arctic ice, Wardour discovers who Aldersley is as the two of them join a search party. It is a great plot even if the characters are not developed. Of course, because The Frozen Deep was written to be performed as a play, good actors and a good actress could make a character who seems flat on paper come alive.
If a reader has read A Tale of Two Cities, he or she will see similarities. The characters in Dickens’ love triangle—Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carton—are certainly more sympathetic, though Darnay is more of a cipher than the other two. Still, there are similarities in the plots of the three characters in both books. The similarities are not enough for anyone to accuse Dickens of plagiarism, but one can see how he was inspired.
As I read The Frozen Deep, I thought from time to time of Ford and Conrad’s The Inheritors. That also involves a love triangle with two men and a woman of unusual abilities. In that book Miss Granger, our heroine, is from another dimension and the British expedition is to Greenland. It does make me wonder, though, if either of those co-authors might also have been inspired by The Frozen Deep.
Read The Frozen Deep as if some excellent actors were performing a play or a film of it, and it is a great yarn. It may not have the depth of the two Collins novels mentioned at the beginning, but it has wisdom to share. And the reader can certainly see how Dickens was inspired in his rendering of the love triangle in his classic novel.
P. S. On Gutenberg.org, the two novels by Collins mentioned above have over a thousand downloads. His four dozen or so other works mostly have download figures of under a hundred. The two I have read are the two of his that most people have read. The others are not so well known today. Even The Frozen Deep had 62 on the day of this posting in spite of Dickens’ own recommendation.