Thursday, November 05, 2009

'The Frozen Deep'

by Wilkie Collins
First published from August to October, 1874
Hesperus Press, pb, 103 p.
Exchanging vows of love with sailor Frank Aldersley the night before his departure on an Arctic expedition, Clara Burnham is haunted by the memory of Richard Wardour, and his mistaken belief that they will one day marry. With her gift of ‘Second Sight’, Clara foresees terrible tragedy ahead and is racked by guilt. Allied to different ships, the two men at first have no cause to meet – until disaster strikes and they find themselves united in a battle for survival. It cannot be long before they discover the nature of their rivalry, and the hot-tempered Wardour must choose how to take his revenge.

Based on the doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic, and originally performed as a play starring both Collins and Dickens, The Frozen Deep is a dramatic tale of vengeance and self-sacrifice which went on to inspire the character of Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.        [From the front book flap]
I had a feeling I was going to enjoy this story right from the start, as I couldn’t help but smile at the short opening paragraph.
The date is between twenty and thirty years ago. The place is an English seaport. The time is night. And the business of the moment is – dancing.
It sets a nice scene, don’t you agree? I’ve been in the mood for a classic or two lately (I’m also in the middle of re-reading a Jane Austen) so this was a good fit, and it was good to finally read something else by Collins as it has been a few years since I read The Woman in White.

I have to admit that I think this was the first time I’ve ever read anything about that “doomed expedition to the Arctic” so I really didn’t know much about it. However, reading this short fictional account inspired me do a little research. OK, this consisted mainly of reading up on it at Wikipedia and a couple of other websites, but it was enough to provide some details about what actually happened. In Collins’ tale, names and events have been significantly changed, and it has a considerably different outcome than the historical reality. But I can understand why it would have still been a topic of much interest when Collins wrote the story about 30 years after the actual expedition, and even still is today.

As always, it was also interesting just to spend a little time in the 19th century, observing how their lives were different from ours now, and just how long everything took. In this day and age of cell phones and easy internet connectivity and even satellite phones, it’s hard to imagine waiting years for news!
Mrs Crayford rises, and puts down the volume that she has been reading. It is a record of explorations in the Arctic seas. The time has gone by when the two lonely women could take an interest in subjects not connected with their own anxieties. Now, when hope is fast failing them – now, when their last news of the Wanderer and the Sea-mew is news that is more than two years old – they can read of nothing, they can think of nothing, but dangers and discoveries, losses and rescues in the terrible Polar Seas.
As the story is told in just around 100 pages, there’s not a lot of room for detail so we don’t get to know the characters as well as I would've liked. I especially would’ve liked more on Clara, and her ‘Second Sight’. The ending was also what I expected yet somehow I was still kept wondering for sure right up to the last. Ultimately, it can’t compare to the depth and twisty-ness of The Woman in White, but it was an enjoyable read all the same. Collins is definitely a master storyteller. I’ve got a copy of The Moonstone on my stack that I’m looking forward to reading and hope to get to before too long.

Read The Frozen Deep online

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My Rating: 3.5/5
(#56 for 2009)

I read this as part of The Classics Circuit Wilkie Collins tour which started this week and runs to December 10th. Visit the site for more information or see the full list of all Wilkie Collins tour stops.

The small print: Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) and The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. That is a wonderful opening paragraph. Even without reading the rest of your review, I immediately wanted to read the book.

  2. This sounds so interesting! I love Collins. :D I haven't read anything about the Arctic either, but I just got Simmons' The Terror at a library book sale.

  3. I think a nice short one would be a great intro to his work. I keep seeing him all over the place lately (probably due to the Classics Circuit...)

    I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

  4. I'm so curious to see how the object of the moment is dancing -- and how that relates to the Artic expedition! It sounds like this is fun. thanks so much for the review!

  5. I love that line: "The business of the moment is -- dancing." Great way to start a book. I hadn't heard of this Collins work but I will definitely be on the lookout. It sounds delightful.

  6. It sounds like a good one. I never heard of it before.

  7. Interesting. So embarrassing to admit - I've never even heard of that expedition. *hanging my head in shame*

  8. I love Arctic stories and this one sounds good even if it isn't as developed as his other stories. Love the opening lines!

  9. Collins wrote a lot more than I realized! Is this the same expedition as the one used in The Terror by Dan Simmons? (I picked up a remains copy of The Terror recently, but it is a chunkster so will have to wait for awhile.) I suppose I should go consult the encyclopedia.

    I can't imagine waiting for years for news. We are so used to instant info now.

  10. Sounds great! And a wonderful opening paragraph. I am a sucker for sea adventures. Haven't read Wilkie Collins though...

  11. This does sound enjoyable, if not as satisfying as his longer books. And watching the original play with Collins and Dickens must have been so awesome! My kingdom for a time machine :P

  12. I still haven't manage to read The Woman in White, but this sounds intriguing, especially since I loved The Tale of Two Cities (and Sydney Carton)!

  13. Trisha - That's exactly how I felt! I couldn't NOT want to read the book after that opening.

    Eva - I've read a very little bit set in the Canadian North but not the Arctic, before this one. Have fun with The Terror. It's quite the chunkster, isn't it?

    Lena - I think a short work would definitely be a great introduction to Collins. :)

    Rebecca - From dancing to the Arctic.. you'll just have to read it to find out. :)
    And thanks again for organizing the Classics Circuit!

    Karenlibrarian - That line certainly hooked me. I only discovered this title because of the lovely Hesperus Press although I think there are other editions of it available.

    Chris - It doesn't seem as well known as his famous novels but it was a fun read.

    Amanda - No need to hang your head in shame! I'd only heard a passing reference to the expedition before and knew absolutely no details. We can't know everything. :)

    Stefanie - But a less developed Collins story is still pretty good.

    Terri - Yes, from what I understand it's the same expedition recounted in The Terror. Collins' version is quite different from what actually happened though, at least according to what I found online. I'm kind of curious to read Simmons' book now too, but I already have his very chunky Drood waiting to be read, so it won't be for a while.

    mariel - Why am I not surprised that you love sea adventures? :) At least this one is quite short so it might be a good intro to Collins.

    Nymeth - To be in the audience... wouldn't that be something?!!

    Les - I thought that was an interesting little bit of trivia. I got a bit bogged down in The Tale of Two Cities but Sydney Carton was a great character, so it's interesting to see where Dickens got some of the inspiration.


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