Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review - Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens
Published by: Hesperus Press
Publication Date: 1866
Format: Paperback, 112 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy(different edition than one reviewed)

Miss Clara Burnham doesn't mingle much in society. Raised in the Scottish hinterlands, she has grown up pale, delicate and odd. She is odd in that she believes she possesses the power of Second Sight, a power which her dear friend Mrs. Crayford is desperately trying to convince her is just a fancy, nothing more. Mrs. Crayford's husband is the First Lieutenant of the ship The Wanderer, which, with The Sea-mew, leaves port tomorrow to find the Northwest Passage. Therefore a ball is in progress. Clara longs to follow her heart and accept the advances of Mr. Frank Aldersley, who ships out on The Sea-mew the following day, yet she harbors a secret. Clara believes that the violent and temperamental Richard Wardour, a man who she spent much time with because of their fathers friendship, is under the misapprehension that they are engaged. Richard has been at sea and Clara worries that the letter she sent to him to clear up the misunderstanding has been mislaid.

Clara has every reason to worry. Not only is Richard still believing himself attached to Clara, but he returns that night and seeks her out at the ball. He ferrets out the truth, that her heart belongs to another. He declares that he will find this man and destroy him. Clara, with her superstitions, believes that Richard will succeed, and that a reckoning will happen between the men. Little does she realize how right she is when Wardour secures a berth for himself on The Wanderer... Clara must than wait for news. Years pass as the expedition fails and they become ice bound. Yet, learn Frank's identity Wardour does, now one must hope that Clara is mistaken as to what her visions see in store.

This is an odd little book. The story, having started it's life as a play sometimes seems to still cling to it's old identity. Descriptions of places have the ring of stage directions verses prose. But knowing that this was the story's origins and also having spent a good portion of my life doing theater, I was able to overlook this slight flaw and enjoy the story for what it has become, after it's first life as a play. Yet the question still must be asked, how much influence did Dickens have on this story? Many have said that once a play got into his hands he'd do whatever he wanted to make it "better." Better being more like his work than subjectively better. Therefore The Frozen Deep is sometimes credited to both authors, but the truth is, the play was just "under the management of Charles Dickens," while the novella was substantially re-written by Collins to use as public reading material for his American tour.

I have to say that, having read Collins's other works, The Moonstone, and in my mind, the superior, The Woman in White, a lot of the book rang true to Collins and his style. The narrative set in England with Mrs. Crayford and Clara felt like Collins at the best of his writing. I even had fantasies that this story could have been expanded beyond the short story and made into a fully fleshed out novel, but seen more through the eyes of those left behind than those on the ship, because I don't really care for arctic voyages or the privations that an ice bound ship faces and, lets not mince words, cannibalism. Yet, there's another part of me that applauds Collins for creating such and captivating story with strong female leads, a Collins speciality, without the story going to hundreds and hundreds of pages. Brevity has never been a trademark of Collins, and therefore I was pleasantly surprised by this story.

While the book is ostensibly about the failed, some might say doomed, expedition to find the Northwest Passage, it was everything else that drew me too it. I might even say that the fact it was about a Arctic expedition made me avoid reading it for quite some time. Yet the other worldliness and the relationships between the characters are so riveting, the expedition is almost just used as a plot device to bring the two men together for their final confrontation than as anything of true significance. There is one thing the I found interesting and if I could go back in time and talk to Collins I would ask. The way the two men pursue each other across the pristine white landscape, the way they are at odds but are still connected and still need each other reminded me eerily of Frankenstein. The way the creature and the doctor have their final showdown on an ice bound ship, I think we must say that Collins had to be a fan, or at least an admirer of Shelley's. Leaving aside the fact that one of the characters is called Frank, it is really Frank who has turned Wardour into a monster, a creature bent on revenge. Therefore, it is my belief that this story owes far more to Shelley than it does to Dickens.


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