A story set, at least in part, in the frigid Arctic North, seems suitably appropriate for the frigid Arctic temperatures that have come barrelling southwards recently. As I write this post the air temperature is a mere 2.5F/-16.3C (and that's the day's high by the way). It's going to feel absolutely balmy in comparison if we really do get into the 30sF/-1.1C later this week. And why does a little Victorian melodrama seem especially appropriate for winter reading? I actually read The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins at the tail end of last year but want to make sure I write about it before moving on to a reread of The Woman in White.
Reading The Frozen Deep gave me a feeling of deja vu. Where had I heard this story before? It took a little digging through my short story posts, but as it turns out a ghost story I read just last fall shares a similar theme and the same setting--an Arctic expedition, a young woman left behind who is in love with one of the explorers and is also the love interest for another but for whom she cannot reciprocate those feelings. Tom Hood wrote "The Shadow of Shade" in 1869. Wilkie Collins's novella was published in 1874. Collins's story and no doubt Hood's was inspired by the doomed expedition to the North-West passage in 1856 by Sir John Franklin. The two, however, diverge in tone and outcome. Hood's is a ghost story that ends with retribution for a ghastly crime. Collins's characters, whatever vengeance is in their hearts, enjoy a, if not exactly happy, certainly more optimistic ending.
There's just a dash of the supernatural to Wilkie Collins's story. Clara Burnham is a charming young woman, but her early years were spent in the Scottish Highlands where her belief that she has the gift of the Second Sight was not only not discouraged but actually promoted. She believes that on occasion she has fallen into a trance and seen into the future. And it is this sense of dread of things to come that will cause her so much anguish.
Clara is at the center of a love triangle, and the two men in love with her are soon to find themselves in the frozen deep of the desolate far North. She sees the vengeance in the heart of one and hold's the other's heart close to her. Although she tries to warn Frank Aldersley of her premonition, he looks forward to his adventure. An expedition years in the planning and which will likely take years to accomplish, Frank is eager to set off.
First, however, he asks for Clara's promise to wait for him and to accept his marriage proposal. She accepts but only if they can keep the betrothal a secret. She has attracted the attention, too, from another man. Richard Wardour mistakenly believes Clara loves and will marry him. In trying to dissuade Richard, he accuses her of loving another man, a fact not far from the truth no matter how much she tries to deny it. She had not encouraged his affections, but now she has landed herself in the middle of something that may well turn deadly.
Two ships are set to sail. Frank is on one, and Richard though only just back from a long voyage, signs up to sail on the companion ship. He doesn't know who his rival is, but he is determined to find out and get his revenge. The journey is long and arduous, and months turn into years. The ships become stuck in frozen ice and as a last effort to find help, a group of men from both ships set off to cross the icebergs. Both Frank and Richard are included and finally the two are face to face.
The Frozen Deep was initially written as a play that both Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens collaborated on. They even took the starring roles of Frank and Richard in the theatrical performance. There is an element of self-sacrifice (part of the melodrama that becomes a little too sentimental for my tastes) to the story, which inspired Dickens to create his famous character Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (a novel I am now contemplating reading this year). This is definitely a slight work by Wilkie Collins, and not one of my favorite works by him (he has too many other really good ones). Still, he never fails to tell an entertaining story. The Woman in White, now, for me that is a masterpiece and I look forward to revisiting it. Both reads are part of Wilkie in Winter. More on The Woman in White in February!