The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

It’s been a while since I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White but it was a book I remember very much enjoying, full of intrigue and surprises; so when a friend lent me Collins’ novella The Frozen Deep I looked forward to enjoyable, suspenseful read. It was definitely one of those books in which outside facts, such as it having originally been a play, made me want to read it more. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that it was this work which had inspired Dickens to write A Tale of Two Cities, a novel I had read towards the end of last year.  

The Frozen Deep follows a tragic arctic expedition which deeply affects the lives of the three main characters: Clara Burnham, her fiancé Frank Aldersley, and Richard Wardour, a former love interest. The novella begins with Clara’s realisation that Frank and Richard will be taking part in the same expedition and her fears that Richard will harm Frank; tension is then built as the narrative continues and Frank and Richard’s paths draw closer and closer together. The theatrical origin of the novella is seen through the structure of the narrative, with each chapter being a clear and distinct scene, allowing the reader to move between the arctic expedition and Clara’s reactions back in England.

As one would expect from Collins, this was a novella full of tension and suspense as the Richard and Frank find their lives in peril after the failure of the expedition. Collins builds the tension well as the reader sees Richard discovering the identity of Frank’s fiancé before placing himself in the perfect position to watch Frank die; the reader is then frustratingly taken away from the arctic back to Clara in England. I enjoyed being surprised at times by the actions of the characters, especially when Clara and Mrs Crayford leapt into action towards the end of the narrative.

Although there was a slight element of the supernatural in The Frozen Deep with Clara’s visions, this was not an aspect that was majored on and seemed, to me, somewhat irrelevant. It was a useful device in that it provided an easy way for Collins to explain Clara and Mrs Crayford’s motivation for leaving England, but it did seem to me to be a device created simply for that specific plot point. I was left feeling that there could have been more made of this, or that it maybe did not have a place in the narrative at all.

Overall, this was an absorbing and suspenseful novella to read. I can certainly see the influence it had on A Tale of Two Cities, although I would argue very strongly that Richard Wardour is in no way comparable to Sydney Carton: whilst Carton selflessly sacrifices his life to free the husband of the woman he loves, Wardour simply decides not to kill the fiancé of the woman he loves as he had originally been planning. Misgivings about Wardour aside, I enjoyed this novella and I am glad it was recommended to me.

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