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The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

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The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

The Frozen Deep is an 1856 play, originally staged as an amateur theatrical, written by Wilkie Collins under the substantial guidance of Charles Dickens. Dickens’s hand was so prominent—beside acting in the play for several performances, he added a preface, altered lines, and attended to most of the props and sets—that the principal edition of the play is entitled “Under the Management of Charles Dickens”. John C. Eckel wrote: “As usual with a play which passed into rehearsal under Dickens’ auspices it came out improved. This was the case with The Frozen Deep. The changes were so numerous that the drama almost may be ascribed to Dickens”. Dickens himself took the part of Richard Wardour and was stage-manager during its modest original staging in Dickens’s home Tavistock House. The play, however, grew in influence through a series of outside performances, including one before Queen Victoria at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, and a three-performance run at the Manchester Free Trade Hall for the benefit of the Douglas Jerrold Fund to benefit the widow of Dickens’s old friend, Douglas Jerrold. There, night after night, everyone—including, by some accounts, the carpenters and the stage-hands—was moved to tears by the play. It also brought Dickens together with Ellen Ternan, an actress he hired to play one of the parts, and for whom he would later leave his wife Catherine. The play remained unpublished until a private printing appeared sometime in 1866.

The play’s genesis lay in the conflict between Dickens and John Rae’s report on the fate of the Franklin expedition. In May 1845, the “Franklin expedition” left England in search of the Northwest Passage. It was last seen in July 1845, after which the members of the expedition were lost without trace. In October 1854, John Rae (using reports from “Eskimo” (Inuit) eyewitnesses, who informed that they had seen 40 “white men” and later 35 corpses) described the fate of the Franklin expedition in a confidential report to the Admiralty: “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging survival.”

This blunt report was presented under the assumption that truth would be preferred to uncertainty. The Admiralty made this report public. Rae’s report caused much distress and anger. The public believed, with Lady Franklin, that the Arctic explorer was “clean, Christian and genteel” and that an Englishman was able to “survive anywhere” and “to triumph over any adversity through faith, scientific objectivity, and superior spirit.” Dickens not only wrote to discredit the Inuit evidence, he attacked the Inuit character, writing: “We believe every savage in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel: and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man—lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine-stricken, weak, frozen and dying—has of the gentleness of Exquimaux nature.”

Jen Hill writes that Dickens’s “invocation of racialized stereotypes of cannibalistic behavior foregrounded Rae’s own foreignness.” John Rae was a Scot, not English, and thus held to not be “pledged to the patriotic, empire-building aims of the military.” The play by Dickens and Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep, was an allegorical play about the missing Arctic expedition. The Rae character was turned into a suspicious, power-hungry nursemaid who predicted the expedition’s doom in her effort to ruin the happiness of the delicate heroine.

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