Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship

By Lillian Nayder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
The Cannibal, the Nurse, and the Cook: Variants of The Frozen Deep

On 3 October 1856, three days after he sent his scheme of “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” to prospective contributors, Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett-Coutts, describing the “immense excitement” created at his home, Tavistock House, when Collins arrived “with the first two acts of his play in three”: “Dispatches were sent off to Brighton, to announce the fact. Charley exhibited an insane desire to copy it. There was talk of a Telegraph Message to Mr. Stanfield in Wales. It is called The Frozen Deep, and is extremely clever and interesting—very serious and very curious” (Pilgrim, 8:199). The excitement that the new play raised in the Dickens circle was understandable; Dickens's two daughters, then in Brighton, would be anxious to hear about rehearsals, since they both had roles in the melodrama, as did Charley, the eldest son. Clarkson Stanfield, the scene painter for the play, would need to know of Collins's progress. But as Dickens comically suggests in speaking of “dispatches . . . to Brighton” and “telegraph message[s] to ... Wales”—and, later, in describing Tavistock House in a “state of siege” during rehearsals (Pilgrim, 8:242)—he perceived The Frozen Deep to be a source of national as well as domestic excitement. Indeed, Dickens conceived of the melodrama as a defense of the national honor; it was to safeguard the values embodied by Sir John Franklin and his lost band of Arctic explorers, national heroes in whom he had long been interested and on whose experiences the melodrama was loosely based, but who were alleged to have become cannibals in their failed struggle to survive.

Not only did these allegations sully the memory of Franklin, who had fought with Nelson at Trafalgar and governed Van Dieman's Land. More generally, they threatened social and imperial ideals. Because cannibalism was associated

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