A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
So begins Helen Humphrey’s superb collection of short fiction based on true events: forty vignettes spread between 1142 and 1895, each of which brings us into the lives of those who experienced a phenomenon that we are unlikely ever to see again.
The collection opens with an account of Queen Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle (wearing only a white nightdress to camouflage her against the snow), and ends with lines deleted by Virginia Woolf from an early draft of Orlando. In between are many fascinating meditations on ice and the small transformations that occur – natural, social, personal – when winter reaches its full force.
Several stories unfold against the backdrop of the Frost Fairs – in which the Thames played host to fox hunting displays, bull baiting, skating parties and hog roasts – while others are altogether more muted in subject and tone. There is a poignant description of two lovers meeting on the ice during an outbreak of plague, an evocation of the collapse of London Bridge caused by the pressure of breaking ice, several rescue attempts of those who did not read the signs of an impending thaw, and tales of those who drew inspiration – musical, literary and scientific – from the remarkable spectacle.
Humphrey’s language tends toward the spare: she makes no attempt to “period-ify” the first person accounts that make up most of her collection, and this unpretentious yet eloquent style immediately draws the reader in. Take, for example, this extract from the piece set in 1408:
The birds fall from the trees. They tumble from the roofs and chimney-pots where they have perched. They are heavier in death than they were in life. Solid and flightless, they fall to the ground like dark, feathered apples, with exactly that weight, the weight of an apple.
Or this, an oarsman’s account of the removal of the body of Charles I from the execution ground to Windsor:
To kill one’s king is a solemn business. Even though many wanted him dead, I can attest that there was not a man who was not saddened by the sight of the sovereign’s head upon the block. We need to believe in the power and justness of the Crown, and when that is thrown into question, so too is everything else and we are as we are – sailing down a frozen river with a headless man at the helm.
Medieval woodcuts, Elizabethan still lifes, eighteenth-century broadsheet advertisements and sketches by Blake and Hondius add an extra dimension to the vignettes, cleverly illustrating various scenes without overshadowing the text.
A neat quarto binding makes this elegant little book equally at home on a coffee table, by the bedside or tucked into a bag. A pleasure to hold and linger over, its modest physical proportions belie great things between the pages.
The Frozen Thames; Helen Humphreys, McClelland & Stewart 2007, 181 pp. ISBN 978-0-7710-4144-0