Vulpes Libris

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.

The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys

the-frozen-thames.jpgIn its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

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

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

8 comments on “The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys

  1. Jackie
    January 11, 2008

    What a stellar idea for a book! To cover such a vast time period, one would need a connecting thread & to choose an unusual natural phenonmenon would give it a truly unique flavor. I hope I can find this one, just the review casts a spell, so imagine what the actual book would do.

  2. Greg Davidson
    January 12, 2008

    Own the book and I love it!

  3. Ariadne
    January 12, 2008

    Wow, this sounds fantastic. I very much look forward to ordering it in and reading it. What a great idea for a book, and the first excerpt – feathered apples – is extremely good.

  4. Leena
    January 14, 2008

    This does sound good. At first I thought it was non-fiction, but a collection of short fiction on the subject sounds even more intriguing. The frozen Thames section in ‘Orlando’ is one of my favourite pieces of prose, ever, which makes me especially intrigued. I particularly remember the description of the carnival and frozen woman with her apples (I copied this text from Project Gutenberg):

    ‘But while the country people suffered the extremity of want, and the
    trade of the country was at a standstill, London enjoyed a carnival of
    the utmost brilliancy. The Court was at Greenwich, and the new King
    seized the opportunity that his coronation gave him to curry favour with
    the citizens. He directed that the river, which was frozen to a depth of
    twenty feet and more for six or seven miles on either side, should be
    swept, decorated and given all the semblance of a park or pleasure
    ground, with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths, etc. at his
    expense. For himself and the courtiers, he reserved a certain space
    immediately opposite the Palace gates; which, railed off from the public
    only by a silken rope, became at once the centre of the most brilliant
    society in England. Great statesmen, in their beards and ruffs,
    despatched affairs of state under the crimson awning of the Royal Pagoda.
    Soldiers planned the conquest of the Moor and the downfall of the Turk in
    striped arbours surmounted by plumes of ostrich feathers. Admirals strode
    up and down the narrow pathways, glass in hand, sweeping the horizon and telling stories of the north-west passage and the Spanish Armada. Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when
    the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered
    motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and
    oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and
    purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to
    melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the
    hardness of steel. So clear indeed was it that there could be seen,
    congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder.
    Shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was
    one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would
    revive puzzled the philosophers. Near London Bridge, where the river had
    frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat was
    plainly visible, lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last
    autumn, overladen with apples. The old bumboat woman, who was carrying
    her fruit to market on the Surrey side, sat there in her plaids and
    farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world as if she
    were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips
    hinted the truth. ‘Twas a sight King James specially liked to look upon,
    and he would bring a troupe of courtiers to gaze with him. In short,
    nothing could exceed the brilliancy and gaiety of the scene by day. But
    it was at night that the carnival was at its merriest. For the frost
    continued unbroken; the nights were of perfect stillness; the moon and
    stars blazed with the hard fixity of diamonds, and to the fine music of
    flute and trumpet the courtiers danced.’

    (Oops, didn’t mean to hijack Trilby’s comments with Virginia Woolf…)

  5. Mhairi
    January 15, 2008

    It sounds beautiful … There is something magical about the whole idea of the great River Thames frozen.

  6. sequinonsea
    January 18, 2008

    Incredible idea for a book. Really fascinating. Agree with Mhairi, the frozen Thames does seem somehow magical. Will definitely look for this in the library.

  7. Pingback: Happy Birthday to Us! « Vulpes Libris

  8. Gerry Burnie
    October 29, 2009

    “Frost Fair” by noted author ‘Erastes’ (Cheyenne Press, 2009) is a love story set against the intriguing background of a frozen Thames River, and Dickensian London in 1814. Couple this with a ‘carnival on water,’ also described as a “bacchanalian triumph” by seventeenth-century diarist, John Evelyn, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a superb period romance. Moreover, Erastes delivers the goods with an engaging tale of a handsome, honest tradesman; a kindly and loving patron; and a wealthy cad who is out to destroy this charming relationship for purely vengeful reasons.

    Hero, Gideon Frost, proudly independent tradesman of the day, is a talented lithographer and printer struggling to make ends meet (no pun intended), even if this means occasionally selling his body in the courtyard of venerable old St. Paul’s, or “Lad Lane.” Beset by bill collectors, Gideon receives a lucrative commission from a wealthy gentleman of leisure, Joshua Redfern, who is secretly enamoured by this young artisan. Unknown to Redfern, Gideon is smitten by him as well. Meanwhile, as a result of a European “Little Ice Age” (c. 1770-1800), the Thames River froze solid to the delight of tradesmen eager to make a pound-or-two—Gideon included. It also attracted the curious of all classes, including one, Finbarr Thouless.

    Now, one of the solid pluses of this novel is the well-developed cast of characters, and Finbarr Thouless is no exception. Delightfully ‘slithery,’ he is portrayed as a two-faced, self-centred, foppish cad with a vitriolic vengeful streak. Moreover, given the fact that he exercises considerable sway over Redfern, it does not bode well for him and Gideon. I hasten to add that there is nothing formulaic about this story, for it offers several twists right up to the ending; which is both surprising and gratifying at the same time. That, however, is for the reader to discover for him or herself.

    Of particular interest to me, as a writer of historical fiction, is the historically accurate depiction of the frost fair—one of several in the long history of the Thames, and most dramatically brought to life by Helen Humphries, “Frozen Thames,” who dramatized this phenomenon with accounts of birds falling from the air on account of ice on their feathers. Therefore, a bit more description would not have gone amiss as far as I am concerned. Albeit these things sometimes have to be sacrificed to maintain pace, and I think that may have been the case here. The story does move along (delightfully) with no dawdling, whatsoever.

    Not to be overlooked, while handing out well-deserved kudos, is the stunning front cover art by Alex Beecroft—herself ‘no slouch’ as a writer. Coincidentally, my next scheduled review will focus on her novel “Captain’s Surrender.”

    “Frost Fair” is a ‘definite read’ for those who enjoy history, period romance, and a gay perspective on all three.

    Gerry Burnie,
    Canadian history from a gay perspective series.

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2008 by in Entries by Trilby, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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