‘Bone Soup’: Cannibalism, Civilisation, and Racism in The Frozen Deep and the Franklin Expedition

Wilkie Collins wrote his play, The Frozen Deep, in 1856 under the watchful and highly influential guidance of Charles Dickens. This play and the later novella were written in response to the claims made in 1854 that the Franklin expedition which had vanished without a trace on their search to find the Northwest Passage had, in their desperation to survive, resorted to cannibalism of their fellow crew members. John Rae sent this information in a confidential report to the Admiralty who later made it public, which led Dickens to refute these accusations vehemently in Household Words on the grounds that the witnesses to this savage act were Eskimos whose evidence could not be trusted.

This paper will use both the play and the novella as a platform from which to discuss the authorial and public response to the Franklin Expedition. In the first section it will interrogate the allusions to the act of cannibalism that appear in the character of the chef, John Want, who spends much of his time creating ‘bone soup’ and who is taught how to ‘master his stomach’ by the ship’s captain.  Thereby exploring how this concept of dietary mastery is both reinforced and challenged through the discourse of cannibalism that is hinted at in the text and in the contemporary reactions surrounding the allegations, including the response of Dickens. This paper will then examine the response to racial otherness and the perceived rejection of civilisation that is portrayed both through the absence, and depiction, of this aberrant British consumption in both the fictional work and in the dialogue between Rae and Dickens in Household Words

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