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History Great Britain

The Frozen Thames

by (author) Helen Humphreys

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2008
Great Britain, Great Britain, Essays
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
    List Price

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A groundbreaking, genre-bending new work from one of Canada’s most respected writers.

In its long history, the River Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river.

And so opens one of the most breathtaking and original works being published this season. The Frozen Thames contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1142 and 1895. Like a photograph captures a moment, etching it forever on the consciousness, so does Humphreys’ achingly beautiful prose. She deftly draws us into these intimate moments, transporting us through time so that we believe ourselves observers of the events portrayed. Whether it’s Queen Matilda trying to escape her besieged castle in a snowstorm, or lovers meeting on the frozen river in the plague years; whether it’s a simple farmer persuading his oxen the ice is safe, or Queen Bess discovering the rare privacy afforded by the ice-covered Thames, the moments are fleeting and transformative for the characters — and for us, too.

Stunningly designed and illustrated throughout with full-colour period art, The Frozen Thames is a triumph.

About the author

HELEN HUMPHREYS’ last novel, The Reinvention Of Love, was a national bestseller. Coventry was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. Humphreys won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Afterimage and the Toronto Book Award for Leaving Earth. Her much-loved novel The Lost Garden was a Canada Reads selection. The recipient of the Harbourfront Festival Prize for literary excellence, Humphreys lives in Kingston, Ontario.


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Excerpt: The Frozen Thames (by (author) Helen Humphreys)

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


I look for you along the banks of the river, where the great fires have been laid. Each fire a pyramid of coal, taller than the tallest man, and blazing with a fierceness that seems to match my need to find you.

You’re not there, by any of the fires, nor at any of the tables that have been set upon the ice for this enormous feast. You promised you would come, and yet you haven’t, and so I cannot settle, walk along one bank to the end of the coal fires, and then back along the other bank.

Here at Reading, the Thames has frozen so thickly that it will hold up the pyramids of burning coal without a quiver. It will hold up the long tables laden with food, at which sit all the poor and weak in the town. For one night only, for this night, we are to be treated to a great feast by the Abbot and the Grey Friar monks. The brothers themselves are acting in our service for the evening, fetching us food and drink when we so desire it.

I would be enjoying this, but I am too worried about whether or not you will arrive as promised. I know your family have been ill. You might have stayed to tend to them.

I am standing on the ice, a little way out from the fires so that I am not blinded by the flames, so that I can still see you if you come walking from the north end of the river. I am wearing a new black cloak I have fashioned from a blanket. It is not the green cloak you are used to seeing me in, and I worry that you will not recognize me, so I am determined to recognize you first. I don’t like the new law that has been passed this year, decreeing that only the nobility are permitted to wear coloured clothing, and that each of the colours is coded with meaning. As the lower orders, we are only allowed black or grey. They can have red to signify their superior position, blue to show their fidelity, yellow to flash hostility, pale grey for sorrow, and green for love.

It seems an impossible law to enforce, and yet I have complied, and in my acceptance I show my fear of disobeying.

All around me, at all the tables set upon the frozen river, there is great merriment. The monks have provided each table with a hogshead of ale, and some of the merriment is caused by the generous taking of this ale.

And suddenly, there you are. You walk towards me over the ice, the fires throwing you into shadow, lighting you boldly with each surge and ebb of flame. You have recognized me, even in the new cloak. You walk towards me without hesitation, and my body feels suddenly weightless, as though I could float up like a bird, look down upon this little stretch of ice with the orange puddles of light bleeding at the edges, and the black lines of the tables laid out in the centre of the river.

When you are almost upon me, I move forward so that I may clasp you in my arms, but you hold out your hands to stop me. You are also wearing a black cloak, and there is frost decorating the ends of your hair where it touches your face. Not frost, I realize with a start, not frost but frozen tears.

“What?” I say, and my breath unknots in the cold night air, drifts off into threads of smoke.

You pull back the sleeve of your cloak and hold your bare arm out for me to see the black boils that are pockmarked over your flesh.

The Black Death.

It seemed as though the plague had passed. For more than ten years people died. Every second house in London seemed affected. There were so many dead that they were just tossed into massive pits, piled one on top of the other with no ceremony or marker. The nobility fled to the country, and then, when it all seemed to be over, they came back and passed this law about the clothes. This is to keep us in our place because, with so many dead, the poor have become less so, have inherited money and property from those who have died.

You hold out your arm and I see the black spots, know that you probably already have the fever, that you will be dead in two or three days, and I cannot bear it.

All around us I can hear the sounds of people being happy — laughter and talking. I cannot remember this kind of happiness, not ever, and it seems so wrong that a moment so good could lie peacefully alongside a moment so bad.

If I touch you, I will be infected. You probably shouldn’t have come here, because you now carry the disease, and because it has most likely taken all your strength just to get here. But I am glad you kept your promise, and I am more than glad to see you. I don’t know how I can live without you, or if I will. It was only days ago that I last saw you, that I touched you. The plague could be bubbling under my skin as we stand here.

I lift my cloak so that you can see the lining, so that you can see what I’ve wanted to tell you. I have sewn pieces of my green cloak into the lining of this black one. Green for love, under the new law.

It seems strange that this is the end of the world, this scene of feasting and happiness, something that is so outside my usual days. But perhaps that is good, perhaps if I had to leave a world that was my own it would be harder.

You lower your arm and smile. You have understood. I step forward into your embrace and kiss you.

Editorial Reviews

“Humphreys has an impeccable command of imagery, and her prose finds strength in its subtlety.”
Publishers Weekly

“Delicate and incandescent . . . [Humphreys’s] descriptions bristle with nuance, and scenes are pared down to their bare essence.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“A small, beautiful and highly original book . . . one that is both eccentric and exquisite. It’s a lovely gift for thoughtful readers.” – Edmonton Journal

“This is a splendid book, full of memorable and vivid imagery.” – Globe and Mail
“Most curiously wonderful and splendidly written . . .” – The Sun Times

“Each of its episodes has within it the capacity to do what Humphreys did with the entirety of The Lost Garden.” – Quill & Quire
“Powerfully poetic . . .” – NOW magazine

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