Writing under the English skies: how artists handle the weather

Two new books by Alexandra Harris and Christine L Corton show how weather - and pollution - have powered the English imagination.

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I was once shown one of Kenneth Williams’s desk diaries. On each page were three separate entries, in red, green and blue ballpoint. No matter what he’d done or however desperate he had become that day, Williams would begin with a detailed description of the weather. It was as if the vicissitudes of his emotional life were encoded in every cloud.

This autumn, two books have appeared that chart what is seen as a national obsession. Drawing on a vast and eclectic range of sources, Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland creates a cultural history of the English climate – as if, like Williams’s diary, our emotional state might be read in the air above us. “Weather,” she writes, “is written into our landscape.” From the winter-bleak poetic meditations of the Anglo-Saxon writer of “The Wanderer” to Shakespeare, under whose wooden O open to the skies the wind and rain become characters in their own right, we have been drawn to a drama we cannot control.

We even invested our monarchs with the seasons. Elizabeth I was depicted as “Albion’s shining sun”, a kind of “weather goddess” who conjured up a “Protestant wind” to defeat the Armada. Her image became, in Harris’s nice phrase, “a pact between the cosmic and cosmetic”. Her gowns sprouted spring flowers as emblems of her eternal vernality, though the cracks in her face were filled with make-up and all life portraits of the queen were forbidden.

As Europe entered its Little Ice Age, the weather turned apocalyptic. The 17th century experienced at least 20 El Niño events, as well as an unusual number of comets (the words “meteor” and “meteorology” share the same root). The English Civil War was blamed on the bad weather, and “some believed that the air was writhing with devils”. “It was like living on the stage of The Tempest,” Harris writes, “except that the spirits were less tricksily benign than Ariel.” But this was the break point between magic and science – a step away from the true magic of forecasting; with Robert Hooke’s barometrical experiments in the 1660s, the very air acquired substance and weight.

With the advent of Georgian Britain, the sun returned. Harris, as ever, has the telling anecdote: the warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s encouraged the architect John Wood to create his terraces in Bath, glowing with honey-coloured stone. The Enlighten­ment brought a new way of seeing the weather: through a “Claude glass”, developed by the artist Claude Lorrain to enhance a sublime vista. Reflecting reality in their tinted, oblong slabs of glass, tourists would trip themselves up as they walked, intent on seeing the landscape through a lens darkly, much as their modern counterparts hold up iPads to the view. Meanwhile, the stage itself was reproducing meteorological effects. After the dramatist John Dennis used rolling cannonballs to create a sound effect for a play that failed, he was enraged to discover them used in a production of Macbeth: “See how the rascals use me; they will not let my play run, yet they steal my thunder!”

When Alexander Cozens described clouds in the 1780s, he seemed to prove that Hamlet – co-opted by Coleridge as one of the first Romantics – had been right to see shapes like whales overhead, even as the changing weather turned him mad. (I often wonder why we don’t step outside and cower at the massiveness of what is going on above our heads.) The poetry of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley was powered by weather. Shelley devised seditious pamphlets to be borne aloft on balloons and carried up the Bristol Channel. He even envisaged enlightening Africa by the same technique.

John Constable and J M W Turner relied on “skying”. But soon Turner’s greatest champion was diagnosing a new doom: although in 1883 John Ruskin had declared that there was “no such thing as bad weather, but only different kinds of pleasant weather”, by 1884 he was warning of “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” drifting over his beloved Lake District. Even down south,
Thomas Hardy’s mayor of Casterbridge is told, “’Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn than in England.”

I cannot love Weatherland enough. Exquisitely illustrated, it has the wit and wonder of an exceptional literary work. Harris often evokes the magical-modernist voice of her heroine Virginia Woolf, and throughout her time-shifting account I felt as if I were in the company of an updated Orlando, wandering elegantly through every weather.

Where Harris rejoices in the clarity of a Renaissance sun or a Georgian summer, Christine L Corton, clad in an overcoat, with a linklighter before her, takes us into the gloomier, long 19th century, where she revels in its Gothic grasp. Also beautifully illustrated, London Fog delves fascinatingly into that swirling miasma. The city, as Corton shows, was geographically sensitive to such conditions on account of the Thames Basin, surrounded by higher land.

The metropolis became a catchment for mist which, when mingled with the smoke from domestic chimneys and multiplying industries, coalesced into something specifically London. Hence the various names that emerged in celebration, ironic or otherwise, of this localised weather, as if the cynosure of the world deserved an equally impressive climate of its own – from the “London particular” (a telling phrase, as “particular” also meant “mistress”) to “London ivy”, because its smut clung to everything, including the copybooks of City clerks who were fined if they didn’t close their ledgers against the deposits of the daytime fog.

Even before the 19th century, the burning of “sea coal” had been blamed for the fog – as if the sea had conspired with the clouds to create an oceanic obscurity. The diarist John Evelyn fretted about the effects of this on the population’s mental as well as its physical health. But by the 1820s, the burgeoning Industrial Revolution had made these “weather events”, as our modern media would call them, frighteningly frequent. “Londoners were being buried underneath the fog” as if entombed under a dome. The very colour of the fog seemed sickly, a sulphurous yellow, thick with particles. One observer declared, “It hurts your eyes, and takes your breath away.” Indeed, later in the century, enterprising businessmen would market fog spectacles to protect the eyes. An even more forward-thinking American devised a way of delivering personal puffs of clean air to relieve fog-bound citizens.

By 1849, the fog was a tangible phenomenon for visitors such as Herman Melville, who, as Corton notes, was the first person to record the phrase “pea soup” in relation to the London fog during his stay in the city that year. It was this vivid image that would stick, like thick soup to the sides of a bowl. And for one writer, above all, the fog would become an instrument of his work. For Charles Dickens, it was almost another character, in the way that the moor is in Wuthering Heights.

Corton delights in the details furnished by Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and “A Christmas Carol”. Nothing sets the scene so well as the evocative opening description in this last. It is three o’clock in the afternoon in the city, but “. . . it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.”

For Dickens, as for Ruskin, the fog is a judgement on the venal city. “To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.”

The notion that human activity had adversely affected nature was unacceptable to free-marketeers such as John Bright and Thomas Huxley, both of whom, for various reasons, could not countenance the notion of restrictions placed on economic growth. Although a nascent clean air act was passed in 1853 to limit omissions, the fog grew at unstoppable speed with the imperial city, for all the Times’s protests against the industrialists’ “vested interest in compelling us to consume their smoke”. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and I wonder what a modern Dickens would make of the sly invisibility of diesel particulates, poisoning London’s air anew. I can almost hear him sighing.

We may have said goodbye to the old-style London fog – last seen on the streets in 1962 – but it is impossible for us now to regard the weather as a literary backdrop. A decade and a half later, in 1979, as Harris notes in Weatherland, the Met Office warned for the first time of the “significant effects” of increased carbon dioxide in the air. All that weather, all that observation, art and literature, comes down to this: the reality of human-induced climate change. The drama is now in our hands, and yet we feel more helpless than ever. It is telling that there are few contemporary artists and writers dealing with the subject. Perhaps it is simply too big, and too scary, like the sky itself.

Philip Hoare’s books include The Sea Inside (Fourth Estate)

Alexandra Harris will be in conversation with Robert Macfarlane at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November

Weatherland: Writers Artists Under English Skies by Alexandra Harris is published by Thames & Hudson (£24.95, 432pp)

London Fog: The Biography by Christine L Corton is published by Harvard University Press (£22.95, 391pp)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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