I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.
Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.
As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.
There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)