Jo Mazelis reviews Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland, a beautiful account of English writers according to the weather they experienced.
Americans and others not in the know, use the term ‘England’ to refer to all of us on these small islands called the United Kingdom, but this study of the cultural descriptions and effects of the weather is precise in its use of the term English. That is a pity in the view of this reviewer, but not a thing to be resented. The cultural dominance of England and the English is inescapable – as a child, when I wrote what I thought was long version of my address it read, Swansea, Wales, England, Great Britain, Europe, the World. Oh well, perhaps I wasn’t all that bright, perhaps too much Welsh rain had soaked into my growing brain – or perhaps I recognised an unavoidable truth – that culture – from Shakespeare to the BBC to News of the World and The Times, from Jane Austen, to Dickens, to the Brontes, to Coronation Street to Monty Python and the Beatles –was English.
Alexandra Harris, in her introduction to Weatherland, explains, ‘The rich weather cultures of Scotland, Wales and Ireland might fill many books…. but I have confined myself to England, the part of the world I know best’.
It is a well known aphorism that the English are obsessed with the weather, but like the weather itself, some preoccupations know no borders, and neither does culture – for the Welsh, as much as the Scots and the Irish are familiar with the paintings of Constable and Lowry, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, with King Lear’s storm and blasted heath, and all of us share that same undiluted fascination with the weather.
So, preamble aside, Alexandra Harris has created a wind-tossed book, a sullen and louring book, a book of floods and yawning blue skies, whose principle focus is the weather and its representations and symbolism for generations of writers, artists and musicians. The weather has a long history of use both as a metaphor and as a direct threat to humanity – we are all familiar with the story of The Flood and Noah’s Ark, we are equally aware of the idea of global warming (whether we believe it or not). The weather, for all our technological advancement, can very quickly get the better of us and we rightly still fear its extremes.
This book, by laying a sort of weather map over England’s culture, throws up surprising facts: that Charlotte Bronte found certain sections of Dicken’s Bleak House ‘weak and twaddling’ and that what she disliked in the novels of Jane Austen was ‘no fresh air’. That Virginia Woolf noticed that there were no sunrises or sunsets in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This latter fact I still find surprising, chiefly as the remembered written text in my mind is overwritten by the astonishing children’s TV version I watched so avidly in the 1960s.
Weatherland is a beautifully written book which, as a broad survey under the umbrella (pun very much intended) of weather conditions, leaps playfully and sometimes dramatically from puddle to puddle of weather description, metaphor and meaning, evoking both the Sturm und Drang and the sublime of the Romantics, but also our very real and human experience of nature’s kind and cruel forces.
Of Daniel Defoe’s observations of the terrible storm of 1703, Harris writes, ‘Something drove Defoe to count the fallen trees as he rode through Kent. It was as if this restless quest for evidence was a kind of atonement, and his counting, counting, counting was a kind of prayer.’
I have to confess that I slept through the hurricane of 1987, awaking in the morning somewhat astonished to see the many fallen trees in the streets and on nearby Ealing Common – but I still recognise the urge behind Defoe’s relentless obsessive counting – it seems that such an event demands a record of some type – instead of counting I took photographs, but the rinsed morning after a storm is never the same as the storm itself, aside from the damage left behind.
Alexandra Harris draws attention L.S. Lowry’s pale grey skies of blanket cloud – unlike Monet who painted the same subject repeatedly in different conditions of light and season, in Lowry’s works there is only one sort of day. The cloud cover is flat and complete, giving no shadows and allowing the factory chimneys and their drifting plumes of smoke to stand out clearly and diagrammatically. As Harris puts it, ‘The mill and the town hall are not half-there in Lowry’s paintings, forever changeable: they are really there, and must not be obscured because they are the building blocks of life’. She notes how technological advances in transport and buildings isolate us from the weather, quoting Alison and Peter Smithson when they relish how their car meant they ‘were wonderfully protected from the most violent of storms in the wildest of landscapes’. This calls to mind a day long ago when, as I walked along the promenade in Aberystwyth in high wind and freezing rain, the water-soaked collar of my coat took it into its head to repeatedly and without let up, slap my face in an insistent and high speed drumbeat of what seemed to be painful contempt.
To be entirely isolated from the weather; to only experience it from behind glass is to isolate ourselves from a major part of our shared human history and, as we grow to understand, is the direct cause of the worsening of the wind and rain and cold we are so intent on escaping from.
Alexandra Harris writes of how the poet and novelist Stevie Smith was a lover of ‘mossiness’ – the dank, damp, dripping places and seasons. She reminds us that Virginia Woolf knew ‘that the weather in which we read affects our understanding’. I was reading this book during a brief spell of unusually warm weather in November, there were blue skies in the corner of my eye, the window was open and the trees were barely stirring in the softest of breezes, so perhaps this is why I found this book such a pleasure (a crucial factor few critics would acknowledge – not wishing to deny their absolute objectivity). But no, rather it is the meteorological lens through which Harris both selects and gazes at writers and artists. The texts and pictures of which she speaks, whether familiar or not, are illuminated both in isolation and relation to each other, but what is finally revealed, considered, analysed and understood is this complex, elemental, often intangible yet ineffable phenomena we each live with and in, and simply, neglectfully call the weather.
Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies
Thames and Hudson, 2015, £24.95
Jo Mazelis is an award-winning Welsh novelist and short story writer.