Bright Blue Dark Blue

Rosemary Hill

  • Weatherland by Alexandra Harris
    Thames and Hudson, 432 pp, £24.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 500 51811 3

When does weather begin? In the sense of detailed, day-to-day observations of light and temperature, the stuff of art and conversation, weather would seem to be a relatively late development. Seasons, the overarching and background reality of life, are older, although as Alexandra Harris explains, ‘spring’ was invented only in the late Middle Ages. Before all that there was just climate and what people thought about it is all but unknowable. In the temperate zones, where the waxing and waning of the year is more noticeable than in the tropics and more gradual than near the poles, summer and winter solstices were often marked with what archaeologists like to muffle under the blanket term of ‘ritual’, but what that means, even at Stonehenge, the most studied of Neolithic sites, nobody knows.

Of necessity then, Harris moves rapidly on from the last Ice Age, where her book begins, through prehistory to pause only briefly at the Romans, where the material is still sparse: a mosaic floor portraying Winter; Tacitus’ dismissive view of Britannia with its ‘foul … rain and mists’; letters to and from legionaries on the outskirts of the empire, sending for more socks. With the Middle Ages the sun comes out, at least in art, in the brilliant enamel-blue skies of illuminated manuscripts, books of hours marking the rotation of the days and years, and stained glass in which saints hover in cerulean bliss, varied only with an occasional rainbow, a piece of virtuoso craftsmanship, marking the end of the Flood. But this is all still background. Bright blue means day, dark blue night. Nobody perhaps needed more at a time when a weather-proof building was a luxury for most people and the indoor weather made by coloured light falling on stone at Canterbury or Chartres must have been a welcome respite from the familiar realities of wind and rain. In the earliest literature in English it is usually cold, as most people presumably were; but here too, detailed descriptions are rare. The ice and the storms are either given as facts, or personified. Gods and frost giants control temperature and wind speed. Even Chaucer, Harris laments, has little to say on the subject. ‘Averylle with his shoures soote’ is no more particular than blue stained glass.

The early chapters of Weatherland therefore seem to be stretching various points not only about weather but about Englishness for, as Harris concedes, many Anglo-Saxon writers were ‘not distinctively English at all’, and at the time of her earliest sources there was no England. She is obliged to fall back on speculation about what the Romans ‘must have’ seen and felt, but the result is nonetheless an enjoyable cavalcade of quotations, incidents and miniatures: scribes whose ink has frozen in winter; the monk at Reading Abbey who, sometime in the 1260s, improvised on the familiar theme of ‘Sumer is icumen in’ by adding jumping bullocks and farting bucks which must have echoed through the cloisters in a riot of onomatopoeia when the song was performed as a round. Harris introduces us to William Merle, who between 1337 and 1344 kept a diary of the weather at Driby in Lincolnshire, one of the earliest such records to survive, and to Sir Gawain watching the seasons turn in the anxious year between his first meeting with the Green Knight and the climactic second.

As a whole, however, the book is tantalising and ultimately frustrating, a mixture of the academic, the autobiographical and the whimsical that never quite coheres. As Harris explains, she has taken much of her inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a hard act to follow and not always a helpful influence. Harris describes her own approach in the introduction as having ‘tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it’. It’s an image that will divide readers instantly into the charmed and the irritated, and as the book goes on, proceeding by way of loose themes and broad chronology, reasons for irritation multiply. Harris seems oddly incurious about how and why writing and art about weather changes from time to time. She has no organising argument and not much sense of history, so inevitably the book turns into a personal anthology and opens itself to the quibbling about selection that all anthologies must incur. Why choose Donne the poet, whose ‘Sunne Rising’ is not really a poem about weather, rather than Donne the preacher with his more surprising assertion that ‘in heaven it is always Autumne’? And where is Swift’s ‘City Shower’ (which must have a fair claim to the first mention of an umbrella in verse) and Gay’s ‘Trivia’?

Donne belongs to the pre-weather world. His is still the language of seasons and climes. Full-blown modern weather comes with the early 18th century, when more people were living in towns and the cycle of the seasons gave way to the Season, with its different and largely incompatible rounds of business, shopping and the need to look permanently smart. The town-dweller’s often antipathetic relationship with nature requires constant adjustment. Out of the need to be forever accommodating, counteracting or avoiding it, weather, as a subject in its own right, was born and became instantly funny as the mismatch between urbanity and the elements opened up a space for satire. In ‘A Description of a City Shower’ Swift sets an undignified scene, a panorama of wet wigs, dresses tucked up indecently high and gutters flowing with dead puppies and turnips. It’s a parodic pastoral: the weather lore of city folk is the smell of backed-up drains, and their traditional pastimes include loitering in shops, waiting for the rain to stop. Hogarth’s weather, too, is mostly unpleasant or inconvenient; his series Four Times of the Day runs the gamut from bleak bleary morning to stuffy evening and ends with a night sky lit up by a bonfire, which is setting a carriage alight.

It is often said, and it is the premise of Harris’s book, that the English are peculiarly obsessed with weather and talk about it more than any other nation. As national myths go this has no more substance than the idea that Inuit languages have an exceptional number of words for snow, but it flatters the notion of the English character as mildly eccentric – in a fundamentally likeable way. Quite when the idea emerges Harris doesn’t say, but by the time Thomas Love Peacock was describing a group of ill-assorted travelling companions easing reluctantly into conversation in Headlong Hall, he was sure of raising a smile by making the topic on which they eventually settle ‘those various knotty points of meteorology, which usually form the exordium of an English conversation’. By this point in her narrative, however, Harris has her work cut out as the possible examples multiply torrentially with the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. More than half the book is devoted to the period after 1789, when for several decades the English had if not the best then certainly the most artistic weather in Europe.

Weather in the Age of Reason had generally stayed outside: not just outside the shops and coffee houses, but outside the writer, an observed rather than a felt experience. The moment Harris singles out, in May 1798, when Coleridge ran outdoors into a storm in Devon, hatless and full of febrile sensibility, was born of the desire for immersion in the elemental, the dissolution of self in the infinite, which made weather as great a theme as love for the Romantics. But by then the weather had been thoroughly theorised. The poets came to it after the painters, who themselves came after the theoretical exponents of the Picturesque, the aesthetic philosophy that art historians since Pevsner have agreed to be ‘England’s major contribution to the culture of the 18th century’. In its exploration of the relations between culture, consciousness and perception it moved towards ideas for which Pevsner could later find no better word than ‘psychoanalytic’, and sank deep into the national imagination.

Harris nods only briefly to the Picturesque as the stuff of guidebooks and finds no room for its theorists, with the exception of Uvedale Price, who is brushed off as an ‘enthusiastic Herefordshire landowner’. Yet these ideas underlay the work of two brilliant generations of watercolourists, of whom Turner was only the most famous, at one of those historic moments when art, ideas and technique all reach the same pitch at the same time. Girtin, Sandby and their successors, Cotman and the tantalisingly short-lived Richard Bonington, captured as no painters before them had the most delicate effects of weather – clouds seen through other clouds, woods in a mist of rain – and, once aquatint was perfected, their work could be reproduced with tolerable fidelity. This was the thoroughly mediated scenery amid which the Romantic poets wrote.

In due course it all inevitably became hackneyed, faintly ridiculous and much satirised. Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax fell into sublime lakes and cracked his head on interestingly gnarled trees while Peacock’s Lord Littlebrain moved mountains of earth at vast expense to make his grounds look more natural. But by then a generation was saturated with the aesthetics of the Picturesque, which had sunk so deep as to be invisible. Keats vibrated like a tuning fork to Price’s dicta. Of autumn, with its warm and dying light, Price wrote: ‘It is not only the change of vegetation which gives [it] its golden hue but also the atmosphere itself … all is matured; and the rich hues of the ripened fruits, and of the changing foliage, are rendered still richer by the warm haze, which, on a fine day in that season, spreads the last varnish over every part of the picture.’ It is only a thought away from the letter Keats wrote about his own ‘To Autumn’: ‘Somehow a stubble plain looks warm,’ he noted, ‘in the same way that some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’ Keats’s poem is Price’s prose stripped of the blowsiness. Shelley complained to Peacock that artistically Price and Knight never ‘caught the hare’. Keats did and thereby wrote some of the very best of English poetic weather.

After this Georgian high point it is, in Harris’s view, downhill, if not all the way, then at least as far as the Bloomsbury group. At this point her preoccupation with Woolf becomes a serious problem. She relies on Orlando as if it were a history book. Woolf’s hero/ine’s view of Victorian culture as a farrago of ‘crystal palaces … military helmets. Memorial wreaths, trousers, whiskers, wedding cakes’ is a brilliant distillation of all that Woolf and her contemporaries disliked about their parents, but it is not an accurate picture of the 19th century. The Victorians, who after all comprised three succeeding generations, each with its own aesthetic ideas, loom out of Harris’s account as the unreconstructed caricatures of the early 20th century, all mahogany, repression and horse-hair stuffing. Their weather is always grey and wet. Shrubberies drip and aspidistras gather dust behind thick lace curtains. When it comes to architecture Harris is of the same mind as P.G. Wodehouse, who said: ‘Whatever may be said in favour of the Victorians, it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks.’ After Pugin, she writes off Victorian buildings as ‘dim hallways’ and watery stained glass. Yet the late Victorians created, in what became known on the Continent as ‘Das englische Haus’, a domestic style that was more subtly responsive to local weather than any before or since. Norman Shaw, Baillie Scott and Philip Webb designed houses with central ‘living halls’, sociable spaces from which rooms led off, opening out in bay windows to take the inhabitants into the garden on the most inclement of days.

Yet, Harris insists, ‘ivy clung thickly, all year round, to the walls of Victorian England.’ Nineteenth-century taste did, indeed, often favour what Horace Walpole a century before had called ‘gloomth’, and a later age may find lugubrious. Pre-Raphaelite weather, even when it is sunny, has a menacing immanence about it, and of course there is Dickens’s fog, which Harris discusses at length, along with Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’. But what about Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the greatest weather poets of all time (does anyone else do hail?). He finds no place in the book although his ‘skies of couple-colour’, the rush of ‘descending blue’ on an early summer’s day, ‘lovely behaviour/Of silk-sack clouds!’, the strange impacted similes as brilliant and unexpected as Donne’s, are among the purest joys of English literature. Another significantly missing figure in this account of the Victorian mentality is Darwin, who might have been used to make sense of it. To Hopkins the Jesuit priest, the natural world still blazed with the grandeur of God. The trouble with the weather for Ruskin and many of his contemporaries was that it didn’t. Ever since Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology, ‘the dreadful hammers’ of the geologists had set off echoes in Ruskin’s turbulent mind: ‘I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.’ By the 1880s, when he wrote the ‘Storm-Cloud’ essay in which mania and meteorology are combined, Ruskin had turned violently and personally against Darwin, who had been his friend since 1837.

To Hardy, evolution revealed a humanity now ‘too extremely developed for its corporeal conditions’; ‘this planet,’ he concluded, ‘does not supply the materials for happiness.’ Where the Romantics saw weather at its most violent as Sublime, a century later it could appear infinitely more terrifying, a manifestation of a nature that was blind, insensate, indifferent. So much has recently been written about the effect of evolutionary theory on the art and literature of the 19th century – by James Secord in Victorian Sensation, Gillian Beer in Darwin’s Plots and A.N. Wilson in God’s Funeral – that it is surprising as well as frustrating that Harris takes no account of it.

Had she been more curious about the variety and striking contrasts that characterise Victorian weather it might have helped her shape the vast amount of material she has drawn together. As it is, the book remains the raw material, with many interesting ingredients, for something more considered.