Descriptions of the weather tell an important story about English history, argues Joanna Kavennaby Joanna Kavenna / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) The English are traditionally mocked for their obsession with the weather. They are also, of course, mocked for the weather itself. Yet Alexandra Harris, the author of Weatherland, is not centrally concerned with the famous asperities of the English weather; the climate in this country, she observes, has remained more or less the same over the past millennium.
By looking at the ways in which English writers have described the weather, Harris seeks to fathom how the world appears to different people at different moments in time. What has changed is not the weather but the way the English perceive it. As Harris writes: “I have tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it.”
Did people in the past look at a sunset or snow in the same way we do? What did a rainbow look like to those who lived before the time of Isaac Newton? Are certain conventions, in certain eras, so powerful that they recondition the way we see the world? Harris’s answer is that literary and artistic portrayals of the weather say more about the sensibility of a particular epoch than they do about its meteorology.
This idea is playfully but clearly expressed in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928), in which the main character lives through 300 years of British history. As Orlando moves through the centuries, the weather changes, evoking the atmosphere of each era. For example: “The first stroke of midnight sounded… A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The 18th century was over; the 19th century had begun.” Woolf’s technique, says Harris, shows that “as cultural preoccupations change, we find affinities with different kinds of weather…Weather gathers associations and our associations shape our experience of weather.”
The Romans, who shivered in their inhospitable northern outposts, longed for the warmer temperatures of home. Anglo-Saxon poets deployed the hostile elements as a poetic backdrop for their overarching sense of doom: Storms crash against these rocky slopes, Sleet and snow fall and fetter the…