Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies by Alexandra Harris - review by Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry

Taking the Temperature

Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies


Thames & Hudson 432pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

Alexandra Harris’s new book, Weatherland, does two things at once. It follows on from her highly successful inaugural study of British writers and painters, Romantic Moderns, and it similarly interweaves evocations of both literature and the visual arts, though now she ranges all the way back to the Anglo-Saxons and forward to Ian McEwan and David Hockney. Crossed with this is something as original as it is difficult to pull off: an evocation of the way that weather shapes minds and lives, especially in England. That climate has a key role in the shaping of the character of peoples would have been an unsurprising contention to Montesquieu, Vico or Rousseau; but Harris’s focus is more individualistic and psychological, closer to the spirit in which, as every foreigner knows, English people find the weather a subject of endless interest. The climate may provoke pathetic gratitude or a conviction that one deserves no better; it very seldom gives rise to serious cataclysm, but at the same time it is basically wholly unstable – altogether, an irresistible analogy for the English character, or one myth of it anyway. ‘Frost, sunshine, hopeless drought and refreshing rains succeed one another with bewildering rapidity,’  Aldous Huxley observed, with the air of a man bound to gravitate to the monotonous sunshine of southern California.

Huxley thought George Herbert ‘the poet of this inner weather’, and you could see Harris’s study as an attempt to generalise his famous phrase to encompass English literary history at large. She begins with the Anglo-Saxons writing about frost and bitter winter winds with such feeling, before turning to the evocations of spring that you find in Middle English. At the same time, Harris concedes, ‘precise evocations of weather are as rare in medieval writing as in pictures’. The Renaissance, while often preoccupied with the figurative possibilities of weather, also offers slim pickings in particular experience, with the exception of Shakespeare: ‘The uncertain glory of an April day/Which now shows all the beauty of the sun/And by and by a cloud takes all away!’ – ‘a perfect evocation’, says Harris, ‘of ordinary English weather’. But that is rare, and the main contention underlying the book is that it remained rare until the first glimpses of Romantic perception. Seventeenth-century diarists, for example, generally don’t seem to have said much about the weather unless it got in the way of their business; and while many pamphleteers appealed to the dreadful weather of the Little Ice Age to support their views about God, and Milton wrote with a wonderfully bleak fancy in Paradise Lost about the invention of weather at the time of the Fall, it was not really until the later 18th century that what Harris calls ‘the aesthetics of weather’ would become our ‘national obsession’. As Virginia Woolf observed of the diarist John Evelyn, who was otherwise curious about almost everything, he ‘never looked at the sky’.

All that changed in the generation of Turner and Coleridge – the last ‘a man mesmerized by weather’, whose verse is filled with gusts and breezes, as well as the images he spotted in life and then turned into poetry, ‘silent icicles,/Quietly shining to the quiet Moon’: ‘Every lines glistens with details of things observed,’ says Harris, which is certainly true. Wordsworth is full of moving air as well; and, as though obedient to the spirit of the age, Constable dedicated a lot of his genius to capturing the atmospheric shifts described by clouds. Shelley, who professed the wish to become a cloud himself, similarly possessed a ‘love of wind’: his Witch of Atlas rode about in a sort of airship, such as he had long dreamed of. Ruskin admired clouds with his own agenda, an airy and upward spirit of betterment that was perhaps a reaction against the dripping rain and foggy damp that featured in the works of so many of his contemporaries. With the modernists the picture changes again, but the ‘imaginative climate of the twentieth century’ does not seem very coherent: for some ‘cold was the ideal modern condition’, while ‘others yearned for heat’.

As that might imply, the book, while not shy of floating generalisations about different literary epochs, does not advance a particular argument about weather, other than that it is ubiquitous and that its presence in works of art is governed by all those changes in expression that otherwise constitute the history of aesthetics. Its spirit is, rather, essayistic – not only in the way that it is made up of a succession of mini-essays about major figures joined together, but also in its manner. It is probably difficult to say much about how it feels to be a weather-shaped creature without resorting to the kind of essayistic impressionism of which Woolf is the greatest exponent; Harris, a Woolf scholar, announces her as a model. Her own style is finely turned, for sure, if at times a little pretty for my taste: ‘We imagine not just one dripping woodland evening’, she remarks, not uncharacteristically, of some lines of Tennyson, ‘but dripping woodland evenings to the end of time.’ Woolf herself had a brilliant, sometimes satirical stringency that counterbalanced the tendency to dwell lovingly within the impressionable life – which is to say, she is a hard act to follow.

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