THE weather forecasters wear their best clothes to tell us the worst. That the sun will not shine today. They have no language for dullness. But I have. On the telephone at breakfast, I say what it looks like out of the farmhouse window, that greys and browns prevail. Not a sunbeam in sight. And he says something like, “Oh to be in Norfolk” — his native land — now that summer’s here. And I remind him that Suffolk has the lowest rainfall (Felixstowe 22 inches), and that the radio goes on for preparing the nation for the worst. No sun until next week, they say.
Jane Austen is notorious for her devotion to bad weather, and I once commended her for it. “All her novels link the sublime moods of nature with our moods.” Her understanding of the English climate is very modern, and she would have approved of the formal elegance of those who describe it, day after day on the television, for they are priests of a sort and have to be robed for their part-scientific, part-mystical profession.
Their litany is, of course, a shipping forecast, something too beautiful for daylight hours, something to lie await for, something with which to compete in one’s screens. Jane Austen’s characters, although they may be rained on and shone on hundreds of years ago, are clearly us, and their weather is ours. Except that we keep warm without coal fires, and thus run our towns and cities without creating fog. We wear comparatively few clothes and we keep candlelight for best. And for the altar, of course. Jane, of course, wrote her novels by it. Although that she would have lit them because it was a dull day is unlikely.
As a boy, I remember our grandparents enjoying what they called the glooming before the paraffin lamps were lit. Firelight made the pictures and ornaments glitter, and the cat rolled on the rug. Some kind of gas lit the church in winter. It made a soft hissing sound, which was rather holy. There were two candles on the altar for ordinary worship and a dozen or so for saints’ days. An untraceable draught made one candle burn faster than the other, also causing it to melt into what we called a “shroud” — the stalactite of wax which could be freed from the brass only with hot water.
Although the daughter of a priest, Jane Austen barely mentions religion. Emma is seen in church only for her marriage to the squire. But a witty morality holds forth Christian values, not to mention class values.
The Suffolk-Essex border is famous “ringing” country. They say that the sound of our bells is carried along the river, although not always to my farmhouse. The wind has to be right. An ancient man who lived here for the First World War would sit in an apple tree to hear them. During the Napoleonic war, the Prime Minster would stand in the Downing Street garden and say boomily: “They are ringing the bells tonight — they will be wringing their hands in the morning.” Pitt the younger, of course.
But how little we would have known then about what was happening in the great world! My father remembered the schoolmaster reading what he thought the villagers should know from The Times. He read it in the playground on Saturday mornings. Real news in the village was when the watermill burnt down.
Yesterday at matins, I read the banns, and add: “If you know any just cause or impediment why these two people may not be joined in holy matrimony, you are to declare it.” But how little we know of these two, or indeed of anyone else these days.