Talking interestingly about the weather

03 February 2017

Alison Shell enjoys Weatherland, Alexandra Harris’s study of cultural responses to it


“Dramatic sublimity”: Seascape with Rain Cloud by John Constable (1827), one of many illustrations in the book

“Dramatic sublimity”: Seascape with Rain Cloud by John Constable (1827), one of many illustrations in the book

WHILE pretending not to notice a courtship going on under their noses, the maidens in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance talk about the weather:

How beautifully blue the sky,
The glass is rising very high,
Continue fine I hope it may,
And yet it rained but yesterday.

For 21st-century Englishmen and women, as for the Victorians, Eng­land’s mutable weather is a per­ennial subject of small-talk — so much so that one can forget what an interesting topic it is in its own right.

Alexandra Harris’s book is a stim­ulating corrective, reminding us of the inspiration that English writers have drawn from the English climate — for better and, frequently, for worse.

The isolated and exiled speaker in the Old English poem “The Wanderer” — one of the few texts from this era to have come down to us — utters a sentence that can be translated as: “[I] ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart.” As this suggests, the pathetic fallacy has existed in our literature from the beginning — although, luckily, com­­­plaints about the English weather are not always a sign of inner desolation.

The epic spread of Weatherland, extending from the age of “The Wanderer” to the present day, shows how different kinds of weather come to the imaginative fore at different times. Virginia Woolf’s hero Orlando, whose life encompasses many eras of English history, provides a witty illustration of this when looking out over London one New Year’s Eve:

A turbulent welter of cloud cov­ered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The eighteenth century was over; the nineteenth century had begun.


Orlando may be anticipating, and Woolf recalling, the effect of the Industrial Revolution on England’s climate.

The main point here, however, to quote Harris, is that “as cultural preoccupations change, we find affinities with different kinds of weather.” At the turn of the 19th century, both scientists and creative writers were fascinated by clouds. Luke Howard published the first comprehensive classification system for clouds in 1803; Wordsworth is, famously, found wandering “lonely as a cloud” at the beginning of his poem “Daffodils”.

Constable’s Seascape with Rain Cloud, one of the many illustrations in Harris’s book, evokes the dram­atic sublimity of Orlando’s vision, and reminds us that writers and artists often had similar imag­inative agendas.

Harris’s sensitivity to the inter­play of word, image, and emo­tion is evident in her acute personal mon­itoring of weather’s fluctua­tions. Describing a cold snap at a holiday home, she records a memorably stoical attitude towards insomnia, and a chilly hot-water bottle: “For two hours I lie awake thinking about our sensitivity to temper­ature.”

Then, when the morning rises “triumphantly bright”, she rejoices in the “sharp low light in which archaeologists can see field bound­aries and lost villages”. Driving away, she reflects:

I have done nothing but watch the light and the water, and feel the cold, the wet, the wind, and afterwards the warmth. There are places where these things are so all-consuming that there’s time for little else.

Over the centuries, the intensity of weather’s impact has lent itself to cosmic dramas of a wider kind. Bad weather was often interpreted as betokening God’s wrath, while the presence of weathercocks on church steeples reminded parishioners of God’s day-to-day intervention in creation.

Where our forebears had weather­­­cocks, we have weather forecasts. Harris sees these as having a ritual dimension, commenting that the “reading of ‘reports from coastal stations’ is a beating of the bounds”, and quoting Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Prayer”: “Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer — Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.”

In this book, Harris shows herself a wonderfully well-informed and engaging guide to English weather, and it is part of the enjoyment that every reader will have supple­mentary contributions. Mine is familiar to many readers of the Church Times: the Master Singers’ 1966 recording, which sets an im­­aginary weather forecast to An­­glican psalm chant:

Fog has developed overnight in much of England and | parts of | Wales: In some | districts it is | rath-er | dense.

This will lift and clear by mid-morning | al-most | everywhere: and the rest of the day will be | fine with un|brok-en | sunshine.

Continue fine — like the girls in The Pirates of Penzance — we hope it may.


Dr Alison Shell is Professor of Eng­lish at University College London.

Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies is published by Thames & Hudson at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-500-29265-5.



Alexandra Harris’s book outlines many conceptions and versions of weather held by people in the past. Which did you find the most compelling?

How direct a link ought we to draw between God and the weather?

To what degree is our view of weather balanced between wonder and knowledge?

Did this book lead you to a new appreciation of a particular kind of weather, or a particular kind of art?

How much do you think our per­cep­tion of weather is affected by the stories that we tell about it?

Are we in 21st-century Britain affected too much, or too little, by the weather?

Did the discussion of climate change at the end of Weatherland cast the rest of the book in a different light?

What does it mean to be a Christian in the Anthropocene period, “the age made by man”?

In this book, artists and writers by turns “set up the umbrella of art against the storm” and “enjoy the commotion of the elements”. Which of these definitions is closest to your idea of what art should do?

”Patient watchfulness, sensory immersion, and willingness to use all the tools at hand”: what can Weatherland’s writers, artists, and weather-watchers teach us about Christian life?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 March, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Golden Hill by Francis Spufford. It is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-571-22520-0.


Book notes

Published last year (Books, 5 August), Golden Hill has been described by one reviewer as “the best eighteenth-century novel since the eighteenth century”. Set in colonial New York in 1746, the book follows the adventures of a mysterious young Englishman whose arrival in Manhattan sparks intrigue, scandal, and rumours of a great fortune. Francis Spufford’s story wittily conducts the reader through all the nooks and crannies of the new-formed American society, frenetically dodging from coffee-house to jail to ballroom.

Alexandra Harris called Golden Hill “a novel of gloriously capacious humanity . . . verifiable gold”. It won the 2016 Costa Book Award for a first novel.


Author notes

Francis Spufford was born in 1964. Although Golden Hill is his first novel, he has written five virtuosic volumes of non-fiction, on subjects ranging from polar exploration (I May Be Some Time, which won the 1997 Somerset Maugham Award) to Soviet science (Red Plenty, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2010).

In 2013, he published Unapologetic (Books, 23 November 2012; Reading Groups, 4 October 2013), a defence of Christianity which was described by the philosopher John Gray as “a rare gem”. In 2015, he was elected to the General Synod as a lay representative of the diocese of Ely. He is married to the Revd Dr Jessica Martin, a Residentiary Canon of Ely Cathedral.


Books for the next two months:

April: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

May: The Virgin Eye by Robin Daniels

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