Book review by Mike Sansbury

Assistant Manager

The Grove Bookshop

Weatherland – Writers & Artists Under English Skies by Alexandra Harris

SEVERAL years ago the writer and academic, Alexandra Harris, came to Ilkley to discuss her book, Romantic Moderns, a study of the English artistic imagination during the early twentieth century. This year she returned with her new book, Weatherland, in which she investigates the history of the English climate as portrayed in art and literature. The period covered here is much broader; we are taken back to the Dark Ages, then carried gradually forward, examining not only the great names – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf (Orlando is our guide across the centuries) – but those lesser lights whose thoughts on weather have somehow survived across the centuries.

It is an engrossing book, serving not only as a guide to our meteorological history but also as a handy timeline for our literary heritage, and Alexandra Harris’s enthusiasm is engaging and infectious. The early chapters delve into the mysteries of Old English and the wintry reflections from that mini Ice Age are presented in the original, but with useful modern translations. Chaucer and his April pilgrims inevitably feature, as does Shakespeare with his tempests and bucolic pastorals (in The Winter’s Tale, for example), but some of the most interesting points are made in the section entitled Two Anatomists. This is an analysis of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Francis Bacon’s Historia Ventorum, two works which look at weather in very different ways.

Burton investigates the idea of humours, and the effect of landscapes on our mood, even going so far as to suggest that the very worst place for accentuating melancholy is the “thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes, muckhills.” Ilkley’s position in the happiness rankings would seem to disprove this! Bacon, on the other hand, was a keen student of the science of weather and one of the first to look at how man’s treatment of nature affected the environment. The two men suffered deaths which related to their own versions of meteorology, Bacon catching a chill while experimenting on the effects of stuffing a chicken with snow, and Burton succumbing in January, “a melancholy time of year.”

Although the book follows a general chronological course, there are various detours and pauses, in which the author ruminates on such subjects as frost fairs on the Thames, the Brontes and the influence on their work of the artist, John Martin, the skies of Constable and the Arcadian idylls of Gainsborough, and the interesting fact that in the early 18th century the words “shower” and “sewer” were pronounced in the same way. Harris also suggests that the honeyed stone architecture of Bath was created to glow in the kind of Italianate weather only briefly seen in an English year; perhaps Lutyens’ Heathcote was built with similar aims.

As the nineteenth century heads towards its end it is clear that the age is heading inexorably from autumn to winter; the world of Victorian interior design is shown to be a reconstruction of cosy defence against the cold, and only after the final agonies of World War One (Owen’s “Winter of the World”) can new life, colour and gaiety re-enter the literary and artistic world. The warmth and colour of the final part of the book is just reward for those who have travelled on this entertaining, informative and invigorating journey.