Novel weather

  • Umbrellas aloft at Wimbledon this year. Photo: Rebecca Naden/PA Wire/Press Association Images

    Jane Austen lookalike Judith French during a photocall in London's Covent Garden, where she unveiled a plaque at an address where the novelist stayed 1813-1814. Photo: Matthew Fearn/PA Archive/Press Association Images

    The 17th century house in Chawton near Winchester, Hampshire, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Archive/Press Association Images

    Restoration House in Rochester, Kent, on which Dickens based Miss Havisham's Satis House in Great Expectations.

    Prince Charles visiting the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Archive/Press Association Images

  • Novel weather
    13.07.2012 07:45


    While most of us are fervently wishing for an end to this seemingly constant procession of torrential rain and floods, we should remember how the weather informs the British psyche.

    The wetness so far of this summer – and of April, too – is quite remarkable, and in fact almost unprecedented in at least the last 250 years. But summers in these isles, despite popular perception, are not often sun-baked and arid. Although not the wettest months they usually have bouts of rain, which tend to be rather heavy.

    Novelists and poets have often used the changeability of our climate to their advantage, introducing weather as a plot device or as a mood-setter.

    The rain serves as just such a tool in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The match-making Mrs Bennet insists that Jane ride to visit Netherfield at Miss Bigley’s invitation rather than take a carriage. The calculating matriarch hopes that rain will come and force her daughter stay overnight, giving time for the embers of a romance with Mr Bingley to glow.

    As it happens, her plan works rather too well and almost terrible badly – Jane gets caught in the rain and contracts a fever, keeping her in a sick bed at Netherfield for several days.

    At the end of her novel Emma, Austen brings “cold story weather”, not only reflecting Emma Woodhouse’s mood as she fears that she has lost Mr Knightley but allowing for the intervention of sunshine and her beau’s return the following day.

    Charles Dickens was a master of using weather to set a mood and steer a plot, hardly surprising given how his marathon walks between London and Kent must have seen him frequently drenched.

    Great Expectations is a fine example. It rains incessantly, creating a gloomy, stygian atmosphere. Then the dramatic arrival of Magwitch on Pip’s doorstep is accompanied by a violent storm, while the meeting with the criminal in the graveyard in the north Kent marshes is cloaked in fog.

    Thomas Hardy, too, masterfully used the weather in such a manner. The depressive mood of crushed hope in Jude the Obscure is almost narrated by it: the storm threatening on Remembrance Day reflects the mood of impending doom, while the fog and drizzle on the day of the marriage of Sue and Phillotson foreshadow the misery of their wedlock.

    Tess of the D’Urbervilles sees the weather almost as a recurring character, and Hardy was skilled at virtually personifying the atmosphere, as he did with the “desolating wind” that wandered over the hill in Far from the Madding Crowd.

    Hardy’s delight in or obsession with the weather is made doubly clear by his poetry. “During Wind and Rain”, for one, and “Weathers” for another, during the second stanza of which he contrasts wet autumn weather with the showery spring of the first verse. He might as well have been writing of our summer so far: 

    This is the weather the shepherd shuns, 
    And so do I; 

    When beeches drip in browns and duns, 
    And thresh and ply; 
    And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe, 
    And meadow rivulets overflow, 
    And drops on gate bars hang in a row, 
    And rooks in families homeward go, 
    And so do I. 

    By: Stephen Davenport