Magazine article The Spectator

'Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies', by Alexandra Harris - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies', by Alexandra Harris - Review

Article excerpt

Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies Alexandra Harris

Thames & Hudson, pp.432, £24.95, ISBN: 9780500518113

'Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr Worthing,' pleads Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest . 'Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.' Weatherland would make Gwendolen very nervous indeed. Our observations of the sky, Alexandra Harris reveals in this extended outlook, have always meant something else.

Weatherland is a literary biography of the climate. Beginning with the Fall (in the Biblical rather than the autumnal sense) and ending with Alice Oswald, Harris condenses 2,000 years of weather 'as it is recreated in the human imagination'. It is the weather-consciousness of writers, for the most part, that propels the narrative; art takes a back seat until the 17th century, at which point the sky appears in English painting and the purpose of a cloud, as Ruskin said, is no longer to put an angel on it.

Harris presents us with a vast canvas, filled to the edges. No Norman weathercock goes unobserved; we follow the sun as it evolves from a Renaissance symbol of majesty to the chilly light of Claude Lorrain; meteorological discoveries are included throughout. The result is variable: a dry start for some is followed by mainly bright and sunny spells, thickening at times, and culminating with a patch of low-level turbulence. What holds the material together is Harris's fluent and unfaltering prose; she could be read for style alone.

We can blame Eve for our English summers. Eden's ambient air made clothes unnecessary but one bite of the apple, according to Paradise Lost , and God unleashed the 'alterations in the heavens and elements'. Milton, Samuel Johnson drily noted, was super-sensitive to temperature and only wrote at certain times of the year. 'The author that thinks himself weather-bound,' Johnson believed, was either 'idle or exhausted'. Only in old age did the Great Cham admit that weather mattered: 'I am now reduced to think, and am at last content to talk, of the weather. Pride must have a fall.'

Writing has always been weather-bound. 'English literature,' says Harris, 'begins in the cold.' Around fires in the mead hall, our Anglo-Saxon ancestors heard the melancholy tale of the Wanderer, an exile on the 'icy waves', consumed by 'wintercearig', which translates as 'the cares of winter'. …

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