I am obsessed with weather.
Both in reality and in fiction – and, in truth, in my writing.
I think there must be something of the 19th century habit of pathetic fallacy in me for I find it hard to write a scene or event without linking the weather to its mood and outcome. In the novel I have just finished Miller Street SW22 which is currently undergoing its final – I hope – revisions and an endless number of redrafts and re-edits – I have woven weather into the structure by dividing the story into Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer so that there is a natural emphasis and link between events and plot development.
As far as the real world is concerned, I like extremes. Very hot weather in summer suits me just as extremely cold weather in winter serves me well. I am no fan of mild, indifferent weather – come summer or winter. Neither one thing nor the other weather skirts around the point of the different seasons in the first place. Besides, when weather is muted and indecisive, there’s always the dilemma about what to wear. And as my weather obsession is rivalled only by my clothes aholic disposition, this causes intolerable and time-wasting considerations, numerous changes and the sensation all day long that everyone else knew far better than I did how the day was to turn out.
Anyway, there’s no drama in dull, in between sort of weather. And I’ve always been one for a bit of drama.
Waking early on a day that promises to be excessively hot means starting the day with a sky full of clarity and finishing it under a light that is excessively beautiful. And in mid winter, a very cold day can bring similar wonders – the trees etched white with frost and brittle blue skies, stark yet rewarding as, towards an early sunset, those same trees are silhouetted with a magnificence that can catch your cold breath.
No wonder I love Greece and Crete with its enduring promise of heat in summer and snowy mountains in winter. The weather knows how to behave itself in Crete.
But onto books.
And here we are in summer – already into July which is alarming – the longest day a couple of weeks in the past although we won’t start worrying yet about the nights drawing in ….
As soon as I think of summer in fiction, it’s The Go-Between that springs instantly to mind with Leo Colston in his heavy Norfolk jacket and Eton tie, the socially inferior to his friend Marcus who is sartorially kitted out for the rising temperatures in his light flannel suit. And Leo is obsessed with the heat of this particular summer: the thermometer stood at eighty-four: that was satisfactory but I was confident it could do better.
After excessive temperatures, of course, finally the weather breaks and the climax of the novel, of the summer at Brandham Hall and the disintegration of so much more for Leo is on a day when there is an indescribable smell of rain filling the air and violent thunderstorms. Pathetic fallacy at its finest.
The Great Gatsby takes place principally over one summer as the narrator Nick Carraway tells us: the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. Jay Gatsby’s parties at his mansion in West Egg occupy many evenings when there was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights and it is notable that one of the most pivotal moments in the novel happens on a day that is broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer. It’s as if, like the season and the heat, the drama has reached a moment of no return, when it is all so nearly, tragically over.
I love this novel – everything about it. The language, the essential sadness and the brilliant portrayal of all the characters – so economically and precisely described by Fitzgerald. But who, in particular, can resist one of the most perfect endings to any novel, particularly for me one set over a single summer:
tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Endless writers use the charismatic draw of summer, of heat, sometimes to initiate the conflict of their story or for the entire setting. There’s Ian McEwan’s brilliant Atonement, where, on the hottest day of the summer of 1934, a key event occurs that propels the entire novel. As the reader is told on the back cover, at the end of this particular day, the lives of the three main characters – Briony, Cecilia and Robbie will have changed forever.
David Nicholls in One Day uses only that single day -15th July, St. Swithun’s Day – over a period of two decades as the structure of his novel. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway covers only one day in mid June and To the Lighthouse, although spanning some ten years, has its focus on summer and the summer home of the Ramsay family on the Isle of Skye. There’s Graham Greene’s haunting and relentlessly powerful Brighton Rock that takes place on a summer holiday weekend when the resort is choked with tourists. There’s Rumer Godden’s Greengage Summer, E.M.Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, John Mortimer’s Summer’s Lease – and on and on the list could go.
Of course the practical advantage of placing a novel in the season of summer and particularly one intended to span a single day or weekend is that there are so many more hours of light to use. Set a novel in winter and very soon the characters are turning on the lights, finding the candles, lighting the gas lamps – dependent upon time and genre, of course. That’s ideal for ghost or horror stories, perhaps, but less useful for other categories.
Immediately, in opposition to this, a dark night in winter – a November night, to be precise, and a dreary one at that – comes to mind with the birth of Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein. Certainly, a glorious summer evening in July would not suggest the appropriate gothic mood for this event as Victor’s creation first emerges.
I am not a fan of gothic fiction. I don’t read horror. Frankenstein is a book I have to admit to having laboured through rather than enjoyed although I can appreciate its extraordinary achievement.
So it is summer scenes and settings of novels that seem to linger most with me, no doubt a reflection of my absolute love for the season and the endless days of mid May through to late August.
Although, of course, there are certain winter settings that have a powerful pull too … the opening of Jane Eyre with our poor protagonist enduring the confinement of the November day, for example, and Thomas Hardy’s evocative description of Egdon Heath – such a winter place if ever there was one -in the opening pages of The Return of the Native, on another oppressive November day. And then there’s –
But no, let’s put those behind us for a few more months at least and grasp hold of the novels that exploit the summer months for all their worth and potential.
For even if summer 2020 is not turning out exactly as we had anticipated – the understatement of the century, no doubt – it is still summer.
Let’s make the most of the precious season while it’s still here!