Alexandra Harris: Weatherland reviewed by Ellie Wriglesworth
This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.
With Alexandra Harris’ entrance onto the stage it became evident we were in for a treat. Bubbling with energy, this esteemed academic immediately captivated the audience with her enthusiasm and excitement that was, frankly, infectious. Winner of the Guardian First Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award for Romantic Moderns, Harris came to the festival this year to discuss her new book, Weatherland. It is described in the blurb as a ‘sweeping panorama’ that ‘allows us to witness cultural climates on the move’, progressing from the Anglo-Saxon period, to the Middle Ages, and arriving finally at the twentieth century. Harris utilises both individual perceptions and broader national preoccupations with the weather, to consider its effect upon English identity and cultural development.
Harris adeptly whets our appetite for the book by providing a succinct and interesting summary of her research of each historical period. She initially considers the Anglo-Saxons and their preoccupation with winter, considering how their literature tended to establish an irrevocable connection between man and nature. Swiftly, yet seamlessly, Harris progresses to the Middle Ages in which, to demonstrate their distinct resistance to the weather, she shows us the almanac images for the winter months. February is consistently depicted as a man leaning towards a fire in order to dry and warm himself, thus demonstrating people’s desire to avoid interaction with the weather, and define themselves in opposition to it. Harris also considers the Middle Ages as a time when unusual weather, such as severe hailstorms or excessive lightening, was perceived as manifestations of God’s anger.
A more positive perception seems to emerge in the Romantic period, when Harris states that artistic portrayals of the weather seemed to mostly indicate balmy, sunny days with few clouds. There was yet again a return to immersing oneself in the weather, as is demonstrated by the Romantic poet often found walking through the countryside finding inspiration and joy in nature. Harris makes a compelling connection between Romantic visualisations of the weather, and the era’s cultural and social development. She argues that artistic depictions of nature reflect preoccupations of the Enlightenment. There are no clouds of doubt to obscure the blue stretch of sky. Absolute knowledge and rational thinking are completely possible. The weather, as Harris considers in most other periods of history, functions here as a reflection of the aesthetic needs of society. From the Romantics, Harris moves to the nineteenth century, visualised by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando as an era of threatening clouds, darkening skies and resulting doubt and confusion, and finishes with Wyndham Lewis and his perception of the weather as an indication of twentieth-century thought. Throughout the lecture Harris utilises various images and individuals to demonstrate the wider cultural significance of the weather. It seems evident that artistic and literary work is often inextricably bound with meteorological change, and is also inevitably influenced by social preoccupations of that time.
There isn’t, unfortunately enough space here to do justice to the sheer mass of intellectually engaging material which Harris presented. Nor is there enough space to praise Harris as I feel she needs to be praised. Incredibly informative, surprisingly extensive and wonderfully articulated; this lecture was truly stimulating and entertaining. Harris managed to pay homage to something which, we, as Brits, are stereotypically obsessed with, with such refreshing and original insight, that the supposedly dull and rainy English weather became magical and monumentally important, and certainly worthy of the 393 pages Harris dedicates to it. Harris concluded the talk with a tempting proposal, asking of her audience to, like Bernard in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, lie on our backs and simply look at the sky. We may find more there than we previously thought.
Ellie Wriglesworth recently graduated with a degree in English Literature and is in the process of deciding whether to enter journalism, or continue in academia with the aim of becoming a Universtity lecturer. Ellie is an avid reader who is in the habit of having 5 books on the go at once and, when not reading with cups of tea and chocolate, she can be found blogging, picking her way through charity shops for bargain teasets and exploring libraries, art galleries and museums.