August 2016 meeting: Weather in Jane Austen’s novels

Prepared by member Cheng

Whilst weather in a Jane Austen novel doesn’t really impact at first reading, it is there all the time and is so crucial that it determines the structure, the course and the pace of the plot. Most of the novels start in autumn and follow the meteorological patterns and the traditional activities of the seasons:

Having arranged her characters and defined their situations , having planned her love stories and hatched the misunderstandings that might impede them, she lets the weather shape events. It is her way of admitting chance into her narratives.  (Mullan)

Weather BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER and thus has a practical impact on their lives. Think of the dramatic ‘driving rain set full in their face’ that results in Willoughby’s rescuing Marianne (Sense and sensibility), of the snow confining Emma in the carriage with Mr.Elton (Emma), the rain that delays Anne in setting out for the White Hart and gives Captain Wentworth the opportunity to write his letter (Persuasion), of Jane riding through rain to Netherfield and of the effect of Elizabeth’s bright eyes and glowing face after her cross-country walk (Pride and prejudice). The weather is often the catalyst for romance.

Weather REVEALS CHARACTER. The snow during the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls (Emma) sets off vivid little insights into all the characters present: Mr. John Knightley’s grumpy, unsociable satisfaction at having proved the folly of having setting forth at all, Mr.Weston’s hospitable nature, Mr.Woodhouse’s chronic self centredness and nervous alarm, Isabella Knightley’s horror of being separated from her children, Mr. Knightley’s calm good sense, Emma’s readiness to resolve the situation decisively and simply and then, in the hilarious climax in the carriage, Mr.Elton’s presumptuous self-importance and social pretensions. The novel has a surprising number of weather events and they all have some bearing on Emma’s character, self delusions and growing maturity. After her shock at the outcome of her attempt to be a marriage arranger comes her remorse, courage and humility the following day in telling Harriet.

Weather serves as a ‘metaphorical index of character’s inner lives and a portent of impending plot shifts’. (Lodge) Fanny Price’s vulnerability to heat illustrates her greater defencelessness in relation to Mrs Norris (Mansfield Park), just as Jane Fairfax’s quiet determination to fetch the mail in the rain reflects her desperation at her own vulnerable position (Emma, again).

Weather has a PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECT on character’s feelings and behaviour and emphasises their moods: as with the summer heat of the strawberry picking excursion to Donwell when Mrs Elton’s romantic idyll dwindles into a querulous stream of consciousness babble that ends with her ‘tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit down in the shade’. The lethargy and indolence on Box Hill build a languorous mood with Emma having no energy to control her tongue. (Emma)

Jane Austen uses the PATHETIC FALLACY lightly in her work, never indulging in overblown Bronte Romanticism unless in a satirical vein – as with Marianne, gushingly transported by her passion for dead leaves (Sense and sensibility). Instead, we see Emma, affected perhaps more than any other heroine, continually conscious of the weather, looking outward at the rain from her indoors life with her father and dreading the monotony of her future. Later, rain dampens her thoughts of Harriet marrying Mr.Knightley. With the sun comes Mr.Knightly! (Emma)

Used with intelligence and discretion it is a rhetorical device capable of moving and powerful effects, without which fiction would be so much the poorer.

In Northanger Abbey Austen makes a different use of weather – to drive the plot in a wickedly funny parody of the GOTHIC novel. All the elements, rain, wind, storms and sunlight, are chosen to resemble Gothic Fiction but they are actually meant to mock.

Every bend of the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amid a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows. But so low did the building stand, that she found herself passing through the great gates into the very grounds of Northanger, without having discerned even an antique chimney’. She wasn’t in an abbey!

AND

The night was stormy; the wind had been rising at intervals……it blew and rained violently. Catherine……..listened to the tempest with sensations of awe; and, when she heard it rage around a corner of the ancient building and close with sudden fury a distant door, felt for the first time that she was really in an Abbey.

With every gloomy scene loaded with dire possibilities, comes the sun to dispel the overdone mood and restore reality.

Granny's Teeth at Lyme Regis

Granny’s Teeth steps, at Lyme Regis (the Cobb)(Courtesy: Elsey 11)

Weather influences HEALTH. There was a 19th century belief that women, being the weaker sex, were more susceptible to ‘environmentally excited diseases’ caused by extremes of weather, damp, shock and bad air. Thus real men scorned the weather, i.e. Mr.Knightly. Marianne Dashwood, Jane Bennet, Mary Musgrove and decidedly non-macho Mr.Woodhouse could be interpreted as examples of this attitude. Doctors believed that cold feet could force the body to keep warm, thereby sapping energy and bringing on chills and fevers, as evidenced by Marianne’s walking ‘where the grass was longest and wettest’ and ‘sitting in her wet shoes and stockings’ (Sense and sensibility). Louisa’s mood was so stirred up by the strong winds on the Cob that she irrationally insists on jumping down (Persuasion).

Although Jane Austen lived through some exceptionally severe winters and grim natural phenomena, such as the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 and the floods of Steventon in 1794-95 when ‘Mr.Austen’s family did not descend [from the upper floor] for two days’, she does not mention such extremes on her books. There are many references to the weather and its adverse effects on their plans in her letters but the only factual link between her real and fictional lives is in the oft quoted ‘orchard in bloom’ during the summer party at Donwell. The year it was written had been remarkably cold with only a brief warm spell in the middle of June.

However, on a far more personal level, the mood and tone of the latter half of Persuasion surely mirrors her feelings as she nears the end of her own life.

In Persuasion Austen uses the weather to underpin and emphasise the time of Anne Elliot’s life – her autumn years and her initial sense of melancholy and fatalism at hearing of Wentworth’s return. The novel is set in autumn and Austen suggests it’s Anne favourite time of year:

Anne, though dreading the possible heats of September in all the white glare of Bath, and grieving to forego all the influence so sweet and sad of the autumnal month in the country.

AND

Her pleasure must arise from…..the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness.

AND AGAIN

The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.

Through the weather in Persuasion we have perhaps the most intimate and saddest glimpse of Jane Austen herself.

Sources:

  • Enhoffer, Tina. “Chances Are – the role of fortune in Jane Austen’s novels”. JASNA, 1999
  • Harayda, Janice. “Weather in novels: How it works, or Jane Austen and the pathetic fallacy” in One-Minute Book Reviews
  • Le Faye, Deirdre. A Year in the Countryside – in Jane Austen’s Country Life. France’s Lincoln, 2014
  • Lodge, David. “Weather” in The Art of Fiction, Penguin, 1992
  • Mullan, John. “Why is the Weather Important” in What Matters in Jane Austen? Bloomsbury, 2012
  • Warboys, Professor Michael.

Business

The meeting concludes as usual with our secret quotes and a quiz on weather in the novels.

Our next meeting will be at the Tulip Top Farm for lunch (bringing our own picnic food). Time: 12:30, at the entrance gate.

Topics for the last meetings for the rest of the year can be found in the Schedule in the sidebar.

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