Speaking of the weather…

Talk about the weather?  It’s one of those things novelists are told never to do.  Not ever.  It’s boring, the writing teachers and the literary cognoscenti tell us.

But here in Britain, we talk about the weather constantly. 

This week, we’re talking about the incessant rain which has been chucking it down, tigers and elephants-style, for the past ten plus days.  We’re talking about how it’s driving us mad. 

We’re talking about how it took more than 24 hours to dry out the clothes we wore for riding last week–our waterproofs, that is.  We’re talking about the fact that yesterday the cottage of some friends was flooded.  And with more rain forecast, it’s likely they’ll be flooded again.

We’re talking about how fast and how high the river is that runs alongside our house…

And we’re all cynically laughing at the Met Office and the government who only weeks ago were telling us we were in the midst of a terrible drought and that we’d need a hosepipe ban all summer long if we were to avoid serious water shortages.  Ya, right. 

As I say, it’s constant.

We’re not the only society to be weather-obsessed either.  I’m told the Scandinavian languages have dozens of words to describe snow, but very few words for things like bikini and scalding sand. 

So, when one goes to write historical fiction, how does one tackle this?  Because when you look back through history, particularly at any pre-industrial society, you’re looking at a group of people who were even more weather obsessed than we are today. 

Because for them, it wasn’t just a matter of what shoes shall I wear tomorrow, and transportation wasn’t a matter of a dash from the warm insides of a well-insulated house to a warm car to the warm office. 

No.  It was about walking or riding on roads that were eight inches deep in mud; it was about the kinds of shoes the horses needed to be shod with; it was about catching cold and becoming seriously ill; it was about one’s only set of clothes never quite drying out and the rain coming through the thatched roofs; it was about the ground being thawed for seedtime and the harvest being spoiled by rain.

The moods of the weather frequently determined the difference between destitution or survival.  Quite literally.  

For the governments 200 years ago, the harvest (bad or good) might mean the difference between bread riots or domestic tranquillity.   Bread riots might mean the militia had to be called out.  Bread riots might lead to martial law. 

The weather, in a lot of ways, might even be considered a prime player, the one constant character in all their lives.  Because in many ways, it was.  It determined the fate of vast military invasions, retreats, and battles. 

Europe and Britain were in the grip of a mini-Ice Age during the second half of the 18th century and into the next several years of the 19th century.  The winters were exceptionally cold and very snowy with blizzards becoming commonplace.  (I know it’s hard to believe!) 

On 15 December 1796, a fleet of 43 ships had sailed from the port of Brest in France bound for Ireland, carrying an invasion force of 14,450 troops and a further 41,644 men.  Following them was a further 17,000 men sent by the French Directory to aid in an Irish insurrection and a French take-over of the country. 

And yet, because of the weather, this new French Armada made no more headway than had the Spanish Armada of 1588. 

During the journey much of the fleet was blown off-course by the strong winds and gales.  And even as the Republican ex-pat Irishman Theodore (Wolf) Tone was composing his address to rouse his countrymen to insurrection on the 22nd December, gale force winds and a blizzard swept across the west of Ireland. 

By the 24th, only 6,500 of the original invasion force could be accounted for.  And the leader of the expedition, General Hoche–believed to have been blown off course into the Atlantic–was lost. 

But by Christmas Day, the weather had improved and those French Republican troops in Bantry Bay were enheartened.  The fleet was not 500 metres from shore.  And the Irish defences, let’s be honest, were paltry–perhaps a total of 1400 troops altogether?  A cake-walk, surely. 

But by Boxing Day morning, the storm had returned–a severe gale battered the fleet, the fog was so thick one could barely see the length of a ship, and freak waves were breaking on the decks, smashing windows, flooding cabins.  And when the intelligence suggested that the storms had grown so violent that they could not be expected to ride it out,  they raised anchor and were blown “so far to leeward as to look like specks on the water.” 

By the 6th January, only two ships remained in the Bay, and by the next morning, they too were gone–fled back to France. 

Extra-ordinary, isn’t it? 

The weather continued extreme over the next decade and the years 1808-1813 saw harvests ruined by cold summers, lack of sunshine and perpetual rain.  So much so that the British government had to buy grain from the fledgling United States to feed the British army operating in Spain during those years. 

And the year of 1812 was even worse than previous years.  A very cold winter lingered on for weeks past the normal thaw.  The incessant rain had made Britain’s clay soil so thick and heavy as to be unploughable.  When the farmers finally did get the fields sown it was three weeks later than usual.   The summer was cold and dull.  And harvest was a rushed affair–with farmers struggling to get in their crops before the autumn frosts. 

But if it was bad in Britain, it was worse in Europe, 200 years ago.  For that was the summer that Napoleon invaded Russia–with his 550,000 troops.  And here’s the thing–French troops didn’t have long supply trains back to depots.  No, they lived off the land where they were stationed. 

Napoleon had laid his plans for invasion based on the grain and crops being ripe and ready for harvest as his troops marched through Prussia, Poland, Silesia, Lithuania and Russia.  But the harvest–as in England–was three weeks late. 

There was no ripened grain.  Not for the troops.  Not for their horses.  And a drought had reduced the streams and rivers to mere trickles…Half his troops and horses were dead before they ever crossed into Russia proper.  That’s what the weather did. 

And it was the weather too that finished them off on the retreat from Russia–for the winter arrived early–on 6 November…Estimates of the number of men who survived range from 7000 to 30,000.  Out of a total of 550,000.  And over 175,000 horses were lost too.

The winter of 1813-14 was so cold in Britain that the Thames froze solid for a month and a Great Frost Fair was held on the ice, with stalls and kitchens and even a main road… 

The weather in the winter and early spring of 1814 was foul too.  Incessant rain in France, followed by sharp frosts which iced over the fields and froze the deeply rutted roads solid, made Napoleon’s preferred rapid marches impossible for his troops as he strove to fend off the multiple invading armies.  The years of bad harvests meant that there was little to feed his troops either–and they deserted in large numbers. 

Even at Waterloo in 1815, the weather played a part.  The night before the battle, the rain pitched down upon the thousands of soldiers–some danced (yes, they literally did) instead of sleeping just to keep warm.  Cavalry officers slept standing in between their horses, partially covered by horse blankets, keeping warm with their animals and keeping the animals calm amidst the thunder and lightning.

The rain caused the red dye of the British infantry’s redcoats bleed into their white belts…And in the morning, the fields were seas of churned mud almost too slippery for the most measured cavalry charge.  (Somewhat like at Agincourt in 1415.) 

You see?  The weather changes everything.  It changes outcomes; it changes our outlooks, it brightens; it dampens; it can drown us.  Weather was their friend, their foe, their constant companion and an endless source of conversation.  

Until the 19th century, Britain was an agrarian society and a maritime society.  They listened to the wind, they listened to the steady beat of the rain on their tile roofs and worried how high would be the river at the ford, they knew the ragtime slap of water on leaves. 

And I do believe that when we leave the weather out of books about Britain, we’re leaving out–maybe not her soul–but we’re omitting a most vital and formative element of her character…

As I drove into Salisbury last evening, the cloud was so low and the rain so fierce that the splendid spire of the Cathedral (as painted by Constable) was no more than a spike of darker grey amidst the silver fog…

That’s what the weather can do.  Wonderful, isn’t it?

(And for the record, it’s now not been raining for six whole hours.  Huzzah…)

15 comments on “Speaking of the weather…

  1. mandyeward says:

    Reblogged this on The World of The Tiger Princess and commented:
    Weather plays a surprising part in historical fiction… as M.M. Bennetts explains.
    The surprising thing? Weather plays a part in Fantasy as well – well when your method of travel is by foot, horse or cart, it has to…


  2. anny cook says:

    What a wonderful post. I always have weather in my books…

  3. cavalrytales says:

    Blimey – I’m glad you wrote that. I’ve got weather everywhere in the next one, though I s’pose a third is set during the Retreat to Corunna which wasn’t exactly a pleasant stroll through summer meadows.

    And it’s been dry enough to get the Riding Club field mowed today – but now it’s raining again. This is the first year in thirty keeping horses I’ve had one rugged mid-June 😦

    • M M Bennetts says:

      This was me letting off steam after reading about the drought around Berlin in the spring and summer of 1813…

  4. Debra Brown says:

    If you write a book about that French/Irish thing, be sure not to mention the weather.

    We are taught not to write about the weather. Could that be why people think carriages were warm and comfortable riding and air-conditioned comfort in the summer? That ladies arrived at tea fresh and good-smelling- though Jane Austen wasn’t a university-trained writer and said that the warm weather made her indelicate….

    Honestly, I have never been bored hearing the weather mentioned in a book. I think we are taught that we are supposed to be bored. But which is more boring:

    “Chilly winds filled the once-shining carriage in which she rode, and warming stones had grown cold.”

    or “She rode in a once-shining carriage.” Which gives you more information, paints a picture, lets you feel something?

    Admittedly, I did not study writing before putting my first book out there, and the protagonist entered the book in a bad storm. I’m not bragging (I am actually very humbled about my book) but I have a point to make. I had about 50 4 and 5 star reviews by strangers before trained writers began reading the book and gave me 3s. (I was marketing to readers before I met many writers.)

    I am not putting down education. I believe in education and am studying hard these days. And I can see the point in much of what is taught- it makes for better books. But when they start making rules for the sake of making rules, I guess I’ll be a rebel.

    I think some of the rules might come from the need to write rejection letters about good books. Since I don’t want to follow some of the rules, I suppose I will not submit to such agencies and publishers. I think I’ll write what the story needs.

    I don’t write nautical, but what would a nautical book be without weather? I can’t imagine it. There must be some out there, since they get accepted. I don’t know.

    Don’t get pneumonia, MM!

  5. mesmered says:

    It just goes to show what lIttle the literary cognoscenti and writing specialists know. How can one positively create a credible setting for one’s narrative is one has no weather? Ridiculous. Speaking as a writer (farmer and boatsman) my life and potentially those of my characters is run by the weather.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, as the above suggests, many outcomes of the Napoleonic wars were dictated by the weather–so I wrote about it a great deal in Of Honest Fame. I had to. I’d thought perhaps the next book wouldn’t feature so much of it, but I’ve run slap bang into a drought during the summer of 1813, so guess what I’ll be writing about…Ha ha ha.

  6. I have never understood the rule about not mentioning the weather-it affects plot, mood, action. It’s a common interest-here in Florida, we always talk about drought vs too much rain, the possibility of hurricanes, etc. It’s illogical to leave such a significant detail out of a novel. I have never thrown down a book because of a mention of the weather, and it is a factor in the books I write!

  7. Ah, the Rules of Writing. Loved this post, M. I went to visit Pevensey Castle a few weeks ago and was fascinated (and surprised) to discover how much of that part of the country was under water not a thousand years ago. Climate change, you know. 😉

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Another location that never fails to impress me in the perpetual climate change issue is Rye. There are cannon there, and a tower, to ward off the French. Because Rye used to be a fine port and a most active smugglers’ harbour. Now it’s a mile inland.

  8. Jean Mead says:

    We know quite a lot about weather in North Wales. As for not writing about it, impossible! The opening sentence of The Widow Makers:Strife reads; A bitter March wind, blown from the Russian steppes, shrieked through the galleries of the immense Garddryn Quarry. There was enough ice in it to cut through flesh and chill the marrow of Joe Standish’s bones. The glacial draught crawled beneath his fustian coat and penetrated the three layers of flannel bound around his midriff.
    Much like the weather today. A similar draught is blowing off the mountain, whistling in through the open window, and coming to rest on the back of my neck. Perhaps it’s time for coffee.

  9. It seems to me it would be a boring read if not for the setting of the atmosphere of location and weather. I want to FEEL what I am reading and how can I do that with no description of what’s going on around me? Keep writing about the weather 😉

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